American Dissonance

Isn’t it time politics caught up to culture?


America is in a dangerous state of cognitive dissonance.

I know whereof I speak. As a transracial adoptee, I lived the first half of my life in cacophonous cognitive dissonance, a state of psychological distress that occurs when assumptions and values clash with reality.

Born to a Korean mother but raised in a white family, I thought I was no different than my family and peers, but the older I got, the more I realized that the way I saw myself was not the way others saw me. To my shock, I found I was the other, the them, and not the us.

And that is the state of the United States of America under Donald Trump, with culture showing one side of us and the government another.

Our country (and, yes, even though I am an immigrant, this country is just as much mine as yours) was founded upon a government of democratic representation. And yet, we have in office a president who lost the popular vote by 2.8 million votes; 2,800,000 more people cast their ballot for his opponent, but in running for re-election, our putative leader continues to appeal to just one sector of our vibrant, multiethnic, multicultural society.

Glance through lists of nominees of recent major book awards, and you will find a healthy representation of all segments of America, with a preponderance of minority voices winning the most prestigious awards.

The 2020 Pulitzer for fiction went to Colson Whitehead for The Nickel Boys; poetry to Jericho Brown for The Tradition; and commentary to Nikole Hannah-Jones for her essay for the 1619 project (which has come under ferocious attack by the radical right). The 2019 Booker went to Bernardine Evaristo for Girl, Woman, Other and Margaret Atwood for The Testaments, the sequel to her feminist classic, The Handmaid’s Tale.

The 2020 National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) Award for fiction was given to Edwidge Danticat for Everything Inside; for autobiography to Chanel Miller for Know My Name; and for poetry to Morgan Parker for Magical Negro.

The 2019 National Book Award for fiction was given to Susan Choi for Trust Exercise; nonfiction to Sarah M. Broom for The Yellow House; and poetry to Arthur Sze for Sight Lines. The 2019 PEN/Hemingway Award for Debut Novel and the NBCC’s best new book went to Tommy Orange for There There; and the 2020 Caldecott Medal went to Kwame Alexander and Nelson Kadir’s The Undefeated.

In recent months, the nonfiction bestseller lists have been dominated by books examining racism in American society, such as Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist, Ijeoma Oluo’s So You Want to Talk about Race, Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility, and Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste.

On our screens, we enjoy shows that celebrate America in all its diversity, including the plethora of award-winning programs written, directed, and starring Black people, such as “Black-ish,” “Insecure,” “Atlanta,” and “Watchmen.”

“Fresh Off the Boat” features an all-American Asian family; “The Mindy Project” was created and stars Indian American Mindy Kaling; and Sandra Oh won a Golden Globe for her role in “Killing Eve.” Stand-up comedian Ramy Youssef has a popular and very well-regarded eponymously named series that examines the life of a Muslim millennial.

A reboot of “One Day at a Time” features a Cuban American family, “Jane the Virgin” is an American send-up of telenovelas, and “Gentefied” portrays Mexican Americans chasing the American dream. Though it is a Canadian show, “Schitt’s Creek,” which just swept the Emmys, takes place in an ambiguously American (or Canadian) town and features a gay couple who kiss, snuggle in bed, and get their happily ever after ending. “Modern Family” also has a married gay couple with a Vietnamese-born daughter.

Even Hollywood, which did much to advance the myth of the heavily armed white male who dominates minorities and tames the vast American wilderness — and which has reached its ugly apotheosis in Donald J. Trump — has sort of climbed on the bandwagon. More important than its love of guns, gore, and white saviorism is the movie industry’s devotion to money that has forced it to recognize the other America.

The blockbuster success of movies like “Black Panther” and “Crazy Rich Asians” is nudging Hollywood away from its habit of whitewashing plots and characters and casting minority actors in bit roles as villains, helpless victims in need of saving by a white person, and the sidekick who’s first to get killed off. (Disney’s live-action “Mulan” has not struck the same chord because none of its top behind-the-scenes personnel are Asian.)

American music owes everything to Black culture, from the cultural appropriations of Elvis Presley and rock ‘n’ roll, to jazz and R&B, to the reign of rap that permeates popular music all over the planet. Latin music entered the mainstream with stars like Selena, J-Lo, and Shakira. Contemporary dance is shaped almost exclusively by Black and Latinx cultures. From Kehinde Wiley to Maya Lin to Votan Henriquez, our most exciting and inventive visual artists are BIPOC.

Because marketers make it their business to know their demographics, advertisements feature the panoply of America’s population, reflecting the economic power of the multicultural masses. Corporations regularly promulgate their support for equal rights in full-page ads.

Yet, when we look at our nationally elected government, we get a different portrait of America. President Trump’s cabinet and advisers are overwhelmingly white, cisgender, heterosexual males, and photos of him with his staff or supporters show a shocking sea of white.

Of the 100 U.S. senators, only nine are minorities; none are Indigenous or openly LGBTQ. The U.S. Congress is more reflective of the population: 12 percent Black and 1 percent Native American membership mirroring countrywide statistical percentages, whereas Hispanics at 9 percent and Asians 3 percent are roughly half of their numbers of the citizenry.

The president who lost the popular vote and is basing his re-election campaign on overt racism is collaborating with a Senate that does not represent our demographics to move the country away from the diversity that is manifested in our vibrant cultural landscape that celebrates the heterogeneity of our nation.

The country that has long portrayed itself as a shining beacon of democracy has a president who says he will not accept the outcome of the next election unless he wins, and is counting on a hard-right activist Supreme Court which does not reflect popular views to help him steal the election.

It wasn’t until I confronted my cognitive dissonance by embracing the multiplicity of my ethnic identities — Asian, white, and as I have recently discovered through DNA testing, Latinx and Native American — that I was able to reach my greatest potential.

This November, we must confront the cognitive dissonance of a white supremacist government by voting to make America the America we see reflected in our media and culture or say goodbye to the prosperous and powerful country that white Americans have long held so dear.

Alice Stephens is author of the novel Famous Adopted People.

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