Yesterday, I was privileged to have front row seats to witness 136 individuals become United States citizens. It was quite an emotional experience for them and their families. For me, it was truly an honor to be the first non-White person they shook hands with as they received their naturalization certificates and officially became United States citizens.
Yesterday was also special to me because I was in that position over 20 years ago when I became a naturalized citizen. My naturalization ceremony was in 1995 and never did I expect that I will ever go to another naturalization ceremony again, let alone be a guest speaker for one. So yesterday was special, just like how that day in 1995 was special to me. And I also know how special yesterday was to all the 136 new U.S. Citizens and their families.
But given our current national climate regarding immigrants - with the RAISE act, travel bans, and many other anti-immigrant policies floating around - I felt that it was my responsibility to do as much as I could with the few minutes I was given to share some of what I've learned - through my personal life and through empirical research - about the complexities of the immigrant experience in the United States.
So in front of 136 new U.S. citizens and their families, a Federal District Court Judge, and U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski - under a national climate full of anti-immigrant sentiments - I shared the following words:
"As you all know, coming to America and becoming US citizens are great things, it brings with it great privileges and power. So in some ways you all have gained super powers today. But just because you have super powers doesn't make you super heroes. To become superheroes you need to use your powers for good. One of my favorite superheroes is Spider Man, and as his wise uncle advised him, "with great power comes great responsibility."
And there are great privileges and power that comes with becoming a US citizen. But sadly, when I became a US citizen, I didn't use that power well. That power corrupted me. It made me believe that I was better than everyone else. That I deserve more than others who do not have the same privilege and power as me. I began discriminating against other immigrants - even other Filipinos - who are recent immigrants or those who I thought were not as Americanized as I am. I made fun of their accents, I made fun of their clothes, I teased them, I looked down on them. I even got to the point where I began diluting my Filipino-ness - pretending that I didn't understand Tagalog, refusing to speak Tagalog, and working REALLY hard to get rid of my accent.
I was not using my great power for good. Instead, I was using this great power to marginalize people, to deny people the opportunities that I was simply lucky to have. I was using this great power to hurt people. I was using this great power to force people to forget their cultures, their languages, their worldviews, themselves. I was using this great power to make people hate themselves.
It wasn't until later in life - in college here at UAA - when I began to realize that this power of being an American can and must be used better, for the good. The discriminatory attitude that I held about people and the hurtful ways I was acting toward other people is not the promise of America. This is not how America would want me - us - to use our power. And I saw how so many of my fellow Americans were using their privilege - their power - in the same marginalizing, oppressive, and discriminatory ways as me.
In fact I see this now - especially now. And I love America too much for me to just let it continue to hurt so many people within its borders and in the world. And because I love America so much, I want it to be better.
And I know you love America too. And with this, please allow me to share three brief thoughts on how - in my view - we must express our love for America.
1. First, we must always want America to be better, to work better, for ALL people. And a fundamental part of getting better is identifying the areas that need improvement. So we need to perpetually criticize America in order to make it better.
As much as I love America, the reality is that it's not perfect. It has never been perfect. But what makes America great is that we are allowed to strive toward making it better, to continually adjust it, change it, adapt it, and make it as perfect as it can be through the changing times and the constantly evolving challenges we face.
As Black writer, poet, and civil rights activist James Baldwin said, “I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”
He is right.
Now that we are US citizens, we can't just sit back and do nothing. Not with this much power. We can't just waste our power, and we cannot just reap the benefits of this power selfishly - thinking only about ourselves. We must use this power - leverage it - to criticize America and make America better. We must engage, we must critique, we must analyze, we must organize, we must vote.
We must hold our elected leaders accountable. Hold those who represent us accountable, and make sure they remember that they are also representing us, and not just those who were simply lucky to have been born here. We have to make sure we don't give our power - our vote and our support - to people who will relegate our issues - immigrant issues - our lives - our immigrant lives - as less important issues. We have to hold accountable our leaders when they support those who have plans to hurt us and our families.
We cannot just put our heads down and work and be quiet and do our jobs. We cannot just be silent, voiceless, powerless immigrants anymore. As US citizens we now have the power and the responsibility to look up, to see the injustices around us, to hold our heads up against these injustices, to speak out, and to do something to address them. We now have the responsibility to make America better.
2. This brings me to my second message, which is to demand to be treated with complete dignity and humanity. We make America better by demanding better, to be seen as full humans and not just a commodity, as money, as producers, or simply as a source of labor. We must demand to be seen as full, complex, and equal human beings who have the same value as anyone else and whose lives matter just as much as everyone else. This is one of the most important ways for our country to be better - it needs to be better at treating ALL people with complete humanity and dignity. For us as immigrants, we must always remember and we must remind this country that we are worth more than our spending power, or how much taxes we pay, or how many jobs we hold, or how many hours we work, or how much money we generate. Our worth as human beings is way more than any amount of money.
A big part of who we are is our culture, our heritage. This diversity of thoughts, world views, and experiences that we bring to the country is another way for us to contribute to it, to make it better. In fact, I believe that we - the people - are this country's most important and most significant resource, and the diversity we bring to this country makes us - in my view – one of this country's most important and significant strength! We are not a point of weakness. We are not a drain. We are assets. So please don't forget who you are. You don't have to. You don't have to assimilate. We don't have to forget our heritage – who we truly and completely are - in order to be complete Americans. In fact, the diversity we all bring to this country is what makes America more complete.
As Filipino hero Jose Rizal said, "Ang hindi marunong lumingon sa kanyang pinanggalingan ay hindi makakarating sa kanyang paroroonan."
Those who do not look back and appreciate where they came from, will not get to their destination.
So let's not forget who we are, we should not forget our ancestors - many of whom fought and resisted and spoke up and risked their lives to get us here today, to make it even possible for us to be here today! We owe that to them, so we must not forget who we are and we must fight to be seen and accepted and valued as who we are fully. Which brings me to my third and final message.
3. As we take pride in who we are as immigrants, and as much as we should advocate for immigrant rights, we must never do so at the expense of further erasing the indigenous peoples of these lands. This is especially important for us here in Alaska, as our beloved state is number one in the country when it comes to the proportion of Native Peoples in our population. We live with many Native brothers and sisters, and this is their indigenous lands! And so we must respect that fact. We must respect, know, and understand Native Peoples, their histories, their cultures, their worldviews, their ways of doing things, their lands.
We must connect with the indigenous peoples of these lands, and see our similarities and shared struggles with them. We need to be in solidarity with them, to build coalitions with them, to stand beside them, to be behind them, and to work in collaboration with them toward making this country - this America - better for ALL people.
So in closing, with your great privileges and power now as United States citizens, please do everything you can to use such power for good. You have that responsibility now. And I humbly ask that you use that power to make America better for ALL people. I ask that you use that power to identify and call out America's flaws and contribute toward addressing such flaws so that America becomes better for ALL PEOPLE. I humbly ask that you demand full recognition as a human being; remember that you are not simply a commodity, that you are worth more than your labor, your money, your taxes, your spending power. One of our greatest strengths is our diversity, so please demand that the diversity you bring be valued. And finally, I ask that while you celebrate that diversity and advocate for your complete human rights as immigrants, please do not forget about our indigenous brothers and sisters. Let's build relationships and coalitions with them, and work in solidarity with them as we try to make America better for ALL people.
Maraming salamat for hearing me out, and congratulations again with this great power you now have. Now let's do something good with it."
E.J.R. David is the author of “Brown Skin, White Minds: Filipino -/ American Postcolonial Psychology” and the editor of “Internalized Oppression: The Psychology of Marginalized Groups.” He has two upcoming books, “The Psychology of Oppression” (Springer Publishing) and “We Have Not Stopped Trembling Yet” (SUNY Press). He also writes periodically for Psychology Today. Follow him on Twitter here.