Progressives: Don’t back down from defending multiculturalism
When I decided to spend a day visiting the National Museum of Singapore, the last thing I expected was to be brought to tears.
I went in with no preconceptions of what I would find there. See, I am the type of traveler who does little research before I jet off on my half-formed adventures, preferring instead to let myself soak in a bath of unfamiliarity. I have no desire to enter a place staring through a lens of judgement constructed based on someone’s whiny TripAdvisor reviews on topics like basic cultural differences or a lack of KFCs. Instead, in the spirit of my blog and brand I try and show up and see a place through the eyes of its own citizens, and so I visit national museums as much as I can; not because they are trustworthy sources, but because I believe it is important to understand a place’s self-narrative.
The National Museum of Singapore exhibits great nationalistic pride, which makes sense as every Singaporean I met acted the same. Singapore was a British colony until World War 2, when the Japanese military triumphed and claimed Singapore as its own. The museum claimed that this British military defeat “shattered the myth of British superiority” and that from then on, Singaporeans began asking for independence. When it was granted, the country became part of Malaysia. But there were differences. According to the museum, Malaysia wanted to focus on forming a “Malay society,” while Singapore had a different vision in mind.
It was in this part of the museum where I sat down to watch a video of Lee Kuan-Yew, the first Prime Minister of Singapore, on the day that he announced to all Singaporeans that they would no longer be a part of Malaysia, and would instead become an independent new nation. It was the moment where, for the first time, a definitive identity was assigned to this unclear concept of what “Singapore” meant.
The video was emotional, with Lee Kuan-Yew himself breaking down in tears on multiple occasions. That alone would’ve made it tough for me to leave with a dry eye. But the part that cut me deep in my soul, was when he looked directly into the camera, and said the following words:
“We are going to be a multi-racial nation in Singapore. We will set an example. This is not a Malay nation; this is not a Chinese nation; this is not an Indian nation. Everyone will have his place, equal: language, culture, religion.”
After hearing those words, after everything that has been going on in America since the election and inauguration, I went to the bathroom, hid myself inside, and let myself cry.
Up until this year, I would have told you that those words were the voice of the American Dream too. In fact, I remember being asked a few years ago what my favorite thing about America was, and I remember answering, “diversity.” I didn’t realize that in some corners of the nation, this is a disputed fact.
And yes, that ignorance was painfully naïve. Thinking about it now, I don’t know that we’ve ever actually had a president look directly at us and tell us all that this was our intention as a nation. And in fact, we’ve had so many in power throughout our history that have voiced the exact opposite. That Native Americans must be removed from their homelands. That slaves must go on being slaves. That Japanese Americans should be moved to internment camps. That Muslims should be banned.
On the other side of the spectrum, there are American idealists who have believed in America as a united and multi-racial nation from its earliest days, and fought for that dream even when it was so far-fetched their efforts must have looked insane. Like Harriet Tubman, an enslaved black woman who was so inexplicably convicted in her right to freedom that she was willing to risk her life to go gain it for herself, and then return and risk it over and over again to guarantee that same freedom for others. We are honoring her by putting her on the $20 bill, notably, to replace the guy famous for kicking Native Americans off of their homelands—does that not say something about who some of us believe truly represents what it means to be an American?
Maybe we have just never vocalized clearly enough that the dream of people like Tubman, this idealistic, impossible yearning for freedom and equal treatment, this idea that no matter who we are we must be respected as human beings, is the American dream, and we must protect all those who dream it.
The current presidency has called our national identity into question, and it needs to be redefined. I believe that there is only one path forward for progressives looking toward how to heal the nation in post-Trump America: the path where we finally institutionalize multiculturalism and racial equality as mainstream American values.
Trump’s victory in the 2016 election was a lot like the proverbial broken clock that is right twice a day. It’s not that the things he was saying represented any true understanding of external circumstances; it is that external circumstances happened to align with the things he was saying, and to many people, that made him sound right.
Our nation is changing. As usual politics is struggling to keep up, while Trump is someone who does not even try to keep up. I believe Trump may actually sound more coherent to conservatives on the right who have “not kept up,” than the liberal politicians who are actually behind the times sound to young liberal voters.
As I said, our nation is changing, and quickly. It is simply impossible to label modern-day America a white nation. For the last 50 years or so, there has really been a major cultural shift. Black artists, athletes, and politicians have gone from groundbreaking to mainstream. Asian actors write and star in their own TV shows, while Asian doctors perform our surgeries. Tacos are as familiar to American kids as hamburgers, and all of us know how to count to ten in Spanish. People of color, while too underrepresented in too many areas, are still far more visible and empowered than they were in the 1950s.
So many of our defining elements, our best technology, celebrities, athletes, scientific advancements, and even food have nothing at all to do with white America. But white America, or at least liberal, urban, East and West coast white America, has also increasingly embraced these elements as part of our own culture. We all eat sushi, we all listen to Beyoncé, we all use iPhones. We make little distinction between who invented what.
I didn’t realize until this year that this diverse, fusion culture which has always defined America for me has barely trickled into certain parts of the country. I didn’t realize that not all politicians celebrated diversity in politics. In fact, I guess I didn’t even realize that championing diversity and working for greater equality of treatment was something critically necessary for politicians to focus on promoting… until I spent about six seconds on the internet during Trump’s campaign and was horrified by what I found. That not only do people misunderstand concepts like inherent bias, but that they actually actively flaunt their biases and judgments of their fellow Americans. And yes, internet harassment was going on way before Trump—but that harassment is increasingly making its way off of the internet and into real-life acts of violence too.
With all this discontent, should the left back down from our already light-weight treatment of racial justice issues? I have already seen too many articles claiming liberals must “do away with identity politics” or “listen more to working class white folks.” This sure seems misguided. Did America wait around after the Civil War to make sure the white working class “felt okay” with ending slavery? No, we just eliminated slavery, because let’s be real—they were never going to come around to it.
Similarly, I believe that after Trump, we should move forward by stating the goal of forming a just, multicultural America, without stopping to cater to anyone who doesn’t believe in that need. It’s just not, and never has been, something we should “wait on”—we need to do the legwork first, and lay the groundwork to make people believe in that vision only after we’ve jumped.
It is difficult to open minds, but it is impossible to close them. Once a person has accepted that they do not need to be afraid of Muslims, all the terror attacks in the world won’t change that view, because it is obvious to them that these are isolated attacks unrelated to Muslims in general. Our cities will not move backwards, and so our cities, and those with the power in this nation, must take the next crucial steps forward in adopting serious policies that protect our diversity.
For decades on decades now, equal rights have been labeled the cause of activists and fringe actors, not a mainstream political position. But while the Democratic Party has faltered and fumbled, look at the horrifying fringe positions on the right which have slowly drifted into the mainstream. Only 27% of Republicans believe Obama was born in the USA. Our Attorney General was ruled “too racist” to be a judge in the 1980s. Our current president retweets actual white supremacists and was endorsed by the leader of the KKK.
The Democratic Party cannot wait any longer. It’ll take a lot more than getting Obama elected; it will take every politician in the Party, white or not, building a platform to prove their conviction to racial justice.
Too often, the Democratic Party has used “equality” as something that is self-evident and brag-worthy, rather than a policy goal. But just seeing diversity is not enough to change the hearts and minds of those who do not actively feel a part of this diversity. There needs to be serious policy set in place. Policy that addresses inherent individual biases and larger systemic biases, that fairly restructures the criminal justice system, that encourages more open dialogue between sectors of society that would normally not interact. And Democrats themselves (and particularly white Democrats) need to start speaking out and demanding that this become a part of the platform, or it will never happen—and people of color will continue to suffer.
I think many older adults believe millennials are not as nationalistic or loyal to the country as they are. As for me, I am an International Affairs graduate, I have my own travel blog, and I jet off to solo travel whenever I financially can; so yes, I’m certainly globally-minded. But I am also extremely proud to be an American, so long as “America” offers the promise of inclusion. I want nothing to do with some nation which walls itself off and expects everyone to look up to it, or which only allows one “type” of people to have a voice while everyone else is silenced. I want a nation which represents all the best parts of the world mashed together to make things that are even better than before. A nation of ideas and dreams and innovators, open to anyone who wants to be a part of it. That is the nation I’m proud of. It’s a type of patriotism that may be unfamiliar to my elders, but it is just as strong as theirs.
To be fair, America was not originally founded as this great multicultural nation. America was originally founded as a slave state unafraid of terrorizing its own native populations so long as rich, educated white men got to have a bigger say in politics. We weren’t created perfect, but we were created with a perfect, simple goal: to form a nation that was good. And this is what must drive us forward in redefining America for the future.
The older I get, the more I realize how difficult simply being ‘good’ is. It takes every ounce of effort and willpower to forgive, to be generous, and to love those who you want to hate. It takes the vulnerability and humility to seriously look at oneself and transform one’s actions when necessary. And believing that reaching a greater good is even possible takes quite a large amount of idealism, which is no weak-kneed cowards’ attitude, but the difficult daily work of waking up still believing in the possibility of something that is so outside the realm of reality that most people can’t even properly imagine it.
Those who practice a religion will be familiar with this struggle of faith, with the difficulty of explaining to outsiders why they still believe in the things they cannot see, and how bad things happen because they more often than not lead to much greater things down the line. And so I hope it is with modern-day America. For from this day on, our politicians must work in the business of faith and dreams, and stand firm in their belief that America can be a multicultural nation with justice for all.
From now on, either we will continue to move forward in our pursuit of the American dream, this idea of a nation that rises above the rest to be good in the face of great global hatred and corruption… or we will become a nation which dreams no longer, a nation with no hope or imagination past the imperfect edges of our reality.
If we stop with Trump, I really believe we will have fallen far short of achieving that ultimate ‘good’ that at the time was so beyond the realm of our understanding that our Founding Fathers could not even fully define what it should look like today: a good so strong it is able to pull the best people and cultures from the entire world into our orbit and make them our own. A good so strong it proves once and for all that people do not have to hate each other. A good that shows the rest of the world how people from anywhere and everywhere can learn to love and respect one another, and can work together to go farther than any homogeneous nation ever could.
I am white, but I don’t care whether I live in a “white society.” I just want to live in America, with other Americans who share my values and dreams. And if white people become a minority, so be it. I will proudly live as a minority in the greatest nation on Earth, so long as I am treated with the same level of respect as everyone else gets.
And really, I think that is all any true American has ever asked.