Through the 1990s and 2000s, there was a sense that the America could only progress in one direction — which was to become more and more egalitarian, inclusive and tolerant.
Anything remotely racist couldn't come near the surface of the table, and when it had a hint of implication, the society flipped to condemn the moral depravity of the 'racist' in question. There was no chance an openly racist person could expect to keep a job or save his or her face in public, not unlike a registered sex offender.
Having moved to the US in 1993, I found the strong ethos of egalitarianism, inclusion and tolerance palpable in the air the most striking feature of American society. Through class discussions of writings by Martin Luther King Jr., I was taught what racism was and why it was wrong. I quickly learned what being politically correct meant — to not say 'Merry Christmas' to my classmates, but 'Happy Holidays' so that those who don't celebrate Christmas won't feel left out and feel included. There was no longer one dominant norm, but several different norms that were to be honored and respected as an individual right and choice. On the night of September 11th, I was touched when my university was quick to warn students to not scapegoat Muslims, but to turn to the rhetoric of tolerance.
As the world became more globalized and connected via the development of internet and technology through the 2000s and contact and exposure to different cultures became more accessible, the ethos of egalitarianism, inclusion and tolerance seemed to intensify across America. Heritage was something to be celebrated and to be proud of, rather than to hide or be shed. Being ethnic was now considered hip and beautiful, and having an international and diverse group of friends was to be one's source of pride for being cosmopolitan, savvy and global. It was my American friends who perceived me as 'American' before I started perceiving myself as 'American.' It was them who showed me appreciation for my heritage and encouraged me to express and celebrate it openly, when I had an urge to hide and shed it.
My journey of integration and coming to feel a sense of belonging to American society would have been much different, hadn’t such openness — that you can be celebrated for who you are — embraced me. I came to be proud of a society in which the values of inclusion, tolerance and equality were not just a lip service, but a practice of everyday life. And in this sense, I came to develop a sense of belonging and emotional identification with America and came to feel American.
However, the ethos across America shifted dramatically in the last few years: Now the racists, who could never dare to show their true face, felt ballsy enough to be openly racist and be 'tolerated' by the society for exercising their 'right to free speech'. People started complaining that they were 'tired' of being ‘politically correct’ and not being able to say 'what they really think.'
The shift in the ethos was so sudden that the last fifty years worth of progress and how far we have come since the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s seemed to crumble to nothingness overnight. It was as if the world was helplessly and incredulously watching the rapid destruction of its civilization, so painstakingly earned over the last decades, with not enough weight to counter the shift.
Why the shift now?
Carl Jung in Modern Man in Search of a Soul observed the following: 'The World War was such an irruption which showed, as nothing else could, how thin are the walls which separate a well-ordered world from lurking chaos. But it is the same with every single human being his reasonably ordered world. His reason has done violence to natural forces which seek their revenge and only await the moment when the partition falls to overwhelm the conscious life with destruction. Man has been aware of this danger since the earliest times, even in the most primitive stages of culture.’
My journey of integration into American society would have unfolded much differently, had I arrived in America as a teenager now. For one thing, I couldn't have developed a sense of belonging and emotional identification with America without the strong ethos of inclusion, egalitarianism and tolerance that embraced me and made me believe in the values that America stood for and made me feel proud of being American.