Why loving America is hard when America’s love is unequal.
I love my country.
When I was a child I canvassed door to door for George McGovern. I must have been incredibly cute in strawberry blond pigtails with my patent leather Mary Jane’s and, my basket full of red, white and blue pamphlets, and strawberry blond pigtails knocking on doors in Southern California. I had listened to the evening news with Walter Cronkite every night of my short little life and as that generation did, I believed mighty conviction meant ‘right.’ The power of my manifest belief in truth, even at that early age, would make the world a better place, and so I knocked on doors in my little conservative military town and handed out leaflets in spite of the overwhelming odds.
We lost, but still…I was living the American Dream.
I was proud of my country and being able to participate in her democracy.
I had grown up speaking both Spanish and English. Various nannies, a border town, and a mixed school system meant exposure to a culture other than mine at birth. I learned to sing in Spanish and then to cook in Spanish. I loved the land of soft- spoken women to the south. I spent many weekends thirty miles down the road, across an unseen border, in a foreign country eating queso fresco,tortillas hecho a mano and avocados. I returned home to San Diego during the weekdays to study and learn in a community as lily white as my lace socks.
And still, I loved my country.
Several years later, in 1976 my mother married the doctor stepdad who landed us in the upper class. I proudly marched in our small town’s the Bicentennial parade as one of ‘Uncle Sam’s Sweethearts.’ My new daddy’s name was ‘Sam’ and so it was a play on names. I sewed red, white and blue gathered skirts with elastic bands like I had learned in Home Ec class at the expensive private school I now attended. My new doctor daddy rode in his convertible Corvette while the big brass band played and we waved to our less affluent admirers along the parade route. The gardeners and maids of our community, brown like the Southern California earth, stood on the sidelines and cheered for the American dream they believed was their children’s birthright.
I marched for my country.
Several years later I went on my first independent European trip with Scholastic International and joined hundreds of students studying the arts, history and the literature of Western Civilization. I studied the ancient cultures and languages of a thousand years with my compatriots. By the end of our travels, I was still sure that America was the greatest country in the entire world. I traveled for the next several decades every chance I could get, and to anywhere I could afford a plane ticket. At the end of each trip I would think, “Well, that was fun, but…”
I still loved my country best of all.
In my twenties, I ended up arguing with an Irish limericist (yes, it is a real job) in Prague about political systems while downing pints in an expat bar. He argued that America was just a pretender to the Democratic ideal and that Sweden and Denmark (among others) far surpassed our level of democracy in covenant, law and action. I fought bitterly throughout that Guinness- fueled night defending America’s honor.
“We truly believe,” I insisted, “that all men and women are created equally regardless of race, religion or sexual orientation.”. “We truly believe,” I espoused, “that justice will prevail and the truth will win”. Despite the fact that he mopped me up off the bar that night with his lyrical eloquence, I was still certain that my country followed that ideal of perfect democracy.
I still believed that America was the best country ever.
I married my daughter’s father. Right up until the end of our brief union, when he falsely accused me of child abuse in order to “win” our divorce, and the court system upheld his claim, I believed that our justice system was blind to privilege. At that pivotal moment I realized that just because you believe something does not make it so. You can have the strength of conviction and can even have the truth on your side, but courts do not see anything beyond who has the most money or the best lawyer.
I fought back via the justice system throughout the next year; fighting doggedly against every expensive legal obstacle lobbed in my path in order to get my children back. I had to believe that just because he hid our joint assets and was siphoning equity to pay his legal fees (while mine escalated like our national debt) it didn’t mean that he would necessarily win. I was ordered by the court to vacate our home and I found refuge living with friends in the inner city of Baltimore. It was in this environment that I trained and worked as a conflict mediation coordinator. I did voluntary mediation for my community and eventually managed to get my own divorce routed through mediation, but not before it had escalated past six digits. I lost one child but kept the other. My children and I also lost our innocence.
I still continued to love my country but I resolved to work harder to educate myself to the battles those less privileged than I were still fighting.
I now look at that battle I faced against a false accusation of child abuse as part of my learning curve. I learned more in the year I spent battling for my children, than I had in my entire lifetime. I watched, learned and even mediated cases where justice had been blind to everything but color. Some were successes, some were not. Most were seeking resolution and had a common denominator of justice not being served for the clients’ families or for their children. Most had the common denominator of a criminal and civil justice system that left families and individual lives splintered and torn apart.
Most people are never able to rebound from experiences like mine. I was resilient. I was strong. I was articulate and never stopped fighting but the biggest factor was that I was white and I had money. I had a huge advantage by believing that I would prevail because I had spent an entire lifetime living with that absolute reality, and knowing that I could make a difference because I was educated, affluent, articulate and yes, most importantly white.
I became keenly aware that my country did not provide the same opportunities for all her children.
In 2008 we elected our first person of color to our highest office in an overwhelming mandate of change. and then in 2015 Marriage Equality passed in a landmark decision by the Supreme Court. I kept my children out of school to watch the 2008 inauguration. In 2015, when Marriage Equality passed in a landmark decision by the Supreme Court, I wept tears of relief that my children would grow up in a country where you had the right to marry whomever you chose. For the first time ever, I believed that my generation might be on the right side of history.
This past year I watched my eldest daughter, now seventeen, compete at the National High School Mock Trial Competition, and win the second ranked attorney in the entire country. After watching these thousands of bright and enthusiastic faces, I had a new hope for what we could make our legal system into. Her father and I sat hand in hand for the entire competition and watched together as she was awarded the honor she had worked so hard to earn. “I did that”, I thought. “I made that happen.”. I made our dysfunctional splintered family work and forged a support system for her out of the ashes of a destructive divorce and family-unfriendly court decisions.
I look at where we are right now in this country, the country I love so much. Our justice system is flawed. Our legal system is anything but colorblind. Our political system is controlled by means and money. Our judicial system is not impervious to influence, but another cog in the machine that keeps privilege firmly in its place and disenfranchises those who do not have it. The forty-fifth president of the United States recently decided to further exploit institutional white privilege by ending Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) which protects children of undocumented workers from being thrown back into a country and culture most of them have never known. The bottom line is most of these DREAMers are less than the lily white color our judicial system favors, most do not have a spare six figures to hire the best immigration lawyer available, and most of them also love the only home they remember with the same purity that I did at their age.
I have always loved this country but I want to love it more. I believe we can be better. I know we can certainly do better. I know this country is capable of such greatness, of such strength, of such resiliency. I want to see all of us, live in a country where justice is truly colorblind and not just given lip service as an intellectual concept but to actually work towards equality as an ideal worth reaching. I am willing to work towards a future in my country where privilege is no longer assured on the simply on the basis of one’s their skin color, because I deeply love my children, and the country that they will inherit. Someday I hope my daughter can write a promising epilogue to this story that states, “Now our America is a land that belongs to all of the people in equal measure, not just to the people that could afford to buy the dream.”
This is the country that I love, but I want her to belong to all of her children.
All of them.
Executive Chef Gretchen Hanson is an award winning chef who coincidentally happens to be vegan. She is currently taking a gap year to travel and spend time with her daughters. Follow her culinary adventures at www.chefgretchenhanson.com or on Facebook. Her cookbook “When It’s done: The Making of a Chef” will be released this year. Contact her at chefgretchen (at) gmail (dot) com for lectures, teaching, cooking engagements, or just to send airfare.