As a white heterosexual American from a middle-class economic background (though I myself am probably not middle-class yet), I have to be accountable to where I came from. This is often misunderstood by people to mean that I have to feel guilty or culpable about where I came from. No, the mess we’re all in wasn’t caused by us, but it damn well better be fixed by us.
But that accountability doesn’t mean I have to identify with that identity. I don’t have to think about my interests in white, or heterosexual, or American ways.
When I was a kid, I remember reading the history books, especially the American history books, and not having a lot of role models to look up to. For most of European history, we see zealots, warlords and genocidal maniacs. When we get to colonial American history, there are a precious few good men who seemed to rise above their era: William Penn, for example, his heritage honored in the Quakers of whom I have yet to meet a modern representative who is not an exemplary human being.
There’s a brief spike around the time of the Founding Fathers. While they were slave-owning rich white men (though of course many of the soldiers fighting the battles were not), they did believe in something, however incompletely, that I cherished.
But after the Founding Fathers, the history of our country’s leadership was of condoning and protecting slavery, “manifest destiny”, repeatedly breaking solemn promises with the Aboriginal peoples instead of living in harmony, imperialistic relations with other countries, and corporate mistreatment of labor.
Despite being white, I identified with the slaves and their white allies, with Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass and John Brown and William Lloyd Garrison. There was something about Lincoln that was lovable even as he was politically flawed, of course: His melancholy and self-effacing character paired with real genius and a real belief that did lead him to be able to get the respect of Frederick Douglass (and be praised by blacks today as the Great Emancipator). But most of the faces I felt in harmony with did not look like my own.
Despite being of a middle-class background, I identified with the heroes of labor. The socialists, the anarchists, the Knights of Labor. Emma Goldman, Kropotkin, Bakunin.
Despite being male, I identified with women. I was angry at the injustice of their condition, of being unable to contribute, of having their life trajectory chosen for them. When I was in the third grade, I read a series of books about American girls throughout points in American history, the American Girls series (connected with some pretty ludicrously expensive dolls). I missed reading one of the series as it was in the hands of a girl I had a crush on at the time.
I must admit, it was a little harder to identify with homosexuals throughout American history. Still, it burned me to think about people who wanted to do something that was absolutely consensual and based in love and who had to be hidden by shame as a result. (And, of course, my own sexual predilections included some elements of a counter-culture as well).
As I walked throughout history, I looked forward to the 1960s. Post-colonialism, the civil rights movement, hippies, the counter-culture. Good values, not hypocrisy. (Of course, I also had to see the country that once fought an empire for liberty now be an empire that repressed liberty).
Of course, I am a second-generation immigrant, the son of a (white) immigrant. I have always seen how being an immigrant made me, even if just a little, an alien. Combined with my family’s somewhat left-leaning politics, it’s unsurprising that I’d identify with those people in history on the side of change, the radicals and fomentors.
And, of course, there was Dr. King.
Dr. King’s shadow looms large. A man of towering intellect, a man of true faith and conviction, a man who reached across the lines of identity to make peace, a man who believed in the humanity of his oppressors and of those who were silent as his people were oppressed. Though today “I Have A Dream” has been stripped of all of its immensely radical content in the minds of Americans, it is memorable for a reason: It was a positive vision. Dr. King wasn’t saying what was wrong. He was talking about what should be right. A world to be won. (Modern whites confuse this for saying that it’s the world we live in. It isn’t).
As a child, he really did feel like a saint. Someone special. Someone no one could be like.
As I grew up, I realized that I should have the audacity to replicate him. To try to exceed him. Because he was just a man.
All of this to say that, when I was a child, all of the role models being offered to me by mainstream white American society were ones I simply couldn’t identify with. The Roosevelts, whatever FDR’s contribution with the New Deal; all the Presidents after World War II; Wilson, even with his vaunted idealism… They weren’t my heroes.
My heroes and heroines often had a different color of skin, different lips, different hair.
My heroines often had different sexual organs and a different gender.
My heroes and heroines often swung a different way from me.
My heroes and heroines often spoke a different language and were from a different country from the place of my birth.
Again: It’s important for us to recognize the impact of where we’ve come from.
But we never need let where we came from limit our aspirations.
I don’t have to be like George W. Bush because I share his gender, sexual orientation, national origin and race. I can strive to be like Dr. King despite us coming from very different places. I can strive to be someone who reaches out to the Other, who forgives, who practices love and compassion as a lifestyle, who truly acts as a prophet of the God that I believe exists. I can strive to be someone whose vision was so inspirational that it drove people to want to crush him, because they were afraid of the vanguard of the change he represented. Dr. King in my view was a true knight for the modern age.
Of course, there were many other heroes of mine that I am not mentioning, but the point is made: We can all choose to identify with the best of what people from other cultures have to offer. I don’t need to force myself to cleave to an identity full of people I don’t like.
What role models will you choose?