Current Events / Reflections

“American”: The Constantly Moving Finish Line

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Woman in pink wheelchair has back turned with hands zip-tied behind her. | Colleen Flanagan

As a black person raised in the United States, I was always aware that the idea of “American” was one that I was always supposed to aspire to, but, never quite achieve. For many minorities, it is the carrot on the stick that we are to constantly desire but never even touch. Toni Morrison said it best “In this country ‘American’ means white. Everyone else has to hyphenate.” It is our hyphenated identities that litter the news reports of police shootings and arrests. When we appear negatively, it is our entire hyphen that is condemned for that action. Yet, we are still quietly encouraged to work hard to make the hyphen that marks us matter less, but a part of us knows we will never quite rid ourselves of it.

Now that disabled people are protesting the devastating healthcare bill which, if enacted, will kill millions of citizens, I see their American-ness being called into question as well. Accusations of their civil engagements being paid for and their motivations insincere litter the comments sections of articles about these brave people. Disabled people are familiar with the finish line to “normal” being unattainable, but the idea that disabled people are “unAmerican” for fighting for their lives feels like a bad memory of American history to whence we are being forced back. Amazingly, though, the exercises for the races towards “normal” and “American” are nearly the same. Speak up enough to be inspirational but not confronting. Work hard, but never complain about the hurdles you face. Make the obvious joke and laugh to make them feel its ok. Smile. Always.

Abled people often forget that the Americans With Disabilities Act was passed a mere 27 years ago. Before this legislation, the hallmarks that make one American—the right to vote, the right to move about the community, the right to be employed without obstruction, etc.—were almost completely inaccessible to us. But, even with the ADA’s enactment, disabled people have had to fight for progress each step of the way. The Affordable Care Act may not have been perfect, but it was a step in the right direction. Medicare and Medicaid programs also kept people alive that would have been bankrupted by their diagnoses.

The most disturbing aspect to the question of American-ness is that it is often a litmus test of America’s capacity to care. Americans wept over the death of Otto Warmbier at the hands of law enforcement in North Korea but dismissed the family of Philando Castille who had to watch him die on US soil. Protests by Muslims denouncing ISIS are all but ignored, but protests of the removal of confederate statues constantly find themselves trending. And now, taking away insurance from millions of people is considered more American than fighting for your right to live.

When does the finish line of “American-ness” stop moving? I guess when people find it within themselves to increase their capacity to care for those they otherwise wouldn’t have to.



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