A friend of mine (a woman of color) told me today that she struggled with figuring out how to be patriotic on the Fourth of July. And the truth is, I struggled with the same. We live in a country that was built on the backs of Native Americans and Africans. The state that I currently go to school in, California, is the result of Manifest Destiny, a combination of the hubris that the United States was destined by God to stretch from coast to coast and the racist belief that white Americans were inherently superior to the Native American and Mexican people who resided in the lands that American colonists were “destined” to take over. This country was not built for me, a queer brown person. Only about fifty years ago—literally on the birthdate of my mother—the Supreme Court decided that anti-miscegenation laws, laws that ban mixed race marriages, violate the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause, a landmark Supreme Court case that let my parents marry. Only about three years ago did the Supreme Court narrowly decide that I, too, have a right to marry, although that right is in danger now.
The United States of America isn’t perfect. We have a long legacy of racism and discrimination. We fought a war amongst ourselves, mostly over the right to own black Americans as property, only about 150 years ago. We turned away Jewish children who were seeking refuge from the Holocaust. We interned Japanese Americans during World War II because we considered them a “security risk.” That was only deemed unconstitutional about a week ago, in the same Supreme Court case that argued it’s acceptable for the president to prevent entry into the United States from Muslim countries because Muslims are also supposedly a security risk. And we’ve separated children from their families and put them in literal cages after they fled from Central America in order to seek asylum here. Reunification of families has still yet to happen. It’s not that we’ve strayed from our values as a nation. The reality of it is that, in many ways, we never lived up to our values.
But at the same time, I’m not ready to give up on this country. The American Dream may be dead—or maybe it never truly existed for everyone?—but that doesn’t have to be the case. We can still be a country of compassion, a beacon of hope, a true leader for human rights. We can fix the social ills that plague us: unequal access to education, health disparities and lack of access to affordable healthcare, our discriminatory criminal justice policy, income inequality, our unjust immigration laws, and even structural oppression that creates so many barriers to success for women and trans people, people of color, queer people, low-income people, and people living in rural areas. We can work toward a society that we can truly be proud of, one that doesn’t simply worship wealth and the accumulation of capital but rather one that gives everyone a chance to succeed, regardless of who you are, where you came from, or what your background is.
All of this is so much easier said than done. I’m fully aware of the blissful naiveté that jumps off the screen as you read this blog post. All these social ills probably won’t be fixed in my lifetime, but the answer isn’t to give up or grow jaded. We have to keep fighting for a just and equal world.
Frankly, it doesn’t mean a whole lot to me that a bunch of wealthy white men who owned slaves signed a document declaring their freedom from the British Empire, which they believed was now trying to exert too much control over them. I don’t really care about the American “Revolution,” which wasn’t really all that revolutionary—it was a conservative movement by and for the elites, not a radical one. But what I do care about is the many people who have come before me trying to make this country a better place; I think of people like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, who was hated by about two-thirds of Americans, who literally died so that, one day, someone like me could have equal rights.
As the fireworks went off last night, I sat in awe. For a few minutes, I forgot about the research I was doing (on educational inequality and social mobility), and I was able to soak in the beauty in front of me. As someone who always tries to fight for what’s right, someone who is committed to social justice, it was nice to take a breath. But immediately after it was over, I couldn’t help but think about where I was watching the fireworks: a country club, a location that I only had access to because of a friend of a friend and an institution that has a long history of only accepting very wealthy white men. I wanted to just let myself think of the fireworks and turn this whole research project into an extended vacation of travel instead of actively thinking about inequality every step of the way. But at the same time, if we all did that, who would fight for justice?
I’m a big believer that every single one of us—yes, you included—should be working towards creating a better world. There are so many ways to do that, and each of us have skills and/or resources that we could devote to such aims. Probably unsurprising to most people reading this, I believe very strongly in the power of government and the political process to create change. It’s through government that we can be bold and create a country in which everyone has access to education, healthcare, and housing. We could very easily create a country in which no one lives in poverty—universal basic income, anyone? But at the same time, we have a government that no longer works for us. We have politicians—both Republicans and Democrats—who are beholden to corporate money and special interests instead of you and me, the people who have the power to decide whether that politician should even have a job in government.
I was inspired when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a young twenty-something Latina from the Bronx, ousted one of the top Democrats in the House. I’m not even a democratic socialist like she is, but the way that she knocked on doors, made individual connections with people in her district, and seemed to actually genuinely care about making this country better was truly inspiring. And seeing people like her engaging in David vs. Goliath battles—and winning—gives me so much hope for the future… and so much hope for my future. I don’t know if I’ll ever have a career in politics, which has been dominated by wealthy straight white men since July 4, 1776. But what I do know is that I want to help make this country and this world a better place, in whatever capacity I can do that.
At this point in time, I think a PhD in anthropology is likely in my future. It’s still too early to be completely certain, but the more that I learn about the world, the more and more that I’m convinced that we need people who intentionally seek to understand others. Economists and political scientists hold a lot of political power in terms of creating policy solutions, but when you’re too focused on the numbers and the quantitative data, you can easily forget about the real human impact that policy has. And that’s where anthropologists (such as myself one day) need to be able to step in. Qualitative research and ethnographic data are so valuable for fixing our society, and I do believe that I’m morally obligated to use these skills that I’m currently being trained in through my undergraduate degree in anthropology (and hopefully a future doctoral degree in the same) to create this change. At the same time, I’m doing everything I can to try to get into a one-year master’s program in public policy here at Stanford and find a way to pay for it—I want to be able to both point out problems with depth and complexity and then be able to present possible ways to actually fix these problems.
I believe that I can help make a difference. And I believe that there are so many other people—including many of my friends—who will have the skills and the heart to help create positive change as well, to create a society in which all are valued and all have the opportunity to succeed and live their lives to the fullest.
And that’s why I’m not ready to give up on the United States. I love what we tell ourselves we are: a country of compassion, a country of freedom, a country where anyone can succeed. Maybe I’ve never truly believed in this country and all the ways that it has betrayed the world and ourselves in terms of our lack of compassion for the most vulnerable and our inability to be a society where anyone can rise above the circumstances of one’s birth. But I always have and always will believe in the possibility of who and what we can be: as a country, as a society, and as a world. And that’s what I’ll always continue fighting for.