September 11 has become a national day of reflection and resolution. Collective reflection creates a story of the event, sometimes more than one. One version of the event’s aftermath is that the country came together while grief acted as a softening agent, breaking down our defenses and judgments. In deep crisis, even people with whom we felt no previous connection became those who needed or offered help. For a few days, we extended our love of country to the actual inhabitants of that country, in all their glorious diversity.
The thing is, stories are shaped by those doing the telling. The more often they are told, the more fixed they become, and the less we open them for interpretation. The storyteller’s experience leads her to assign particular meaning to events, a meaning others will deny until the end of their own days. She writes in heroes, villains, victims and innocent bystanders according to her perspective.
And so, after the initial shock of 9/11, other stories began to emerge. There was a story about where the enemy was hiding. Another story about how our immigration system enabled terrorism. Another story about Muslims taking over America. These tales generated policy debates, and eventually, actual policies. Two wars. Racial and religious profiling in the name of fighting terrorism. Mass deportation. Mosque prevention measures. In these stories, a multicultural United States cannot exist peacefully. Difference generates conflict rather than celebration. The subtext is a profound question about who is really an American, and whether you must look like a founding father to count.
Such different stories. How do we know which ones are true? The complicated reality is that if people believe them, they’re all true. Albert Einstein, perhaps the greatest scientist of all time, noted the limits of human ability to settle on an objective truth. Our standard of proof is entirely based on what we already know before the story is put in front of us. “I’ll see it when I believe it,” he said in describing the relationship between worldview and data. If we believe multiculturalism works, we will believe the evidence that it does and we will strive to generate more such evidence. If we don’t believe, then no evidence that people of very different races, religions and national origins can live equitably and harmoniously will ever be enough. In a recent survey, Colorlines.com’s publisher, the Applied Research Center, found that most people are unconcerned about the country’s changing demographics, but a small vocal minority thinks it’s a horrible thing. Their story has dominated the airwaves for 10 years, and it’s time for the rest of us to insert our voices.
Direct experience with the object of our belief begins to disrupt our beliefs, and the behavior that stems from those beliefs. Gaby Pacheco, a young undocumented woman who walked the Trail of Dreams last year, told me a story recently about meeting with the editorial board of a daily newspaper and watching them drop the word “illegal” in the course of the meeting. That’s because it’s really hard to look someone in the face and apply a label that she tells you dehumanizes her. If we want to change a story, we have to expand the experience of the person telling it. We have to insert ourselves into their story, not in the role they assigned to us, but in the one we’ve assigned ourselves.
A couple of years ago, I debated someone who favors restricting immigration at a liberal arts college in the northeast. When I brought up the racial dimension of the debate, my opponent screamed that I was a liar. Afterwards, a slightly built blond woman came up from the audience. She was a member of Numbers USA and her ancestors were among the founders of the state of Massachusetts. “I’m really offended that you called me a racist,” she said. I could see the shaking in her hands and hear it in her voice.
The reference to this woman’s ancestor established where she belonged; her membership in Numbers USA signaled that she was prepared to fight for that sense of belonging. By then I had said all I had to say about race and immigration. She couldn’t see my point because she already didn’t believe that racial anxiety drove the immigration debate. I couldn’t see how her ancestors justified her position. But I could understand the need to belong, and how devastating it can be to feel displaced. So I thanked her for coming to talk to me and acknowledged that it wasn’t the easiest thing to do. I wanted to vilify her and never deal with her ilk again. But I couldn’t. Her shaking hands were too much like my own. She was my neighbor. I wanted to open some space, however narrow, for us to connect.
This is the lesson of 9/11 for me. I can’t call myself a person who values inclusion and compassion and then pick and choose those whom I accept. I can disagree, but I can’t disown. Not if I want to help build a nation that accepts rather than rejects; that constructs rather than destroys; that frees rather than enslaves. In such a nation, everyone needs to feel they belong, everyone reacts to the loss of that belonging, and everyone needs to feel its renewal when things change, as they always must. Every story has a sequel, shaped by our interpretation of the past. There is a 9/11 story in which we belong to each other. That’s the one I’ll be telling as we move into the next decade.
*If you want to do more, check out the America for All of Us initiative of South Asian Americans Leading Together, which is led by our board member Deepa Iyer. *