California Forum

My ancestry traces back to the American Revolution. People still ask my nationality

I am an American of African and European descent. On my father’s side, my white great aunt was a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution. On my mother’s side, the timing of our ancestors’ arrival is hidden from us by their enslavement, but we know they were here before the Civil War.

In spite of my family tree’s deep and tangled roots in U.S. soil, I was frequently asked while I was growing up, “What nationality are you?” The phrasing of this question was intended as a politeness. As a biracial person, I was hard for people to categorize. To ask my race seemed rude: What if I thought I was white, and their question implied that I wasn’t? And, aren’t we supposed to be colorblind? But their sense of order demanded to know where to file me.

In asking me my nationality, my schoolmates may have intended to be polite, but the question never landed that way. When I was asked what nationality I was, I learned that because I was not fully white, I could not fully belong in the only country I had. My status as American was always going to be questioned, interrogated, investigated and called into doubt. This would be true of me and not of my white friends, even though some of their grandparents and even parents were immigrants.

Donald Trump – whose paternal grandparents and mother were immigrants – has recently suggested that congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaib should “go back” to their countries. These women have expressed deep animosity toward Trump and his administration’s policies. In turn, Trump has responded that if they don’t like it here, they should leave.


At a rally, his supporters told Trump what he should do to Omar, who came to the United States as a young refugee from Somalia: “Send her back!” Although all four congresswomen are American citizens and three were born here in the U.S., Trump and his followers don’t seem ready to accept that America really is their country.

The confusion demonstrated by Trump and his supporters shares a common root with that of my classmates who asked about my nationality. An ironic result of substituting “nationality” for “race” in the name of politeness has been to reinforce associations of whiteness with American nationality, a reality that remains unexamined for many Americans. Where we might have understood ourselves as Americans of varying hues, heritages, religions and cultural practices, too many of us have instead understood whites as Americans and everyone else as some other nationality.

Emily Bruce.jpg

hate” not be told

Those of us whose American nationality is up for question are told to take whatever we get and be grateful for it, or leave. Clearly, dissent carries different implications depending on who is doing the dissenting.

If we really think about our American principles and values, we must recognize that the presumption of American nationality cannot be tied to color, and the scope and robustness of one’s American nationality must be the same for all.

The congresswomen Trump verbally attacked have every right to criticize him, his administration, the Democratic congressional leadership, capitalism and anything else they consider unjust, harmful or ill-advised. Agree with them or not, they are free to argue strenuously and pointedly against policies and politicians they disagree with. Any consequence of doing so must come in the form of election results, not a one-way ticket to another country.

Emily Bruce is director of Equity and Inclusion, Student Services, at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law.
Related stories from Sacramento Bee