Recognizing the Racialized Reality of the American Dream

In 2013, I was asked to reflect on my experience at a South African youth summit. The sanctity of the American dream bled through my response. Dazzled by the young leaders' entrepreneurial efforts to drive development, I saw the experience laced with the beauty of the American axiom: personal responsibility and hard work ensure success.

But after spending two more years in South Africa and recently moving back home, I am beginning to understand my previous assessment of the universality of the American dream as hopeful, myopic, and even mystical. Reflecting on the entirety of my time abroad, I realize that life in South Africa forced me to internalize both my privilege and our collective failure to ensure all Americans have the ability to live a life of liberty and equal opportunity.

Before moving to Johannesburg, I recognized American systems of privilege. I understood that decades of policies allowed my family to acquire wealth, while largely excluding African Americans. I could recite disturbing accounts of red-lining. I knew Black families were thrown out of their homes in favor of highways that ushered White workers between their jobs and the safety of their suburbs. I knew that even though I was a first-generation college kid, I was the kind with the best chance of upward social mobility: the kind with married, White parents. I knew that if I were to submit my resume with an African American name I was much less likely to receive a job interview. And I saw that these and other historic, present, and compounded injustices deserve recognition and reparation.

But only after living in South Africa have I been able to truly humanize my understanding of America's, and therefore my own, discrimination. For the first time, I see the greatness of the American dream clearly: deflated by moral contradiction.

Growing up in Greenville, Michigan, I was never forced to face the privilege of having White skin. I knew lots of poor White people and even came from them--skin color couldn't make life harder. I assumed everyone had a lawn in which they could play. I knew I would always be safe at school. And, as we sang almost everyday, "God loves all the little children of the world"--surely this meant race could not separate us. Without physical or intellectual exposure to areas that looked or felt different than mine, I didn't know better.

Of course, this mirage of equality was shaken as I encountered history, data, and stories which indisputably demonstrated the existence of racial discrimination in America. But my illusion did not tumble until I was immersed, it seemed for the first time, in a world where life itself appears segregated and White people clearly hold the upper-hand in its arrangement.

Johannesburg is a single place with two worlds. And although I did not belong to the Black sphere of extreme poverty and formal exclusion, I could not escape it. Supply gently sweeping away newly fallen leaves. Charity diligently cleaning. Danny smiling, as always, telling me to be safe, as always. A man I didn't know, but saw everyday, at my car window asking for bread. Maria vacuuming around my desk and calling me "Ma'am." Security guards who ate white bread for lunch eagerly helping me carry fresh produce and meat up two flights of stairs to my apartment. The faces of maids with whom I prepared holiday meals disappearing when we sat down to enjoy the feasts.

But while it was impossible to retreat from this world, which was clearly different from my own yet operated all around me, I knew I was protected from its darkest realities. I would never be crippled by hunger. Hard work would take me to corner offices, while Supply's reward for following his 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. schedule would be keeping his job as a gardener for $300 a month. It was possible I could wake up to find myself collateral damage of the dangerous realities created by suppression and despair, but a chasm separated me from its roots of insecurity which gripped the township just down the dusty footpath from my apartment building. And I learned, as the woman scanning my groceries turned from laughing with coworkers toward me and I watched her eyes fade from mirth to oceans of apathy, that I would never be pinned by the psychological and physical toll taken by exclusion.

For the first time in my life, structural differences grew beyond the pages of books and off the screens of documentaries into the people around me, who I loved. My privilege and their exclusion became a part of my everyday life; one could not exist without the other.

Facing South Africa's black-and-white boundaries forced me to internalize the colored barriers which cage our own country and limit access to hope. Unsurprisingly, Black children are still more likely to be born into poverty than White children, and the cumulative effects of disadvantage widen the black-white gap with each successive stage of life. I see now there is no sanctity in the American dream as it stands and that we will never turn that worthy dream into a reality without understanding the consequences of White privilege and recognizing that Black lives matter.

So, though I am embarrassed at the reprieve of recognizing my own privilege and the imperative of understanding race in America, I am grateful for the sentience to face the honesty of disparities in American experiences. Imbued with love for this country and the ideal that success is equally available despite one's skin color or starting position in life, I am eager to begin the journey towards understanding how Americans who look different than me experience our nation, how I fit into our convoluted social fabric, and how we can design institutions to ensure equal access for equal effort.

It is time America delivered on its promise for all of us.