Diversity is a double-edged sword that has the power to make America bleed. For the moment, the concept of diversity has found safest haven within the coddling confines of America’s plush college campuses, where differences of opinion, appearance, and identification between students are cast in sharp relief. Situating diversity at the heart of the college experience, it seems, rightly encourages meaningful collaboration between individuals of all different stripes. I’m afraid, however, that the benefits of diversity have a limit. When the expression of difference becomes a force that sharpens and deepens distinctions of opinion, appearance, and identification, it often leads to infighting steeped in venomous spite, ill will, and indignation. As an equal yet opposite force to diversity, unity comes into play. Unity, a force that is motivated by shared opinion, appearance, and identification, is to me the most critical counterweight to diversity that this nation could ever need.
My current interest in the relationship between unity and diversity has been sparked by the recent succession of tragedy in Baltimore, where a young man was irretrievably brutalized, the city of Baltimore was ravaged, police officers were insulted, protesters were assaulted, and the justice system now finds itself treading a legal minefield. At the crux of this destabilizing tragedy lay a difference of skin color. The color of Freddie Gray’s skin was different from the skin color of three of the six officers charged with his murder, while his skin color was the same as that of the three other officers charged. I could look at these seven individuals, the six Baltimore officers (three white, three black) and Freddie Gray, in many ways. I could choose to see these seven as unified by a common identity: All of them were citizens of the United States of America. Under that pretense, I could see these seven as brothers and sisters of one solid national community engaged in a common cause, but that vision of unity would be struck down as wildly naïve by, I’d imagine, the majority of students on campus. On the other hand, I could choose to emphasize the differences that distinguished Gray from the officers. Gray was unemployed, while the officers were employed. Gray was a black man while one of the officers was a black woman. Gray was a black man while three of the officers were white men. The way in which I choose to perceive the Freddie Gray tragedy is critical, for whatever frame of reference I use constructs a firm ideological touchstone on which the slippery politics of identity rests in endlessly alterable form.
In my estimation, a fundamental tension exists between forces of unity and diversity in the consideration of the Freddie Gray tragedy, as it exists similarly when considering nearly every other watershed moment that has exerted both defining and confining influences on the character of American society. In the wake of this tragedy, I’m led to believe that balancing the forces of unity and diversity in America as one would calibrate a finely wrought, desperately fragile instrument, seems integral to the prosperity of this nation.
American history is itself a narrative replete with leitmotifs of unity and diversity. This nation theoretically prides itself on its underdog cachet and the liberty of its citizenry, as the Statue of Liberty tempts forth “huddled masses yearning to breathe free…wretched refuse of [the] teeming shore…the homeless,” and the “tempest-tost,” (“The New Colossus,” Emma Lazarus). In general, the “wretched refuse” that we are hails from ancient lands of “storied pomp” that, in addition to being tastemakers of global politics and culture, have a history that strikingly emphasizes the unity of their people. I’m referring here to nations like the United Kingdom, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Portugal and Germany, nations whose influences on the world at large have made all of us at least tacitly Eurocentric. In diametric opposition to America’s apparent embrace of diversity, these august bastions of the West have thriving cultures that historically enforced the unity, uniformity, and (at times) homogeneity of their people. As much as I’m grateful to Spain for financing the discovery of America, for example, I cannot help but see the ethnic cleansing of the centuries-long Inquisition as an example of unity being taken to a perilous extreme. Was Spain unified under the imposed will of the Catholic Church? Perhaps it was made systematically more efficient, but I think that circumstances of homogeneity and methodical oppression more aptly characterize Golden Age Spain than do those of unity. (But really, isn’t this all just a matter of semantics?)
America, on the other hand, has woven the rich texture of its ethnic diversity into the nation’s social fabric. As much as I’m grateful to America for hosting a vast multiethnic population within its frontiers, it breaks my heart to see Democrats utterly disparaging Republicans and vice versa, Black Americans fighting against White Americans and vice versa, homosexual Americans spiting heterosexual Americans and vice versa. Why aren’t we all in this together? What do we gain from disintegrating this nation into a bunch of factions, each of which touts its own mutually exclusive sense of right?
My attempts to identify an explanatory variable that could possibly justify the American-on-American violence that abounds with alarming frequency usually lead me to the same root cause: the intense yearning for recognition. It seems abysmal to be invisible, seems abysmal to lead a life that does not matter or to lead a life that is gravely mistaken. So, we all work tirelessly to matter in our own unique way. However, it seems that being “American” no longer seems to suffice as adequate recognition. As a result, we chop up American identity into bite-size pieces, so some call themselves Indian American, some African American, some American Indian, and so on. As the recent events in Baltimore have garishly shown, the allure and novelty of American identity has worn off and we are left with a nation that, like any relationship that withers when subject for too long to the forces of harsh public scrutiny, can’t help but reveal its problems over time.
Now, perhaps I’ve overdosed on childlike optimism, but I personally believe that being an American citizen joins me in common cause with every other citizen in this nation, regardless of my socioeconomic status, his or her sexual orientation, my political proclivities, his or her ethnic heritage. The point is that being American is ideally supra-human, insofar as I subordinate my particularity (my Indian heritage, my hometown of Darien, my parents’ tax bracket, etc.) in favor of embracing a more encompassing sense of self that unifies me in collective endeavor with every other person who calls this nation home. What arises then, however, is the difficultly of incentivizing the subordination of individuality to grander notions of American identity. Such an embrace of positive nationalism, while tenable perhaps in the earliest stages of American democracy when the country was far less diverse and surer of its anti-tyrannical purpose, is now a herculean task. How can we agree upon what it means to be American when we have no common enemy? How can we act as united states when diverse groups within the nation are at each other’s throats?
Going forward, I firmly believe that we ought to see beyond difference itself. At this moment, when American identity has been bent out of shape by internal strife, it makes sense to fulfill our yearnings for recognition by acknowledging that, as Americans, our friends and foes across this nation are just like us. Who is America? What is America? I say: America is every one of us. Damaging each other, in this sense, is both self-defeating and detrimental to the nation as a whole.
I seek, at the end of the day, to live not in a nation that preaches mere coexistence or mutual tolerance, but rather in a nation that upholds a common notion of self that exists beyond parameters of race, creed, socioeconomic status, or political affiliation. I do not believe that this nation suffers from systemic inequality. Rather, it suffers from the acute inability to value the equality that unifies us all by virtue of our being, in good times and bad, American.
Lai is a member of the class of 2015.