Sometimes a Citizen

Definition seems to on our minds lately here at The SuperSpade. A question that has been in my mind recently is: at what times do you claim to be a citizen of the US, or claim to be an american? at what times do you reject one or both of those labels? This is a question of self-definition and/or self-identification. Basically, it is another way of asking, who are you?

This question came to me as I was talking to a co-worker about the perception of US citizens in other countries/communities around the world. My statement was something to the effect of: “As americans, we experience a lot of ‘luxuries’ due to the often malicious pracices of the US.” She stopped me after this statement and commented on how quickly/easily I referred to myself as an american. This was odd to her because she’s never heard me refer to myself as an ‘African American’ (I usually say Black instead). My response to her was that in this context, I would be considered an american to most people if I were to travel abroad; when they saw me, they may likely interpret me as an american or a representative of america, regardless of whether that is true or fair. Also, as a resident here, there are things that we ‘benefit’ from due to US foreign policy (e.g ‘less expensive’ prices on oil compared to its price in other nations, although our US oil companies are still making money hand over fist).

I suspect that there are many other instance where I, and other people, will claim membership to various groups when it “makes sense” or is advantageous. An example of this is when we are in court, accused of something. Most times, we talk about our constitutional rights as citizens to have a fair trial in front of an impartial jury. Conversely, there are times when we reject the notion of being american. An example of this is when some people are confronted with a decision/opportunity to join the military. The sentiment is at times, “I’m not american enough to fight for it.”

How/when do you embrace or refer to yourself as an american? As an African American? As whatever? Is it a mere question of convenience? Is it context-specific (whatever will best support the point you’re trying to make)?

For many Black people [in America], this subject is just one manifestation of how complex our identities are due to our history. However, I’d argue that this actually is true for any group of willingly/unwillingly displaced peoples. The fact that the physical displacement took place many years ago does not make this any easier to figure out for Black people in america than it does for the sons/daughters of first generation immigrants (let me be clear on the fact that the immigrant experience and the Black experience are not the same, we can talk about this in a later piece). Are they americans, whole members of the culture their parents left, or are they some complex combination? The answer is the latter in my view most of the time, but that’s tough to define. I embrace the complex combo notion because it is the most inclusive and because it does not neglect past cultural foundations. It is risky to me in some cases (e.g. Black vs. African American) because the result is often times more assimilation as opposed to addition, in this view.

Using myself as an example, my goal is to embrace history, apply it appropriately to the present, using both to build an advantageous future for myself, my loved ones, and strangers at large. This can be interpreted as a complex goal, that celebrates both yesterday’s and today’s triumphs and tribulations. Choosing what to celebrate is what in my opinion leads me [and any/everyone else] to sometimes embrace our citizenship in america, and other times to minimalize it. In the case of me being a citizen when I’m in court, I’m embracing “american ideals (which are unfortunately often times not in line with american reality, but that is another discussion…).” In the case of military service, I am choosing to celebrate the struggle of my ancestors in america who did enough service for any Black person today to not even need to think about “serving their country” in the army, navy, or marines.

Knowledge of self is basic need. In order to meet this need, we need to ask ourselves these questions and understand our own answers. Everyone doesn’t need to have the same answer, but everyone needs to have an answer. Let’s help one another meet our basic needs, for the betterment of us all.

One Love. One II.



About Garlin Gilchrist II

I am the City of Detroit's first ever Deputy Technology Director for Civic Community Engagement. My job is to open up the city's public data and information for the consumption and benefit of all Detroiters. I currently live in Detroit, my hometown, with my beautiful wife Ellen and our twins Garlin III and Emily Grace. I'm from Detroit. I created Detroit Diaspora, and was formerly the National Campaign Director at I also co-hosted The #WinReport on "The Good Fight," a an award winning, nationally syndicated radio show that was one of Apple's Best of 2013. After graduating with degrees in Computer Engineering and Computer Science from the University of Michigan, I became a Software Engineer at Microsoft. By day, I helped build SharePoint into the fastest growth product in the company's history. On my personal time, I sought out opportunities to connect my technical skills with community building efforts across the country. This led to my co-founding The SuperSpade: Black Thought at the Highest Level, a leading Black political blog. I served as Social Media Manager for the 2008 Obama campaign in Washington, and then became Director of New Media at the Center for Community Change. I spent two years creating and implementing a strategy for the Center to take it's 40 years of community organizing experience into the digital age. I speak before diverse audiences on effective & responsive government, empowerment in revolutionary new organizing spaces, increasing civic engagement & participation through emerging technologies and protecting civil rights in the age of the Internet. Full bio here.

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