How can we talk productively about the state of our union? One way to start is with our own stories. Let's begin with this question:
How do we describe ourselves, and why do those descriptions matter?
Have you ever considered why we describe ourselves and each other in so many different ways? When asked who we are, or when describing someone else, we mention race, religion, or home state. Sometimes we vary these descriptions depending on the audience and what we think people are trying to find out. When asked about our national identity, some of us feel comfortable saying, "I'm an American," and some of us don't. Some of us hyphenate the description, to include our country of origin, or describe ourselves in other ways.
What do these labels mean to us? There is a lot of passionate talk about the "right way" to describe each other. Do these labels reveal something about our past experiences, present concerns, or hopes? Do these descriptions reveal our attitudes toward our country or about who belongs here?
By telling our stories, we may discover how our diverse experiences have shaped us, divided us, and linked us. Through this dialogue, we may come to understand each other better and begin to find ways to move toward a more perfect union.
Why have you described yourself the way that you have? In what ways are the group members' descriptions alike or different? What do you make of these similarities and differences?
In what ways have your upbringing, experiences, or thinking influenced your description?
Might you vary your response in different situations or company? Why or why not?
How have others described you?
Do the ways that others see and describe you match the ways you think about yourself, or are their descriptions different from your own?
In his interview for the film Talk to Me: Americans in Conversation, historian John Kuo Wei Tchen said,
People always ask me where I'm from. If they're Chinese, I need to tell them that I'm from JiangXi Province. If they're Americans, they're not happy enough by my telling them I'm from Wisconsin. I have to tell them that my parents came from China. I was born in General Hospital the year after my family arrived in this country, and I'm the first American citizen in the family.
What does his statement mean to you?
Think about the labels you use for yourself or that others use to describe you.
Who or what do these labels connect you to?
Who or what might they set you apart from?
What does this suggest about your connection to the country?