Eleven years ago, I met Shirin Ebadi, the first Muslim woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Ms. Ebadi had become the first woman judge in Iran, only to be stripped of her title four years later and demoted to a secretarial position after the revolution. Despite this, she remained in Iran advocating that “an interpretation of Islam that is in harmony with equality and democracy is an authentic expression of faith” and spent the following decades defending the rights of dissidents, women, and children. I was in law school when I met Ms. Ebadi and, thinking pretty highly of myself, I jumped at the opportunity to ask why she had stayed in Iran through all of the madness. She looked at me without blinking and said simply, “Because I’m Iranian.”
Donald Trump’s campaign and the recent election highlighted the part of our national consciousness which is firmly rooted in a complex mix of racism and sexism that has long been an evolving part of who we are as a nation. This America is one in which you can sweat, bleed, and even die for and still some of us will not accept you. This America has different standards for you depending on the color of your skin, your gender, your nationality, and your sexual orientation (among a hundred other things). Even though I’ve known all of this my entire life, like millions of Americans, I couldn’t help feeling extraordinarily alienated by the results of the election. Our baser nature is opened like a raw wound and it is hard not to turn away. But we cannot and should not hide this part of who we are.
While we are a sometimes deeply flawed union, those flaws are not all we are. We are also the country of Hamilton, King and Anthony. We are the land of the 442nd. We are a country that inspired my mother and father to emigrate from halfway around the world and gave them the opportunity to create lives of service here.
It’s easy to see these two facets of our nation as two separate Americas, but the truth is that these elements are a part of all of our collective histories. As Americans, we are all at once draped in the horrors of oppression and resplendent in the promise and hope we bring each other and the world of which we are a part.
Just four years ago, many of the same people who voted President-elect Trump into office voted to re-elect Barak Obama. Many of those people are our co-workers, friends and family. All of them are Americans. Racism, sexism, and other negative parts of our culture can and do explain some of this, but not all of it. Fundamentally, our society continues to fail to address problems for many disenfranchised people. In some cases, to the point to which the rhetoric of hate became overlooked and sometimes even encouraging to some of those people.
To move forward, we need to be honest with each other and recognize our mutual kinship, culture, and history. Amidst all the calls for disengagement, emigration and secession, we need to do the opposite. We need to come together, even if it is painful and hard. We need to stand with people who might be particularly vulnerable under an administration sold to us through a rhetoric of hatred. And, more than ever, we need to try to understand each other and, in service to each other, work to solve problems for all Americans.
Sometimes, it’s hard not to see this task as long and perilous. However, when I start to despair, I am reminded of Ms. Ebadi’s conviction against almost impossible adversity. The hard road is worth it.
Because I am American.