Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder
On Realizing There Was Still Some American Exceptionalism Lurking In My Brain
One of the most valuable things I treasure about the Internet is that I can have a glimpse into the lives of people who live a very different life from mine. I regularly read the blogs/journals of people who live in Israel, Singapore, India, the UK, Australia, Malaysia, and more, not to mention other parts of my own country. The people whose lives I follow include clergy, therapists, parents, medical workers, students, lawyers, and more. I attempt to read at least a little by people I disagree with, or I'm not sure I agree with, or who hold jobs that in a better world might not exist; Granola Shotgun, Patrick Skinner (context), and LadyLovesTaft are thought-provoking, entertaining, edifying. And I appreciate getting geographical breadth in my feed.
Because of this mix, some of my info feed includes blogs by people who live in countries that have effectively controlled COVID-19. Reading one of their "what I did this week" posts is like reading a blog by someone who is rich, or by a man going on a long solitary hike as a fun vacation (while women get advised to never go alone). Their world and mine have diverged; the sphere of my capability is as a marble next to their planet.
We talk so much about the Constitution but our constitution was so weak.
I am a patriot but I thought I was a thoughtful one. This year has brought home to me how much American exceptionalism was still lurking in the corners of my head.
The bigotry I can notice in myself always has this fuzzy shadowy aspect -- it's in the gaps, the moments where I subconsciously think that I don't have to take [person, news, idea, work, etc.] properly seriously, the assumptions I make about what categories someone or some country's going to fit. Or, I learn individual facts -- that trains are cheaper and more frequent and more convenient in many countries I've visited, that my colleague in Norway has used easy electronic transfers to receive and pay money all his life and has never seen a paper check, that folks in Melbourne just call an ambulance for a stranger in trouble and don't worry about cost, that a bunch of people I know in Europe or Australia make their livings working part-time and don't have to figure out how to pay for health insurance -- but I have a mental block stopping me from adding up that two and two are four.
For several years, in conversation, whenever a foreigner complained about some aspect of the US, I would jump in, get ahead of them, get the crowd cracking up by reciting a litany of my country's deficiencies, apologizing for them on behalf of us all. Our utterly insufficient transit network, imperial measurements, all our paper money is the same size and shape and color, the health care disaster, the wars ... I've lost track, it's been a little while since I've given the spiel, since this sort of thing was usually something I said to tourists. But, I realize now, on some level it was always superficial and I did not take to heart how deeply my country was behind, was worse.
"We're number one!" No, we're not. To claim superiority without first assessing whether you're right, or on flimsy grounds, is arrogance. We are arrogant. I am arrogant. Wish I could say "was" but this is not the Rumpelstiltskin story and naming the problem does not make it vanish.
I am not a man and I am not white, but I think the particular bouquet of feelings I am feeling is like feelings a thoughtful white person or man might feel -- thinking that I knew that I was not the center of the world, but stumbling and noticing, in my disorientation, that clearly I had not yet decolonized my mind as thoroughly as I'd thought.