They don't know our culture exists
I don’t know what my culture is called. My family moved from Finland to the States when I was an adolescent, but calling it Finnish-American doesn’t sit right. I can’t tell you what it is called, but I can tell you its norms.
In this culture, we think twice about who is going to drive because not all friends have papers. U.S. citizenship doesn’t mean arrogant membership in a chosen group, but rather, freedom of movement. You can finally go back and see your grandmother. No legal documents keep you fulfilling residency requirements. It becomes easier to marry the person you want because you have the immigration status to sponsor them.
In my culture, the 35-year-olds have spent fifteen years hashing and rehashing sexual boundaries and liberties. We are answering our own questions that we had at fifteen, at twenty, and telling our younger and present selves, you weren’t sensitive, you were right – that sexual culture was wrong.
We save up our cavities for the good people at University Hospital to practice on, because even on a good day when you’ve got health insurance, have you ever looked at dental insurance? I mean truly.
We need jobs to afford rickety cars, but we can’t get to the job without first having the rickety car. We work two jobs but it doesn’t add up. We’d cut corners but the infrastructure of the country is made for a wealthier middle class and doesn’t cater to us. We’d walk to the supermarket, but there isn’t one. We’d choose to rely on the bus, but it doesn’t go there. If we have no choice but the bus, we just don’t go there.
We’d buy just three sheets of paper but Staples sells everything in units of a hundred.
In my culture, you know there’ll be a little traffic jam on the corner of Woolper and Clifton on Fridays at lunch because it’s Jumaa and people have come to the mosque to pray. Out in the suburbs, you’ll see people walking. They are reaping the rewarding of going to the mosque by foot, alone and in pairs, in subdivisions built for cars.
In my culture, communities search for ways in which to be with one another. Is there anti-Blackness in yours, and what are you doing about it? How are you making space for sexual minorities? Have you talked about mental health?
The culture is nebulous, and I don’t know its beginnings nor its ends. Many of us in it are members of other, parallel cultures, that at times overlap and at times diverge. Perhaps we are united by that constant duality between spaces.
It is also a deeply divided culture, part veering Bernie Sanders, part veering Assata Shakur.
I’ve long known Republicans to be outwardly hostile to the most urgent priorities of my culture and Democrats to pay lip service to these while tied up in lobby money, saying “not now.”
That is why, when I follow Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib, I am struck by a familiarity. I think we might be from the same culture. I think that if I told them about what my culture needs most urgently, they’d already know. They would fit right in at a dinner party at my friend’s house in a way that most representatives would be painfully out of place and out of touch. I think we speak the same language, more than most other representatives.
My faith in the Democratic party as an institution is perhaps downright abysmal. My esteem for some of its individual members is a bit higher, and as of writing this text, my identification factor with many of the recently-elected women in Congress is quite high.
I am not wise enough to fully envision what the changes I want for this country would look like in practice, though I yearn for those I am able to visualize. Nor do I expect savior figures from Congress; I think we must fundamentally question the nation’s raison d’etre, not just polish its surfaces.
But the presence of these women in Congress did give me another momentary glimpse through the smoke-screen of this supposed representative democracy, and made me reflect on the hostility I sense from so many in power. Most representatives haven’t lived a day in my culture. No wonder the priorities, interactions with, and values of most representatives feel so alien and hostile to me. I believe our entire world is at best just an afterthought to them. They barely know we exist, and if they do, they see us as the problem that doesn’t measure up to the system, and never the system as having a single responsibility to meet our needs.
I don’t think I would have to explain that feeling to the women representatives that fit so seamlessly into my life. I think I could just share a knowing look. That that is a novelty says a great deal about the relationship of power to its constituents.