So, I am sitting in the dentist chair for a deep cleaning, and the woman doing the procedure asks what I do? I tell her I teach.
“Oh really, what do you teach?”
I tell her its history. (It’s actually more complicated than that, but my jaw is sore, I’m stressed, and my whole mouth is numb, so this is more than I really want to say about this or anything else at that particular moment, really it is.)
My dental tech. (I don’t know her official title) then goes on to tell me that history has changed a lot lately. It’s one of those comments that could mean a few different things. Just too general to mean much to me, and I am still working on getting the ball back in her court, so I try to wrap it up with something equally vague and unworthy of follow-up commentary; “history is always changing.”
I know. That doesn’t mean anything either. What I really meant to say is; “Get on with it!”
I think she was waiting for the latest numbing shots to set in, so she added some commentary about how America used to be thought of as a good place, but now people thinks it’s awful, so they want to change history. She adds that some people should go back to their home country if they think America is so bad.
I didn’t respond at all this time, and she soon resumed her work.
Now before you imagine this woman in terms of redneck, xenophobic, white lady stereotypes, let me just add a couple important details. This woman was Asian. She had a very thick accent. I think likely that she is an immigrant. She probably finished her training as a dental tech. (or something like that) in a strange country speaking a strange language, and that HAD to be a Hell of a challenge. I will add to this that she did a good job and I am very happy with her work today. This woman is not an idiot, and I have no reason to believe her a bigot. She is an accomplished professional who has almost certainly experienced the difference between America and some other place in terms far more vivid than anything in my own background.
Still, muted as I was now by the sharp pointy things once again attacking the space between my teeth and my gums, I couldn’t help but think about her words. I couldn’t help but start down the paths toward answering her, the ones I would have taken had I more time, less stress, and a functioning tongue.
And also if I was free of the pointy things.
I wanted to tell her that I teach at a tribal college and that my indigenous students have legitimate complaints about America, complaints that are not well answered by telling them to go home. (Indeed, some of those students might suggest a fitting answer would be for me to go home.) Of course, I would want to expand on this by suggesting that “go home” or “go somewhere else” doesn’t really answer any questions about injustice or oppression, even when such arguments are not made with perverse irony. Sure, there may be some folks with less to complain about than they imagine, but there are also plenty with more cause to complain than they themselves imagine. And of course many with legitimate grievances of which they are quite well aware.
Whether or not this all adds up to America being a terrible place is another question. Being critical of America doesn’t necessarily entail such a sweeping condemnation, and in my experience, that sweeping condemnation has as much to do with the way some people hear the criticism as it does with the intent of the critics. Slavery, genocide, patriarchy, colonialism, and many other themes can be voiced with or without the rancor. For some these are causes to hate America; for others they constitute long-term patterns of social injustice which must be opposed, and that opposition in and of itself is the point.
Bottom line is that I think there is more to the criticisms my dental tech alluded to than this she might have imagined. I could be wrong. I mean, details matter, but absent a specific reference to a specific complaint, I think it rather likely that I would be inclined to support at least some of the complaints she was unhappy about.
I do think it rather likely that this woman picked up on some of the recent right wing response to critical race theory (CRT). To be honest, I was never that keen on CRT, but I must say, the right wing effort to quash it, ban it from the schools, and use it to scare the shit our of parents and political donors all over the country has certainly given me good reason to reconsider my take on the subject. The right wing makes a good case for critical race theory. I don’t think they mean to. But they sure do.
All that said, I can imagine at least one line of thought that works positively in favor of this woman’s narrative. As I said, I do think she is an immigrant. Given her allusions to going back home, it seems pretty clear that America has been a positive experience to her, one that likely brought her increased possibilities and genuine improvements in quality of life. Maybe not, of course. But, given her comments, this does seem likely. I can well imagine that someone with such an experience would find those critical of the United States quite objectionable. I can well imagine that their narratives might strike her as wrong-headed, even as deceitful and clear evidence of bad faith. I can well imagine that her own life story, had she the time to give it to me, might well have served as a great reminder that there are some good things about this country, and that those good things are not limited to the experiences of the dominant white majority.
So, what am I left with? A sense that this woman was unfairly dismissing the legitimate grievances of people who have been treated unfairly in this country. It’s not that I think this woman is wrong to love America; it is that I think she is wrong to dismiss who seem to think otherwise. As I see it, she is right to think of America as a wonderful place. I also think that others are right to think it a terrible place. It’s not even that I think the answer lies somewhere in the middle.
I think both of these takes are true at the same time.