I wrote this post around this time last year in Mali. I never got around to publishing it but I uncovered it recently and wanted to share it.
It’s ironic to travel to another country to immerse yourself in a different culture and to find yourself examining American culture and your own experience within that culture more than anything else.
My first night in my actual site (where I will be for the next 2 years), I thought about how excited I am for this whole experience and what an amazing opportunity it is. But I also thought about the self-imposed limitations that had almost prevented me from applying to the Peace Corps in the first place. Halfway through college, when I had first learned about the Peace Corps, I remember thinking that the Peace Corps wasn’t a good idea for me. This wasn’t because I didn’t think I could live in a developing country with no running water and intermittent electricity; but because one of the three goals of the Peace Corps is “Helping promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the people’s served.” and I wasn’t sure if I was the “right” person to do this.* My parents, who immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico, taught me a value system that I felt sometimes seemed at odds with “American” values. Even though my dad recognized that there were more opportunities here for him than in Mexico, I never felt that he was super patriotic and so, I’ve never felt particularly patriotic. I probably feel more patriotic now (about Americans not about the policies our government undertakes), after living in Mali for two months, than I ever did in the US.** Americans may be workaholics but we also seek to find solutions whenever a problem arises and are constantly aiming for self-improvement.
When I actually told others my hesitation about applying to the Peace Corps — that I didn’t think that I would be a good person to represent American values because I had immigrant parents — NO ONE said “What? That’s ridiculous” or challenged me on this perception I had of myself. But, when I think about it, I think my parents were/are probably MORE likely to represent “American” values because America is, and has arguably always been, a land of immigrants. All immigrants, no matter where they’re from, their education level or social status, are trying to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps”. These are people who are willing to move away from their family and sometimes even risk their lives to improve their situation. You can’t get more “American” than that!
It’s crazy how much we get in the way of ourselves and put limits on what we think we can do. Alice Walker said “The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any”. Before, I was willingly giving up the privilege that comes with being a US citizen to serve in the Peace Corps, simply because my background did not reflect white America. In doing so, I would not only have deprived myself of this awesome and eye-opening experience but I would also have limited people here, in Mali, of seeing and experiencing firsthand the multiculturalism that is part of American culture. I’m not saying other volunteers aren’t doing this, but seeing volunteers of a different ethnic origin speaks more to the diversity that exists in America than simply telling people that the U.S. is very diverse but then only seeing white Americans here.
As a woman and a person of color, I know I have definitely imposed limits on myself in the past. As I have pushed against the limits I have felt in my life, I have become more aware of them, and have found it is important to try as much as possible to not let them get in the way. While institutions need to do their part in increasing diversity, internalized limitations due to ethnicity also needs to be something that Americans, both people of color and white people, need to be aware of and able to talk about. Peace Corps could try to increase their diversity numbers all they want (and to their credit, they are making it a point) but if people of different backgrounds aren’t applying to the Peace Corps because they don’t feel like they represent the U.S. in the “right” way, then its gonna take a while for those numbers to go up. That means not just making it a point to increase diversity but each of us rethinking who we think of as American, how we define American culture and where exactly we place ourselves within it.
I am attaching this article because I think it helps explain why sometimes people of color don’t think of themselves as fully American. It’s a bit long but I highly recommend it.
*While this is not the sole reason I waited to apply to Peace Corps until after college the fact that I ever felt that way at all surprises and saddens me.
**It’s not always easy to be a patriotic American, especially when living or traveling outside of the US. Our prominent role in the world just makes us more vulnerable to criticism; sometimes people I’ve encountered abroad have felt at liberty to ask or tell me anything they’ve wanted to say about the US – and shocker, it’s not always positive. I would compare it to the way regular people feel like they can judge everything a celebrity does because they are in a position of power and influence. Our government definitely deserves that criticism at times but people tend to look at you as a representative of all U.S. policies (even those put in place before you were born) and that can be irritating.