By Pluralism and Unity Board
On October 22 and 23 of 2014, as part of an advertising campaign for the on- campus screening of Jose Antonio Vargas’ Documented, five members of the Pluralism & Unity Board hung an American flag on the foyer wall of J.R. Howard Hall and asked passerby scrawl their definitions of “American” on a small whiteboard before being photographed in front of an American flag. Though a seemingly simple request, it spurred a number of different and often conflicting responses. Each was laden with nuance, reflecting both strongly held beliefs in American ideology and critical examinations of the United States of America.
To the Pluralism & Unity Board, this activity was more than just an exercise in freedom of speech. It was a chance for students to reflect on their own values, as well as to engage in discussion about who is able to define “American” and about the stakes of each possible definition. Such instances of reflection and discussion are exactly what social justice means to PUB. As a student-led organization, PUB strives to bring social justice into the Lewis & Clark cultural consciousness by offering opportunities for community dialogue. While this may seem like a menial task, we believe in the importance of creating discursive space where beliefs and ideologies are aired and questioned. It is our hope that we can inspire students to take initiative beyond our own programs, to work toward social justice in the Lewis & Clark community and beyond. In the following vignettes, PUB members reflect the experience of asking themselves and others to define “American.”
Gaby Seltzer: I arrive early, around 9:30, to set up our table in JR Howard. The logistics of this plan had seemed simple the week before—I didn’t have class until afternoon, so I would take the whiteboard, pens, tape, fliers, and flag to Howard and start tabling on my own until the others arrived. But now, as I stand in Howard’s oddly silent foyer, I feel awkward. I am still in an area that usually bustles with activity; I am dressed as usual, but instead of notebooks I carry a properly folded American flag in my shoulder bag. Usually this flag, which belongs to my roommate, is on display in my apartment living room—a decoration I would never choose of my own accord, but one that I tolerate by avoiding mental attribution of meaning to it. I’d be lying if I said it didn’t give me some pleasure to remove the flag from the wall, but I don’t know why. I intended to fold the flag like a bed sheet for its short journey to Howard, but at the last minute I reconsidered. A few unsure thoughts ran through my head. What if this flag actually means something to my roommate, and I offend her by folding it improperly? – I should probably appear unbiased when I’m tabling, so people with diverse opinions feel comfortable contributing. I don’t want to offend anyone when I’m working under PUB’s name. – How do I want to fold this? – Is this flag real? Unable to give myself satisfactory answers, I hearkened back to Girl Scouts and folded the flag the proper way.
Now that I’m here in Howard, I’m grateful for the extra five minutes I spent folding the flag. Only one or two people amble through the foyer, but I feel invisible eyes on me. I place my miscellaneous materials on the table, and proceed to unfold the flag, hurrying a bit because I’m uncomfortable. A student walks by; I am exceedingly aware that he can’t tell I’m affiliated with the Pluralism & Unity Board. I could be any random person, taping a flag to the wall in an academic setting. Is it disrespectful to use tape on a flag? It’s difficult to hang the flag all on my own, but I don’t dare lower my arms for fear of a corner of the flag brushing accidentally against the floor. Luckily, an acquaintance of mine walks by at just the right moment, and I ask for her help holding up the flag. In case she’s judging me, I release a mouthful of explanations as we secure the flag with tape. “This is for a PUB event, but it feels so strange! I hope people aren’t getting the wrong idea about me. I never realized what a powerful symbol the American flag is.”
Finally the table is arranged, and I position myself so that the flag is behind me. A paper sign hangs off the front of the table, reading: “PUB asks: What does ‘American’ mean to you?” Protected by the name of my organization and our social justice mission, I feel safe to reflect on my discomfort. I helped develop the idea for this event; therefore I must have known that America, as a country and as a concept, carries different meanings for different people. The whole point of asking for definitions of “American” was to highlight this fact. But I somehow hadn’t expected to feel the weight of this symbol myself. The flag seemed so domineering, so impactful, and I felt a legitimate fear that by hanging it here I was employing a power too gigantic for me to rightfully wield. Who was I to force people to look at a symbol that could trigger them, could make them feel less-than, or worse, one that could reinforce righteous or narrow-minded self-images? Why was I doing this?
I forgot, though, that carrying around the American flag is no new experience in my life; in fact, I carry it all the time. I wield the power of the flag every day, by being American, by being white, by living here and being myself, and no amount of social justice work I do will take this away from me. Nothing will take this power away from me, and that is terrifying. I am everything that the flag is; I am dominant, I am power, I am stars and stripes, and I am a claim to liberty and equality that may or may not exist. I am every definition that every student wrote on our little whiteboard in response, from “bald eagles and freedom” to “color and community,” from “winning” to “stolen indigenous land” to “something forced on my people.” Every answer is valid; every answer is true; every answer is I, regardless of what I say and do. Here I am trying to define America, when ultimately it is defining me.
I still want to change what America means to others and to me. I want it to be a personal identity that I can unabashedly take pride in, one that implies humble and compassionate leadership, equity, freedom, and justice. I don’t want to oppress, to kill, and to forget, but still I am American and these associations are mine. Confronting the implications of my American identity is overwhelming, scary, and uncomfortable, and that’s how I know I experienced something important. I have heard again and again that social justice work is about confronting discomfort and letting it be, and I’m sure that this ideology is partially what drove me to carry an American flag into JR Howard early in the morning. Now, I take this belief as my own. Social justice in my life is activism and reflection, but above all else it is the discomfort that comes when I begin to take ownership of my identity.
Jose Huape: I am reminded every time I return to my family of the situation that they and I face. For the past two years, I have often felt lost, alone, and like I made a mistake by coming to college. The person who left home began to change, to fit a certain mold made for me, to feel out of place and like nothing more than a color. Some know what I mean by this description, but based on my experience, few can relate. My time here has been an interesting ride to say the least, but I wouldn’t change a thing about it. I’ve learned much about the boy who left, and the one who goes back. At home, I am me. I am everything that life has shown me and more. It’s quite a shame to realize that the place I worked so hard to get to all my life is the same place where others are allowed to dictate who I am, but without this experience, I would not know my true self.
Luz Aguirre: Documented is a film that opened my eyes. For an undocumented individual to share his status with acquaintances friends, and family is one thing and to share it with the world is beyond courageous. Listening to Jose Antonio Vargas speak about his personal life unfolded a series of memories surrounding my life. How many times have I heard individuals tell their stories about crossing the border, about being deported or facing deportation, and about feeling emotionally tied to their homeland? How many times have I not seen families disintegrate, men and women work endlessly under the hot sun, and suffer from the consequences of immigration? All this suffering in order to live the American dream.
I had heard about Jose Antonio Vargas before, but not his full story. As a Mexican who knows many undocumented individuals, it is sad to realize that in reality I do not know enough about the topic. I know what many individuals experience but nothing beyond those lines. The lack of knowing has stopped me from joining the cause and promoting awareness in the way I personally want to be involved. Vargas and other individuals who fight for the justice of all Americans, despite having much to fear, inspire me.
I’ve never given much thought to how I define “American,” but I am able to thoroughly explain what America means to me. I define America as the land of choice. Everything I’ve ever learned, heard, witnessed, and taught has been focused on one foundation; the right to be free. America stands for individual freedom and for the right to express that freedom. I have chosen to express my freedom just like other individuals in America. My question is how can everyone else that identifies as an American safely express his or her freedom?