(This blog is from the Summer of 2016.)
We work at the South African Clothing and Textiles Workers Union (SACTWU) with a diverse group of people. Its office is removed from the hustle of downtown life in a part of Cape Town called Woodstock. In these streets there are no peddlers asking for money or American tourists. We are removed from city life, and this removal has made us acutely aware of our identity as Americans.
We quickly had to adapt to a foreign city separated from our peers and leaders. We asked our bosses if they knew the best way to get home, suggesting the taxis (which are more like shuttles) that continuously honk at us on the street. Simon and Etienne turned to each other and responded “That’s not safe–as soon as they hear your accents…”
Before this interaction, we hadn’t really thought about our American accents, at least about the ways they would negatively affect us. We have now become aware of our accents, lowering our voices when we feel unsafe. Instead of using taxis, we decided to navigate the bus system and have become regular commuters on the way home from work, blending in with the other passengers until we open our mouths. Our accents have implications about our identities; even if we don’t feel like tourists, we are perceived as targets.
It is not only that our accents make us stand out in the streets of Cape Town, but our identity as Americans also shapes our interactions with our colleagues. Our first morning at SACTWU, we were taken on a tour of the building, including the clinic SACTWU runs for its members. One woman at the clinic asked us where we were from. When we said the United States, she frowned. She asked us what we were doing at SACTWU, to which we responded “policy research.” She then asked if we had ever done this type of work before. We both nodded, but she still seemed displeased by our presence.
We believe our identity as Americans conjured a certain set of assumptions based on her other interactions with American tourists: that we don’t know anything about South Africa or its history, that we don’t understand the way things work here, that we would bring superiority complexes with us to work each day. These are reasonable assumptions to have and reminded us we are just visitors here with a lot to learn.
This American identity is multifaceted and complex. At a conference we attended, the general secretary of SACTWU had us stand up and identified us as the “American interns.” After the conference a South African consultant who was a panelist eagerly approached us to talk about Texas, Duke, and American life. He was extremely interested in the work we were doing and our life at university. He gave us his business card and told us to call him with any questions. We realized that because we were Americans he perceived us as educated and, in contrast to the woman at the clinic, prepared for our work at SACTWU. We were shocked that depending on personal experience the American monicker attached to our identities resulted in such varying responses.
Each our coworkers refer to us as “the Americans.” All of this attention on our identity has made us self-conscious. Compared to the beautiful South African accents, our accents seem ugly and jarring. No matter how much we wish we could fit in, when we speak we are reminded we are outsiders. We wish we could strip the accents away even cosmetically.
But it’s deeper than that–do we want this identity and its implications of American values? Today we sat in shock as we heard about the deadliest mass shooting in American history: 50 killed and 53 wounded at a popular gay nightclub in Orlando, FL. We support strict gun control laws and a safer United States, especially for marginalized communities. We abhor the actions of our fellow Americans, both mass murderers and the lawmakers who refuse to enact change. However, as soon as we open our mouths we remember we are Americans, too, even if in the face of such tragedy we don’t want to be.
We can’t shed our accents or our nationality. We can’t change the assumptions about Americans overnight. We can, however, be conscious about this identity and its implications and hopefully provide alternatives to negative assumptions. Instead of blindly defending the United States, we can engage in discussions about American principles and recognize our faults. Eventually (especially as public policy majors), we can strive to create ethical policies that reflect positive American values to make the United States worthy of its identity as a global leader. Maybe then we will want to be Americans.