The answer seems obvious enough; if you were born here or you live here, you qualify. And yet, the answer is constantly up for debate.
Directors Katharine Round and Ben Steele released a short film via The Guardian, centered around the city of Dearborn, Michigan. They provide five drastically different stories of life in the city, each story attempting to define American identity. Dearborn is particularly intriguing in how it grapples with this; it is home to the largest Arab American population and the largest mosque in the states. In addition, the impoverished population is overwhelmingly white.
Unsurprisingly, the documentary begins shortly after Trump’s presidency began; the contrast between the five individuals lies primarily in how the presidency affects them. For women like Sarah and Suehaila, feeling unaccepted by a community is almost commonplace. As the child of immigrants, Sarah remarks the sense of appreciation for America that the immigrant experience instills. Her parents left war in Lebanon to pursue a better life, and given that she has just graduated law school, it is evident that that pursuit was successful. She claims her American identity proudly; per the aforementioned definition, she was born here and feels that origin should not affect one’s right to that claim. Nevertheless, she notes that Muslims now experience an oppression of the mind here, as they are not allowed to freely be themselves.
As a child of immigrants myself, it is difficult to watch her story downplayed and invalidated by other voices in the documentary. They 'otherize' those who are Muslim, and admittedly see them as a potential threat. Conservative citizens like Bob Dutko are vehement in their disagreement with Islam, and describe violence as inherent in the religion. Another citizen, Rob, echoes the claim that undeserving people overseas are employed over those living an “American life.” He claims that discrimination is exercised towards him for his allegiance to Trump and that he wants the country to exist as it was “designed to be.”
His claim of an America “designed to be” a particular way is not too far-fetched. History demonstrates the systematization of white privilege. Whether in our incarceration rates, salary margins, or employment opportunities, there is constant reassurance that white lives are of greater value. For Dutko and Rob, the presidency has aired the concern that being American demands a singular narrative.
This documentary is a difficult watch. The horror stories of history emerge as an established part of our present. And yet, it ends with a montage of mass protest against the mentality that being American must fit a given schema. Dearborn, Michigan is a snapshot of a much larger conversation; immigrants should not have to prove that they are American. The idea of an American having a single race, religion, or class is apparently dominant, and as the film demonstrates, is dangerous. For women like Sarah, Suehaila, and myself, the need to reform that archetype is more imminent than ever.