I have never felt classically “American.” As a child of Eritrean and Ethiopian immigrants, born in Arlington, Virginia, I grew up in a relatively diverse area just outside of D.C. Despite our home being centered around different cultures, my parents enrolled my siblings and I in intensely religious schools where the majority of students were white. The students, as well as the academic curriculum, were politically conservative — opposing political viewpoints were not welcome. My parents, who are staunch liberals, chose the school because it provided students with a strong sense of academic discipline. They counter-balanced the steely conservatism for me at home, teaching me to steel myself against the far right-wing agenda I heard as I went from classroom to classroom. It quickly became one of myriad places where I had to learn how to code switch. Soon, my life consisted of code switching in all aspects: between my parents and foreign family, my American friends and my first-generation friends. Though at times it felt complicated, I never viewed it as an immense struggle — it was just a fact of my life. But I didn’t have the language to explain it, or fully even grasp why I was doing it. I thought it was a situation that was unique to my siblings and I, something others couldn’t understand. That changed in 2008.
When I was 14, I learned about a spry politician named Barack Obama, the democratic candidate facing off against Hillary Clinton for the party ticket. His presence quickly dominated public conversation (an all-encompassing foreshadowing to the cultural icon he would become over the next eight years). His charismatic nature and erudite language made its way through radio, TV screens and newspapers. I’ve never experienced a more acute paradigm shift — a black man of East African descent, with a foreign name like mine, seeking to be President of the United States. This was the inception of my understanding of identity politics, and what it means to be American.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been asked the same mind-numbing, four-word phrase: “Where are you from?” When I was younger, it was a confusing question to navigate, mostly because it felt as if the person opposite me was implying I couldn’t be from the U.S. I was always unsure how to answer this, largely because it always felt like the question was intended to dissect my blackness and challenge my nationality. A subtle insistence that I couldn’t be from America. I was African and American, but by some definition not African American, which at the time, I was unsure how to express without conflating the two. As Barack Obama campaigned in ‘08, he seamlessly explained his upbringing. The whole world was curious about him, and desperate to quickly assign him an identity. He gave straightforward answers; he was Kenyan and Hawaiian and Kansan. He was black and he was white, and he didn’t feel compelled to explain (what, of course, is there really to explain when it comes to identity? It just is). There was both an ease and an assertiveness he had that I desperately wish I had possessed growing up, an armor against unrelenting insinuations.
Of course, what I hadn’t realized was this assurance in identity was also a journey for President Obama himself. In his memoir, Dreams From My Father, Obama delves into his own history and reckons with different parts of his identity, an inward reflection that later comforted me and opened the floodgates of self-discovery and understanding: “I realized that who I was, what I cared about, was no longer just a matter of intellect or obligation, no longer a construct of words. I saw that my life in America — the black life, the white life, the sense of abandonment I’d felt as a boy, the frustration and hope I’d witnessed in Chicago — all of it was connected with this small plot of earth an ocean away, connected by more than the accident of a name or the color of my skin.”
During the 2008 campaign, I also began to notice a change in my family’s demeanor. My parents became unprecedentedly patriotic–a change I knew was inspired by Obama. For them, America has always presented a difficult dichotomy— on one hand, it was a place of opportunity for their families, a refuge from the country they can no longer peacefully inhabit. But on the other it’s also a nation embedded in racism, constantly presenting incessant challenges to its immigrants, even after they’ve become citizens. Coming off the heels of a Bush presidency, my parents would have been relieved for any Democrat to take office. Instead, they got Barack Obama. He was a true respite. He had something white politicians simply couldn’t have on the same level: empathy. After all, Obama’s father was African, like them, and came to the U.S. to receive an education, later forced to deal with the stigma of being immigrant in America. Who better to understand the nuances of my parents’ reality than Barack Obama? They phone banked and donated and and exercised all their power to ensure Obama was elected.
On Inauguration Day in 2009, my parents and two siblings geared up and headed to Capitol Hill to watch Obama be sworn in. It was freezing outside (I’m sure you can guess how my parents feel about cold weather), but we made an exception for the sake of history. I only knew the rudimentary basics about politics at the time, but I understood the gravity of what it meant to swear in our first black president. For a young, impressionable black girl, witnessing Barack and Michelle Obama, with their two black daughters, come into office completely redefined my interpretation of the “American Dream” and who could claim it.
Four years later, that passion did not waver. In 2012, I was an Organizing Fellow for Organizing for America in Virginia, the grassroots campaign that re-elected President Obama for his second term. By then, I was 19 and it was the first year I’d be able to vote, which made working on the campaign especially poignant. I had a broadened perspective on American politics, and was keenly aware of what I believed in. I was working alongside other first-generation Americans, immigrants, people of color all of whom considered themselves Americans, and shared a dedication to someone they felt adequately represented us. I was actively advocating for myself and people like me, registering voters, engaging with volunteers and theorizing what a fair democracy might look like with friends I had met working on the campaign. His reelection made things tangible for me as I realized how activism translated into influence — that this was part of what being American means. Being able to contest ill-advised policies and politicians that work against people.
Obama’s presidency also presented a tragic dichotomy. Racism and anti-blackness are as pervasive as they ever were. The nation elected a black president, but we continue to live in a country obsessed with racism, that knotty social construct that still affects a plethora, if not the majority of policies. And yet, we miraculously had a president who has been the subject of racial discrimination and was given the power to reverse and influence policy (to a certain degree, of course). This is a glaring contradiction, and has always been difficult for me to accept in embracing my American identity. It is a sore reminder that you can be a black woman or a child of immigrants who partakes in the luxuries that America affords and actively participates in shaping the nation, knowing full well that its organizing structure is directly purposed to diminish you. To suppress you. To destroy you.
There has never been more of a reminder of this than now. As this new ghastly, toupeed President begins his term, I am reminded constantly of this bleak reality. Donald Trump has perverted the meaning of American into something that is racially and demographically limiting (some, of course, might argue that he’s taking it back to its most primitive, original form, when white settlers first throttled this land). A backlash to eight years of black presidency. To a great many people, his view of American identity is the definition of being American. There is brutal irony in the fact that the man taking office is the same person who started and perpetuated the birtherism rumor and questioned whether Obama even was American or not, inciting public skepticism and racist dialogue. The election of Trump has struck anxiety in Americans who believe in the vision of an egalitarian society so heavily advertised in the politics of this country, an ideal that is now at risk. It is a stark reminder that in America, populism can override intellectualism.
This is not to say that the last eight years haven’t been complicated. Racial tension has persisted and there remains a heap of political turmoil, from immigration to the environment, that has potential to worsen. Obama is imperfect. However, the last eight years have still felt draped in whimsy, in the sense that I spent my formative teen years in this country being led by someone who has a grasp on identity and a version of American-ness that is not reduced to generational ancestry. His American-ness is not defined by whiteness. Despite all the badgering about his origins and objections to his policies, Obama maintained a sense of agency, a continuous theme in his presidency. His capacity to display that sort of independence has inspired young Americans — like myself — to embrace all the things that make us who we are. Woman, Black, African, Eritrean.
And through it all: American.