I’ve composed this post so many times and… To tell the truth, I don’t know why I haven’t posted it. It’s most likely that I’m trying to avoid stirring up controversy, but the truth is that people are dying.
The first of my ancestors here on American soil were Iroquois. I know almost nothing about them beyond the fact that one of them married a French Canadian ancestor of mine. I don’t know anything of the culture (including which of the coalition tribes they were part of). I don’t know if they and their family had argued against integrating, against letting Europeans into America. They would have been justified in doing so, certainly.
The ones after that were English, Puritans who watched their brothers and sisters burned at the stake in Mary’s inquisition, and fled to the new world, where they promptly did the same to others. If I’m wrong, if they stayed longer, they were instead a part of the culture that raped, starved, and killed the Irish into submission, in addition to waging a bloody and completely unnecessary war over parts of French territory, and running one of the widest ranging Empires in the world – an empire whose human rights atrocities are well documented.
The next ancestors were of French ancestry, though it’s likely there was English and Dutch and other ethnicity mixed in. I don’t know what they were fleeing, or what they were hoping for. I know that they were almost certainly part of the turf war the Christian sects waged on American soil. The French would go on to perpetrate some of the most culturally devastating colonizations around the world.
At the turn of the twentieth century, two more pieces of my family arrived on American soil. The first of those was Irish, fleeing the same violence my protestant forebears had inflicted on their country, starving from an entirely preventable famine, despairing of justice or religious liberty. They face persecution, religious and ethnic, with cartoons in the paper warning of the dangers of their religion, and still, my grandmother told my father that when she was little, her neighbor told her that the neighborhood was getting full of “filthy Jews.”
The last piece of my ethnic heritage arrived around the same time, from Greece. Family photos show a solemn, dark-haired family, their features proof of ethnic mixing with their historical rivals. They were the people of Alexander, whose conquest was not bloodless, and not free of civilian casualties. They were the people, in fact, of Sparta, who enslaved even their own citizens, killed babies they considered deformed, and collapsed under the weight of their own military state.
Whatever glory my ancestors were part of (and their cultures produced much to be proud of), nearly every group of my ancestors fled here, religious or ethnic outcasts in their own land, and faced a hard scrabble for acceptance.
And nearly every group of them turned around and tried to close the door behind them. They managed to forget, because our memories are so short, that they were the Syrian, (or Somali, Vietnamese, Japanese, South American) refugees of their generations. They forgot how they were feared, how they were hated, how they were beaten in the streets, how Op Eds were written in the papers about how America would collapse under the latest wave of dangerous, uneducated, unskilled labor.
When I stand here in front of you now, watching what is happening to the Middle Eastern, African, and Asian refugees who are seeking asylum in our country, watching what is happening to my brothers and sisters who are being shot in nightclubs and beat up outside of bathrooms, I want you to see me and understand what I represent: luck and cowardice.
Luck because my ethnic background washed out to a combination of features that the majority of my fellow citizens don’t have preconceived notions about.
Cowardice because I didn’t post this sooner.
Luck because every one of my family members made it to safety in this country.
Cowardice because it is still so hard to accept that so many generations of us were complicit in multiple waves of genocide and cultural destruction, through our silence if nothing else.
Luck because while I might easily not have, I fell in love with a man, and am entirely comfortable presenting as female, while my features are clearly identifiable in a way that means no one’s likely to beat me up for trying to go to the bathroom.
Cowardice because I so rarely say any of this, because I don’t want the complications. Because I’ve listened to so many people say terrible things and I haven’t even tried to change their minds.
So, please, if nothing else, take a moment to think about this: none of what we’re debating right now with Muslim immigrants, or the rights of our LGBTQ brothers and sisters, is new. It has all happened before. Eerily similar words, cartoons, and violence have followed each wave of immigration and each civil rights movement, and the majority of people reading this are likely a mix of ethnicities that spent a large amount of time trying to annihilate one another.
Because we keep trying to shut the door behind us.
I am proud of a country that was founded on such profoundly noble intentions, and I am disturbed to be part of a country that carried out delusions of manifest destiny through such horrific violence. I believe that the Founding Fathers were onto something incredible, and I also believe that they were too limited by their place in history and their prejudices to fully enact the principles they set down on paper. I believe that we keep getting closer to that world, and I also believe that this progress does not need to be so bloody.
I believe we need to stop trying to shut the door behind us.