Despite being central to U.S. national identity and foreign policy, the concept of American exceptionalism does not seem to have a simple definition. In my own experience, I have heard Americans of various backgrounds define it in general terms such as “democracy,” “diversity,” and “freedom,” as though these are uniquely American qualities.
I find these broad definitions problematic. The United States is not the only country blessed with freedom, democracy, and diversity—and there is a lot it can learn about these qualities from its far less powerful and wealthy neighbors in Latin America and the Caribbean.
I was born in Trinidad and Tobago and lived there for almost 18 years. In 2010, I proudly became a U.S. citizen and a year later left the Caribbean twin-island nation for quaint, picturesque Maine. Over the past five years I have lived, studied, and worked in the United States.
“The United States is not the only country blessed with freedom, democracy, and diversity—and there is a lot it can learn about these qualities from its far less powerful and wealthy neighbors in Latin America and the Caribbean.”
I have come to believe there are a number of structural and cultural features that make the United States exceptional. Americans attach great pride and value to their country’s democratic ideals, its impressive history and wealth, and its unique position of influence in the world. The United States’ strong institutions, extraordinary human capital, and immense natural assets make it a magnet for ambitious individuals from around the world seeking inspiration and opportunity.
Exceptionalism, however, is not the same as perfection, and the United States is certainly far from perfect. At times, that same power, wealth, and pride serve as the country’s greatest weaknesses. The trope characterizing the United States as a “shining city on a hill” makes the country blind to the fact that the outside world, and the billions of people who hail from it, cannot be defined, appreciated, or respected within the confines of American stereotypes.
Being a dual citizen, I perceive both the United States and Trinidad and Tobago to be exceptional in their own ways. Given the difference between these two countries’ geographic size, economies, militaries, and human and natural resources, it is easy to point out advantages the United States has over Trinidad and Tobago. But at the same time, these advantages distract from some of the United States’ deepest flaws.
In 2016, America’s age-old struggles with racial fragmentation, inequality, and injustice are bubbling to the surface, and a major political party’s nominee for president proposes implementing immigration bans and surveillance programs against members of a major world religion. Systemic discrimination and violence against groups of people based on their race or religion is antithetical to America’s founding ideals, and it is in dealing with these serious problems that the United States can learn a great deal from Trinidad and Tobago.
“However, a country can celebrate its history as a melting pot and still fail to grant its different groups true equality. The United States is a prime example: certain demographic groups control disproportionate amounts of wealth and influence.”
Trinidad and Tobago and the United States have many historical similarities. Both countries’ histories are rooted in European colonialism, the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and numerous waves of immigration by people seeking refuge from poverty and violence. Trinidad and Tobago is much more diverse—boasting 40 percent of its population from East India, 37.5 percent from Africa, and 20.5 percent mixed—but the United States has long been a cultural melting pot as well.
However, a country can celebrate its history as a melting pot and still fail to grant its different groups true equality. The United States is a prime example: certain demographic groups control disproportionate amounts of wealth and influence.
In Trinidad and Tobago, however, power and control are much more divided among racial groups, and with the absence of an ethnic majority, interethnic cooperation and interaction are essential to both national development and everyday life. For example, each of the two major political parties, the People’s National Movement and the United National Congress, have political bases rooted in African and East Indian ethnic identities, respectively, but cannot win an election without broader intersectional support. White and Middle Eastern citizens possess vastly disproportionate amounts of economic capital, but they cannot run successful businesses without the cooperation of a government, workforce, and consumer base that is truly representative of the society at large. And while ethnic neighborhoods exist, these communities and their residents are inextricably integrated and connected to the rest of the country. This stands in stark contrast to the United States, where the wounds of segregation are alive and well, and where, in some communities, a non-white friend, neighbor, colleague, or even president is treated as a novelty or as a source of fear and resentment.
But historically-shaped power dynamics and demographics only go so far in explaining the ways in which Trinidad and Tobago is exceptional in its approach to diversity. Growing up there, from a young age I was instilled with the belief that my country—and the world—was made up of a kaleidoscope of peoples of varying colors and faiths. This was reinforced by a broad consensus in government policies and in public discourse. As early as elementary school, I—and students in both public and private schools—was taught that the history of our country was one of generations of immigrants from around the world contributing to an ever-growing melting pot.
We celebrated Indian Arrival Day each May and in 1985, Trinidad and Tobago became the first country in the world to legally recognize Emancipation Day as a public holiday. Although I grew up in a Catholic family, it was perfectly normal to paint and light diyas (ceramic candle holders) for the Hindu festival of Diwali, and to go to my friend’s house for lunch when his Muslim family celebrated Eid ul Fitr. I remember taking class field trips to a Hindu temple on the sea and to the house of an Amerindian medicine man.
Image: “Kiddies” Carnival in Trinidad (Teresa Sabga)
We were taught that Carnival, Trinidad and Tobago’s largest annual festival, had a rich history drawn in equal parts from Christian traditions, the aesthetic beauty and extravagance of the French aristocracy, and the creativity and defiance of African slaves toward their oppressors. Traditional carnival mas characters such as the Dame Lorraine, Moko Jumbie, and Bookman, as well as local folklore legends such as the douens, La Diablesse, and Soucouyant were all fantastical embodiments of this striking blend of faith traditions, languages, and races.
We understood from a young age that the contributions of Christopher Columbus and other European colonists were important to our history, but came at a steep and tragic price to many other groups of people. We were taught that over centuries, people from around the world—from India, Syria, Lebanon, France, and China—all came to our islands as immigrants seeking economic prosperity and freedom from wars and persecution.
This honesty in facing up to one’s own history and celebrating people of all heritages who contribute to a nation’s identity is something I have found sorely lacking in the United States. It stands out as an example of cultural immaturity in an otherwise sophisticated society. I have found it unsettling that many Americans, particularly white Americans, seem to go on the defensive at the mention of slavery or segregation, and that aspects of this history continue to be so controversial.
“This honesty in facing up to one’s own history and celebrating people of all heritages who contribute to a nation’s identity is something I have found sorely lacking in the United States. It stands out as an example of cultural immaturity in an otherwise sophisticated society.”
As recently as this past July, Fox News anchor Bill O’Reilly sought to qualify First Lady Michelle Obama’s observation during her speech at the Democratic National Convention that she and her daughters, black women, live in a house that was built by slaves. O’Reilly’s remark that those slaves were “well-fed” aimed to whitewash an essential, albeit painful, chapter of the American story. This starkly contrasted with Mrs. Obama’s speech, which sought to measure America’s greatness by the progress it had made by having an African-American family occupy the White House. As it happens, the first museum in Washington, D.C. dedicated to the harrowing experience of African Americans—the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture—is scheduled to open on the National Mall on September 24th.
My intent in presenting these observations and sharing snippets of Trinbagonian history and culture is not to demonize the United States, nor to suggest that social injustice does not exist in Trinidad and Tobago. Racial and faith-based discrimination certainly exist in the twin-island nation, and its record in other areas such as women’s and LGBTQ rights is abysmal. Rather, the Trinbagonian experiment in pluralism offers lessons and insight through which—now that racial undertones have been brought to the surface by Donald Trump and others—the United States could work toward a more mature, inclusive future.
Image: Trinidad Carnival (Teresa Sabga)
Edward Mahabir is a Program Assistant for the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He previously interned for U.S. Senator Angus S. King, Jr., the Center for Democracy in the Americas, and World Learning. He is a graduate of Bowdoin College, where he double majored in history and eastern European studies, and minored in government. His honors thesis, “Imagery and Empire: Visual Representation and Political Authority in Imperial Russia, 1762–1917” was awarded the Dr. Samuel and Rose A. Bernstein Prize for Excellence in European History.