“American Girl” and what that actually means

One of the things I’m doing with my daughter Siren this year is using American Girl books and short documentaries to teach her about migration patterns into the US. This to make clear three things. One, the first Americans are indigenous Americans, the only Americans who are “from” America. Two, those we credit with “founding” America were not founders or even settlers but colonialists. Three, that there is really nothing remarkable about later 20th and 21st century immigration, compared to immigration from the 19th and early 20th centuries, because immigration has always been responsible for population growth and demographic shifts in the US.

I did not feel that way as a child. I always felt so unlike my peers in Madison for having a mother from another country, particularly one typed as “exotic” as the Philippines. I’m ashamed to admit it, but there were a number of times in childhood that I was embarrassed to be Filipino. Although my mother is significantly assimilationist, preferring to speak English with me at home (and now my Tagalog sucks!) and integrating with the locals, it was still made clear to me by the microaggressions of my peers that my family was foreign. We were not “from” America in the way that their families were.

Here’s the ironic thing, and what I would like Siren to take away from this. Our family may have recently immigrated, and immigrated from a Southeast Asian nation rather than a North European one. That these are markers of status is a consequence of institutionalized bias, and white supremacy. That is where the internalized shame of being an immigrant came from. The US is full of immigrants, almost entirely at this point. That not all immigrants are created equal is not a reflection on where we come from.

So, today, Siren and I will be learning about Kirsten, whose family came to Minnesota from Sweden by way of a big boat and Ellis Island. Having grown up in Wisconsin, I teach her this migration pattern with a smirk on my face. Grandchildren of women like Kirsten, descendants of Norwegian and Swedish and German immigrants in the 1800s, would grow up to make fun of the numerous Hmong, Filipino, and Mexican immigrants now settling in the Upper Midwest.

I hope Siren is never ashamed to have a grandmother with an accent the way that I was. Hopefully learning about migration patterns will empower her to disengage with shame.

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