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Inheriting America

Jonathan F. Cooper
March 06, 2019

USA MapI was 16 when my parents relocated our family to the United States from the United Kingdom. Not having a choice in the matter, my brother and I shared the certain peculiar experience—one that I’m sure is universal to most immigrants—of the distress of leaving all that is familiar coupled with the curious optimism for that which may lay ahead.

Though we probably weren’t aware at the time, moving to the United States comprises a set of experiences unlike any other move we could have undertaken. Unbeknownst to us, we were now partakers in the grand American Dream, and all that comes with it. Like many immigrants we reveled in noticing things we perceived as distinctly American—yellow school buses, American cheese, and Walmart, to name a few.

However, unlike many immigrants, we had no new language to learn. Unless we engaged in a conversation of more than a few words, nobody had any reason to question our presence. Thanks to the Book of Common Prayer, our transition from the Church of England to The Episcopal Church was just a matter of accents. Though we might have worried about driving on the wrong side of the road, we never anxiously looked over our shoulders while driving, and we were certainly never singled out for “additional screening” by the TSA.

At best, we were a curiosity. At worst, we had to deal with Monty Python or Beatles references.

During February, Black History Month, I was pondering in particular the words of James Baldwin, after watching the film I Am Not Your Negro as part of a lunch series here at The Episcopal Church Center. A recurring theme in Baldwin’s speaking and writing is the notion that Black America is not simply a “ward” or responsibility of white America—rather black Americans are in fact the rightful heirs to a fair share of the society that their ancestors helped build.

How unfair it is then, that my integration into this country—including the hurdles of border security, background checks, green card applications, and eventual naturalization—be so comparatively easy? Seemingly, things are much better today than they were at the height of the civil rights movement, and yet evidently much work is still needed. I am grateful to be a part of a Church that prioritizes racial reconciliation and acknowledges—and seeks atonement for—its sins of the past. I am grateful for NAES and the upcoming work we will be doing to launch a network for diversity practitioners in our schools. But I still can’t shake the feeling of not doing enough to justify my easy inheritance of a life in this great country.

Developing a positive white identity, one that is not derived from or linked to white supremacy, is an increasingly common goal in independent education. NAIS identifies a key challenge for well-meaning white parents—that while their intention is to “convey to their children the belief that race shouldn’t matter, the message their children receive is that race, in fact, doesn’t matter.” Even though that sentiment is of a noble intention, the end result is one that perpetuates the subtle (and often not so subtle) systems of discrimination and avoids facing the challenge directly. Episcopal schools, however, are in an optimum position to tackle challenging issues such as this head-on. Alongside the efforts of the Church and NAES, many schools are already addressing this issue. Stephen Hebert, then a chaplain at St. Mark’s School in Southborough, MA, documented one such effort to foster racial self-awareness in a November 2017 post to the NAES blog, which I invite you to read here.

One of the blessings of Black History Month, particularly in examining the civil rights movement, is in reminding ourselves that our lives today are utterly inseparable from history—and a very recent history at that. As an immigrant, discovering exactly how I fit into that history has been a long process. Becoming a naturalized citizen in 2017 seemed like the final hurdle in that journey—now I realize it was only the beginning.

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