On a clear, crisp morning in June, I gathered along with 20 people at the San Mateo library for a new beginning event: a citizenship ceremony. The applicants represented 16 countries when they walked in and left the library as representatives of one: the United States of America.
It was an extraordinary feeling to view the elation on the faces around me. There was Soumya Padmanabhan from India, who works for Google; Ahmed Abid, an Uber driver from Algeria; Elena Tuck, a freelance fashion designer from Russia; Laura Estrada Bonilla from Mexico, who works at a catering company and helps people file their citizenship papers in her spare time; and numerous others.
Emilia Bardini, director at the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services’ San Francisco Asylum Office, in her opening remarks talked about how her father came to America from Italy in the 1930s. As a child, she and her family lived in North Beach and would often drive downtown. Along the way, they would pass by the old Immigration and Naturalization Services building, and each time, her father would point to the building and mention how he became an American citizen right there. The physical landmark represented a metaphysical turning point in his life. “It became so important to him, it became a family memory,” Bardini said before administering the Oath of Allegiance to the assembled applicants.
Once the naturalization ceremony was done and the American flags appeared in the hands of the new citizens, Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., addressed the audience. “You now have the right to vote … and to participate completely in the democratic process,” she said, urging the new citizens to be involved in the processes that make America exceptional.
“The [Louisiana Purchase] Proclamation is written in three different languages: English, Spanish and French,” Speier remarked, “and it’s a great reminder to all of us that our country has always been diverse. We’ve always embraced diversity.” She acknowledged that many of those assembled might have come from countries where the leaders were not elected, but selected. “And many of you have come from places that have persecuted people based on the color of their skin or the person they love or the god they worship, and in our country, we do not do that.”
It is unutterably sad to realize events in the last few days have proven Speier so wrong. Perhaps she believed what she said.
Our country today is awash in the grief and tragedy of the moment. Videos of the shooting deaths of Alton B. Sterling and Philando Castile have shown just how commonplace and easy it is to be discriminated based on our affiliations. And the killing of five police officers on duty at what was supposed to be a peaceful protest of black deaths has added to a collective sorrow. This nation is mourning its own color divisions.
Every country has its divides. Even in a country where people are mostly the same hue, there is discrimination. In India, where I grew up, the color of skin also mattered greatly. Folks with duskier skins are considered less fortunate and face criticism, disdain and disrespect because of the darkness of their derma.
Other countries discriminate against people because of religion or sexual orientation or lack of education or a combination of these.
It’s an issue of shades. We are just shades different from others. But those shades sometimes generate disturbing reactions.
Even at this time of color crisis, this is what I would tell our new citizens:
Of all the countries in the world, America’s exceptionalism is because of its culture of acceptance. No other country accepts people the way America does.
So even when you see wrong perpetuated, understand that there’s enough right happening that is often never talked about, which shifts the balance.
I would tell our new citizens that it is important our cities and communities feel the grief of injustice. It is a commentary on how we reject what is wrong. If we didn’t feel this sadness, our country would not be exceptional. Injustices, large and small, are a parcel of human existence. We must bear it, we must deal with it and, importantly, we must fight it.
America is a country that has the capacity to unite the different. But we must, each one of us, participate in this exercise.
Diversity is beautiful when it’s understood. It’s alienating when it’s misrepresented. Diversity can be used as a tool to divide as well as forge together. Diversity results in the rhetoric of wall-building. Diversity also results in different people co-existing in harmony.
I would tell our new citizens that we owe America the responsibility of sharing our culture and our heritage so that it doesn’t look and sound alien and disturbing. As well, we must absorb the culture of this country in all its variegated forms.
So instead of disappearing into our communities of color and culture, we must assimilate into the collective identity of “us” and “we.” We are part of America. We are now one.
Jaya Padmanabhan is the editor of India Currents, www.indiacurrents.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. In Brown Type covers immigrant issues in San Francisco.