I’d never really been a proud American—until Donald Trump was elected president. Let me explain.
By the time I understood what it meant to be American (besides being able to buy a Coca-Cola sweater and Guess jeans in middle school), I was tuning in to Ronald Reagan talk about “trickle-down” economics. Even as a preteen, I knew that “trickle down” as an economic policy sounded suspiciously off. I now know it was delusional.
In college and law school, when I was in India or anywhere other than the United States, I would go along with the standard conversations: “Yes, Americans are embarrassing”; “Yes, the US government has caused tremendous harm across the globe”; “Yes, many Americans are racist”—feeling relief and superiority in my ability to use my Indian heritage as a way to deny my American identity. Looking back, my embarrassment about America was in part a reflection of how I felt in this country.
As I grew up, I constantly walked a tightrope of acceptance and rejection—of being seen and not—in everything I did. I hated that tightrope and the elements of the country that created it.
When Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, I exhaled a sigh of relief. Electing a Black president—now there’s something to be proud of. As elated as I was, I still felt like Obama won in spite of Americans, not because of them. I was proud of President Obama and his family, but still very suspicious of America.
On November 9, 2016, the day after Donald Trump was elected, I was openly crying at work, my stomach in a permanent double knot. I kept asking “Why?” and “How could this happen?” My feet wanted to walk, but I had nowhere to go. A whole-body shutdown.
Now I know why. The election of Trump broke my heart. It turns out I had loved the United States from the beginning. The fact that America was not enthusiastically ready to love me or the people I love back made my feelings easy to ignore. There is a lot of pain in loving something so flawed—a country so far from what it aspired to be and what it could be.
During his presidential bid, Sen. Cory Booker said, “If America hasn’t broken your heart, you don’t love [America] enough.” On November 9, 2016, my heart was hammered into small pieces, and I knew I loved America more than ever.
To love my country is not to unconditionally accept it; it means working toward what is just. Because I love America and Americans, I am willing to fight to make the idea of America real, make democracy real, make justice real. I will not give in to cynicism or anger, and I will not give up.
Rep. John Lewis’ legacy is a guiding light: America, you’re mine and I’m yours. Together let’s build a more perfect union, till death do us part.