Trigger warning: post-election thoughts included

Between my friends and family, we covered all the bases on the ballot. We named every possible candidate in our loudest voices, watched the numbers, and reacted in kind. The people I hold closest rarely, if ever, agree on politics.

On a spectrum, I’ve witnessed: violence, anger, fear, frustration, sadness, concern, insecurity, curiosity, ambivalence, relief, support, hope, joy, certainty, celebration. I’ve witnessed them all, just among the people I know, in response to this year’s election.

Of course I wish there was more consensus about what the “right” decision might have been, but I’m also grateful for the discord.

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We need people to challenge the way we think. We need to know that there are opinions floating around in the universe that differ from our own, and we need those opinions to confront us, to offend us, to take up residence in our minds and drive us temporarily insane and sometimes even into action. Growth is painful, whether physical or psychological. It requires discomfort.

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Taking these differences of opinions and of people into consideration–– their necessity for growth and for our country’s existence as we know it–– has left a question rattling around my mind.

Many of the disagreements I’ve witnessed touch on rights and privileges, about what is deserved and required of different groups of citizens and non-citizens. But I think we take for granted the notion that when we say “citizen,” there’s some common ground. We think we have a shared understanding of what that means. But do we?

That term “citizen” has transformed over the course of history, even over the lifespan of this country. It’s been restricted by gender, socioeconomic status, race, sexual orientation, religion, ability, birthplace–– you name it. Any method human beings have found to distinguish amongst themselves has had its moment of fame as a defining factor of citizenship. For all our differences, when we talk about citizens I don’t know what we mean today.

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For some, this is an easy question. Born on U.S. soil. I was born to a non-American mother (at the time) and American father, but I was considered American by birthplace. Others have to rely on certain skill sets. Healthcare professionals, for example, have an easier time getting “citizenship” in a country with an aging population.

It gets confusing. If I decide to stay abroad, I can continue to hold my American citizenship. I can continue to hold it even if I commit treason, because I was born in America. But what would then make me more “citizen” than somebody who has risked everything and crossed borders for a desire to live in America? Let’s take out risk even. What about somebody who just wants to live and work in and for America? What makes them less “citizen” than somebody who shirks their civic duties? Should a born-in-America “citizen” who decides not to participate in or keep track of American politics be allowed to remain “citizen,” when somebody else more eager to participate is denied the possibility?

Should somebody who disdains their country still be considered a citizen? Should political action and involvement beyond jury duty be a requirement? How about somebody who is physically or mentally unable to fulfill certain civic responsibilities? Does religion come into play, or sexual orientation? Do those things make it more difficult for a person to enjoy the liberties and exercise the duties inherent in citizenship?

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I’m asking these questions because it seems like we’re keen on reminding each other that the United States was built by every kind of person. “American” is wide-ranging and  can include anything from the melting pot or the tossed salad. And yet over the course of history we’ve had no trouble finding ways to define, distinguish and restrict.

I’m watching international coverage of riots and endorsements and thinking that a lot of what’s at stake is “the citizenry.” Whether we’re saying it or not, a citizen has all the rights and the responsibilities, to things like legal unions and protection by law enforcement, and many groups of people are wondering whether or not they’ll be included. With the struggles, arguments and discomfort characteristic of growth, I’d like to know what it is we’re growing towards, what America made of and for which people.

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