What does it truly mean to belong in America? Historian Philip Gleason put it this way: “To be or to become an American, an individual didn’t have to be of any particular nationality, learning language, religious, or ethnic background. All he had to do was to commit himself to the political ideology centered on the abstract ideals of liberty, equality, and republicanism.”
Throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, the United States of America became known worldwide as the great melting pot. This comes from the idea that all of the cultural differences in the United States can be boiled down to form an indistinguishable new identity in which skin color doesn’t matter. Of course, the story is not so simple.
The United States of America, “a new nation dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” was built on the back of slavery. In 1619, English colonists brought their first African slaves to Jamestown, beginning the history of slavery in the U.S.. Approximately 10 million African slaves made their way into the American colonies before slavery was banned by Congress in 1865. But the 13th Amendment didn’t magically eradicate the policies, practices, norms, and ideologies that facilitated the trading and exploitation of human beings for profit. This dark chapter left in its wake a wide array of legacies that Americans have grappled with for generations. Racism is still perpetuated on a structural level, creating barriers to education, voting rights, wealth accumulation, upward mobility, and access to healthcare.
Has America Fully Reckoned With Its Past?
America has undoubtedly made racial progress since abolition, such as the passing of voting rights laws, higher levels of racial integration, and the national success of Black leaders like former President Obama. However, the country still struggles to face the ghosts of its past because it runs counter to the narrative of “the shiny city on the hill.”
Six decades after Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, D.C., racial equality remains an elusive goal. Entrenched, structural racism continues to corrupt American democracy and preserve racial hierarchies.
Hope For The Future
In 2020, the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and numerous other Black men and women at the hands of the police sparked massive protests across the U.S. and around the world, bringing more attention to racial inequality still persistent today. It ignited an incandescent social movement of people of all colors to come together to march in fury and in hope of a better America that lives up to its most cherished ideals—freedom, justice, and equality for all. The response was historic—from the takedown of Confederate statues, strong statements about racial justice from political leaders to unprecedented corporations giving towards racial justice causes.
But the struggle for racial equality needs more than pledges and platitudes, it requires a truthful assessment of the lessons of the past through honest discussions about the history of systemic and institutionalized racism in America.
Inclusion Is Everyone’s Responsibility
We must never believe the work of countering prejudice must be left to our society’s leaders. It is our job, as people, as parents, as citizens of the world, to foster an inclusive democracy. It’s common to think, “I’m a good person, this has nothing to do with me,” or to feel overwhelmed about what actions to take. Here are ways you can help create a sense of belonging for all communities in America.
Racial bias is rooted in deep-seeded fear of people perceived as members of a different social group. Thus, one of the best antidotes for erasing fear is familiarity. Research shows direct contact lessens prejudice even among prejudice-prone people. Building a life with a genuinely diverse circle of friends requires an open mind and conscious effort. Look for similarities to others rather than focusing on differences.
Listen To The Stories
Listen to the voices and stories of communities that have historically been sidelined without judgment. Try to empathize with and validate their experiences. Rather than speaking for people, use your platforms to amplify the voices of people who experience discrimination directly.
Take your time to educate yourself on the terms, definitions, and language used by individuals or community. There are many worthwhile resources that you can read, listen to, and watch to deepen your understanding.
Racism happens around us in the form of jokes, stereotypes, microaggressions, and discriminatory behaviors from our friends, family members, or colleagues. If you witness someone displaying this behavior, be clear and decisive in shutting them down. If the person being victimized is present, give him or her your support in the moment.
Confronting racism requires not only changing individual attitudes but also transforming and dismantling the policies and institutions that reinforce them. Write to government officials about the injustices in your community, donate to causes, sign petitions, share news stories, and support businesses owned by BIPOC.
We Still Have A Long Way To Go
America has a long way to go in building a society that is more inclusive, nurturing, and accepting of everyone. Along with demanding political change, we can all find ways to conjure some of the magic of making people feel they belong. These small acts of caring can make a big difference for the well-being of those we extend them to.