Golden arches, a redhead clown, over a gazillion hamburgers served. McDonald’s — a prime symbol of Corporate America — and a big chunk of my cultural heritage. The white-privilege powers of my childhood wanted such things for me — symbols of progress, financial success, the American Dream. Back then, people believed in The American Dream enough to sacrifice the bulk of their inherited culture to it. The American Dream is a beautiful dream, that’s for sure. It’s a wonderland where if you work hard enough, you can have everything you want, and if you have it, you deserve it. And the more you have, the better off we all are. Growing up, I was told I was part of this dream.
I didn’t realize that when they said “part of it,” they meant I was part of the hired help. The American Dream only fully belongs to elite white men, those born above the glass ceiling who will do anything to stay there, or those few select others willing to sell their souls to get there. The American Dream never really belonged to the rest of us, and it never could. We’re support beams, cooks and cleaners, carpets, ego-props, wanna-be’s. We can try, but most of us aren’t allowed to be anything else, because the American Dream needs a lot of support in order to exist. So the best many can hope for is to be ballast at the bottom of the pyramid. The very best others can hope for is second place, even if they are brilliant and born into privilege.
The culture I inherited is a trademarked, artificial culture, peddled on cereal boxes, milk cartons, and billboards, by housekeeping magazines and smiley television spokesmen. It’s a culture that will feed you laboratory chemicals, and you will like them. You will even ask for them. As I grew, I came to question this culture, reject it, stand against it. That’s one thing the American Dream culture really hates, and I was punished for it, like a sagebrush is punished for sprouting in a suburban yard.
The powers of my childhood wanted me to be a daffodil. I was dressed up and primped, taught the correct placement and usage of dishes and utensils at the table, directed to use polite words and sharply forbidden to use others, and as a girl, thoroughly instructed in the arts of deference and obedience.
No matter how hard they tried, it didn’t stick. I couldn’t be a daffodil, and I couldn’t figure out why. I tried, I really did, but later learned that my efforts were doomed to failure. I was a sagebrush, not a daffodil. Ironically, wild sagebrush, an iconic part of the American west, don’t fit into the American Dream. If domesticated and corralled in ceramic pots or botanic gardens, sagebrush can be tolerated. The best I could hope for was to be tolerated. I was in good company. I was tolerated — or not — along with other mentally ill, with atheists, people of color, indigenous, contemplatives, lesbians, philosophers, and a rainbow of others.
So, rather than keep trying to change who I was, I set out on a journey to reject the American Dream and as much of the culture that went along with it as I possibly could. But what culture was left? What had my parents and grandparents lost by embracing McDonaldsland? In my veins is the blood of Algonquins, Irish Clans, Gauls, and Vikings. Going back far enough, all human beings come from such indigenousness. This indigenousness was the best weapon I had to do battle with McDonaldsland. But how could I embrace it without the culture, language, and connection to my ancestors? What could I do, cut off from my power? How could I survive when the dominant culture was still trying to eradicate sagebrush, even as its unbreakable connection to beautiful things like sage-grouse was becoming apparent?
I’m still asking this question, still digging for clues, still searching for indigenousness, unearthing and embracing snippets of the cultures I lost. And when I find a snippet, I treasure it like a person who finds an unmelted piece of beloved jewelry in the wreckage of their burnt home.