Last week, at the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C., first lady Michelle Obama was caught hugging President George W. Bush ’68 in an embrace that defied racial and political divisions. This episode fittingly illustrated President Barack Obama’s powerful remarks: “Our glory derives not just from our most obvious triumphs, but how we’ve wrested triumph from tragedy and how we’ve been able to remake ourselves, again and again and again, in accordance with our highest ideals.” It is these ideals of human decency, character and strength that should define our national identity and who we aspire to be.
With the addition of the museum to the National Mall, the American spirit is more complete. I find great hope in this unity. W.E.B Du Bois famously described the color line as the greatest threat to the experiment of the American republic. In response, he advocated not for the gradual advancement of the rights of black men and women, but instead asserted that “to make men, we must have ideals, broad, pure and inspiring ends of living.” Du Bois wanted not only a place at the table of American democracy but full acceptance into the Western canon: “I sit with Shakespeare, and he winces not.”
This is a powerful, beautiful image of society, but one that I fear we are losing in our fight for equality. Instead, we are moving toward an age where our ideas are trapped by aesthetics. The black man is still the poor man. The white man is still the privileged man. From race to sexuality to politics, we constantly categorize ourselves in America. For every aesthetic difference you can conjure, there is a marginalized group you can enter. A box you can check. This is not inherently bad, but when we create categories that equate identity with status, as when we conflate race and poverty, we trap a person’s individuality within these definitions.
Growing up, I only felt my race when checking an infinite amount of boxes on applications and tests, knowing that each mark of “white” only acted as a substitute for “assumed privilege” and therefore a higher standard for acceptance. It didn’t matter that I was a low-income student living in a single-parent household in North Tulsa, facing many of the same barriers to success that are often only attributed to racial minorities. I am not of color, and therefore am excluded from conversation on inclusion.
I never thought much of my disadvantages. I knew that defining myself by my status would preclude any chance I had to rise in society. I looked up to great, inspiring figures like the Obamas, not because of how they looked, but because of their character. Their ability to surmount the odds of racial inequality came from their insistence that the human spirit is a collective project, not a preserve of the privileged few.
I am not denying that racial inequalities persist in America, nor am I suggesting that differences have no value. Rather, I hope we can maintain the universal image of an ideal society, for the breakdown of a shared American identity fractures our society. When we fit people into predefined narratives, we segregate our society into “oppressors” and “the oppressed.” In the process, large segments of the population become forgotten “deplorables” and support Trump, and racial minorities become statistical voting blocs. Identity is trapped by race, rather than bound by principle or reason. If anything, the absolutism of this new phenomenon only incites fear: fear of departing from our socially prescribed identities or racist reactions that manifest in hatred and prejudice. The transformation of observable traits into normative statements creates barriers that are almost impossible to overcome.
A week ago, Terence Crutcher was shot and killed less than a mile from my high school. My community came together in the aftermath and sought to grow stronger. They went beyond definition in order to learn from this horrible incident and move forward toward a better vision of society — a society built on shared humanity. We find hope, as Du Bois did, by transcending the definitions that divide us.
Leland Stange is a sophomore in Ezra Stiles College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .