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Before the Victory Celebration: Religious Scholars in Chicago

Thoughts on Race, Identity and the Obamas

Today's post is from Tram Nguyen, the former editor of ColorLines magazine, author of We Are All Suspects Now: Untold Stories from Immigrant Communities after 9/11, and editor of a forthcoming collection, "Language is a Place of Struggle": Great Quotes by People of Color.

Link to Beacon Press page for Language is a Place of Struggle: Great Quotes by People of Color The quote that got Michelle Obama into trouble actually made me like her even more, not only for her candor but for articulating something I've started to feel for the first time in my adult life too.

Here's what she actually said: "People in this country are ready for change and hungry for a different kind of politics and… for the first time in my adult life I am proud of my country because it feels like hope is finally making a comeback."

For me, as a first-generation, former refugee from Vietnam, it's taken a long time to sort out my cultural, national and political identities, and I resisted calling myself American for most of my life – until recently. If absolutely necessary, it was always a hyphenated version, Asian-American or Vietnamese-American, but even those were never all that convincing to me. The American part was the troubling one, because it didn't seem like I could ever really be part of this country except from the very margins.

This sense of alienation, the identity politics and the culture wars or whatever one wants to call it, characterized my coming of age along with many of my peers. As I became more of an activist, it seemed de rigeur in some circles to always lament, point out, proclaim and dwell on all the evils of the U.S. settler state and its imperialism. But at the same time, in my own life, I was trying to sort the good from bad, enjoying and benefiting from multiculturalism, learning to be a "person of color," and all the while becoming ever more, uniquely so, American.

I think that's what draws me to the Obamas, more than anything else. Despite the glitzy trappings of their "First Family" image now, there are still glimpses into their personal and family backgrounds that reflect the larger journeys of so many communities of color. And in their quest to knit together the varied strands of their identities, to make sense of the past and create a greater whole than the sum of the parts, I see the theme of my own story and the stories of many other people of color in America.

It's been hard for me to be proud of this country, or to even claim it as my own. The way I came to be here was on the waves of war and loss, buoyed by my parents' courage and desperation to get out and start over. "Very little in our language encourages looking at others as parts of ourselves"—this is a quote from the Black law professor and writer, Patricia Williams. Flailing in a sea of individualism, competition and materialism, not to mention the racial hierarchy, we found ourselves looked at as "the other," and very often doing the same in turn.

It wasn't until I fully committed to making this country better in whatever way I can, not just to critique it but to cast my lot with the outcome, did I finally and truly want to be an American.

One last quote, from the Latino artist Guillermo Gomez-Peña: "We have the capability to pick and choose and pastiche and sample from our multiple selves to construct a better human being."