Yearning to breathe free

Gaining citizenship, losing confidence

4 minute read
Please join us in formally welcoming Citizen Corley. (Photo by Maria Thompson Corley)
Please join us in formally welcoming Citizen Corley. (Photo by Maria Thompson Corley)

I didn't vote in the election. I tried to, though, spending $680 to apply for citizenship in the hope that my application would be processed in time. I fell just short, receiving my certificate a month after the voter registration deadline, a very disappointing result. I have limited disposable income, a large part of the reason I'd waited so long, but after going on 25 years as a resident alien, I became so concerned about the possibility that Trump might win the presidency that I decided it was important to have the right to do more about the situation than just comment on Facebook.

Winter is coming

Speaking of Facebook, my initial comment on November 9 was, “First line of my new online dating profile: Canadian citizen...” Which means the only border wall I could potentially expect to deal with (according to an internet joke) would be the Canadian ice wall. It also means that, unlike most people claiming they're about to head to Canada, in theory, I can actually follow through.

I say in theory because with local personal and professional ties, a mortgage, and two children — one a commuter student in a college program that suits her perfectly, the other an 11th grader in a high school where his diagnosis of autism hasn't stood in the way of being treated with universal respect and affection — the decision to leave would be momentous. Still, the more I learn about the president-elect's inner circle, the more uneasy I become about having put down roots here.

My citizenship interview took place in a gritty, predominantly African-American neighborhood one subway stop away from 30th Street Station, its high ceilings and marble walls announcing the promise of a city full of beauty and grandeur. As I walked to and from my appointment, I wondered if the people I saw standing in doorways of the shabby stores that lined Market Street were experiencing the opportunity and hope that continue to draw so many to these shores.

A symbolic homogeneity

The Lancaster, Pennsylvania courtroom where I was sworn in, along with 48 other new U.S. citizens, was similarly grand, a fleur-de-lis-painted dome above the judge's bench, and on the walls portraits of what I assumed to be eminent justices draped in formal robes, their uniformly white faces peering down on the overwhelmingly non-white crowd below. As I waited for the ceremony to begin, I noticed that every one of the congenial officials present was white. I was struck by the symbolism of the racially homogeneous power structure, seeing it as a throwback to the 1950s, the era, based on his appointees to date, that Trump seems to be intent on replicating.

Although some of Trump's supporters are openly racist, let's assume that most of the people who voted for him aren't; for example, some are single-issue voters who are against abortion. Maybe those who mentioned economic concerns as the reason for their vote were seeking opportunities for everyone. But I can't help suspecting too many are invested in the idea that white America, and particularly white men, should be first in line.

It's ridiculous to pretend we don't notice skin color or gender when we admit to noticing hair color, height, and weight. My problem isn't with our inability to be colorblind, it's with the persistent tendency to associate weight, height, hair color, race, gender, sexual orientation, and disability (I may have forgotten something) with inherent positive and negative traits, and, by extension, inherent privileges granted to one group, to the exclusion of relatively few, outstanding exceptions in the others.

What's next?

A day of mixed emotions. (Photo courtesy of Maria Thompson Corley)
A day of mixed emotions. (Photo courtesy of Maria Thompson Corley)

I realize the democratic process means there will always be a segment of society whose views are less represented. That said, the underlying spirit of a healthy democracy is demonstrated by the people we choose to represent us. There were plenty of people who voted for President Obama for reasons that had nothing to do with his race. There were undoubtedly plenty of people who voted for President-Elect Trump for reasons that have nothing to do with his race.

Whether or not you agree with Obama's policies, however, I think you have to agree that he has represented the nation with dignity and reserve. On the other hand, Trump's demeanor has tended toward vulgarity and impulsiveness. His inner circle could have been chosen to moderate his flaws; instead, he picked Steve Bannon, whose website is certainly vulgar and General Flynn, who has spoken impulsively. We'll see how Jeff Sessions handles civil rights cases — I'm hopeful that the hate crime designation will continue to exist, but I wouldn't be shocked if it disappeared.

The result? Even though I officially belong in this country, my place in it feels precarious, more so with each additional hate crime. I've often wondered how I would have survived the Civil Rights Era. I hope I won't have to find out.

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