Like so many of my peers, I set off a couple years ago to college in Washington, DC, looking to save the world, or at least change it, and promptly found that the world is a bit uncooperative. Unfortunately, there seems to be a glut of well-intentioned young people in pursuit of college degrees and world peace at the moment. To be quite honest, I seem to be a good bit more cynical now than ever before. That cynicism held for my last real class of the semester, in which we would have Maya Soetoro-Ng as a speaker. “She’s only coming to speak because she’s President Obama’s sister,” said my inner snark, which may have been right. However, I was to be blown out of my complacency and ennui by Ms. Soetoro-Ng and her message. The course focused on American identity and the American Muslim community and was taught by Ambassador Prof. Akbar Ahmed. In our explorations of what it means to be American, we had played host to many distinguished visitors who eloquently addressed us; Ms. Soetoro-Ng, in my opinion, now tops the list, and I only wish she taught in DC.
Now, follow this closely: Ms. Soetoro-Ng is an Indonesian-American born in Indonesia to a mostly-Unitarian woman from Kansas, and spent parts of her childhood in Hawai’i before falling in love with salsa and meringue and deciding to learn Spanish. She now identifies as Buddhist and is married to a Malaysian-Chinese-Canadian-American. If anyone is entitled to have an identity crisis, it is Ms. Soetoro-Ng, but she steps gracefully through the shadow of fear of ambiguity and claims that which she loves as her own, regardless. For a class devoted to American identity, the chance to meet this remarkable woman was like no other. For me, as a person trying to figure out my own place in the world and where its limits lie, hearing Ms. Soetoro-Ng speak was highly moving and, above all else, hope-inducing.
Her conception of American identity was simple, yet momentous: America is a place where you can name yourself. It doesn’t matter if people think you’re not black enough, if you can’t fit into anyone else’s neat categorization and be dried and set on a shelf, if you are a person of color or, to use her neat turn of phrase, a “person of less color.” America is where an Indonesian-American can, when she experiences pure love of it, embrace Hispanic culture; America is where a patriot can define himself not by the pin on his lapel, but by the passions in his heart and the “more perfect union” he struggles to bring about. America is where you may be labeled, but you can rip off the label and replace it. America, maybe, is even where a girl “of less color” from Georgia can be a scholar of Islam at a college in DC. This is fine rhetoric- much the same kind of fine rhetoric for which Pres. Obama himself is known, and sometimes criticized- but somehow it cannot be judged disingenuous when coming from Ms. Soetoro-Ng.
Ms. Soetoro-Ng’s message is important to hear, but not easy to accept. As she said herself, there has been a recent trend toward simplification, for safety and for ease. It’s harder to take the time to treat one self and others as the complex beings we are, rather than relying on old standard categories of race, religion, or background. It’s kind of scary to not be able to understand someone quickly, yet Ms. Soetoro-Ng foresees a future in America which resembles some aspects of today’s Hawai’i. Her summary: when you ask someone “what they are”, they list twenty or so different identities…and that’s fine. Ms. Soetoro-Ng hails curiosity as a paramount virtue not to be lost; may America ever wonder, then, and may we never rest until we all have our own names.
Elise Alexander attends American University and is a research assistant for Prof. Akbar Ahmed, Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies.