Elisabeth Smith (’14, University of Washington School of Law)
My passport expired on June 12, 2012. In the 10 years I carried that passport, I lived in Japan and traveled across Asia, Europe, South America, and Africa. Leafing through the pages reminds me of amazing full-color adventures: interesting people, delicious food, different languages, widely varying experiences and opinions.
When I flipped through the pages of my new hyper-American passport, I saw something radically different. No diversity, no nod to different experiences or differing perspectives. The United States as depicted in our current passport (established in 2007) has no cities, no minorities, and no women. True, there are quotations at the top of each spread and exactly one comes from a woman, one from an African-American man, one from a Japanese American, and one from an unattributed Mohawk Thanksgiving address. All the others are from white men or from documents written by the Founding Fathers. The U.S. as seen in the illustrations includes white men, both as figures and as faces carved into Mt. Rushmore, mountains, cactus, buffalo, eagles, oxen, longhorns, salmon, unidentified birds, the Atlantic, the Mississippi, a lake, and the moon. The white men fight the British, till a field, and herd the longhorns. The only industrial depictions are a steamboat, a plow, the railroad, and, on the back inside cover, a space satellite.
Where am I in that depiction of the U.S.? Where are women of color? Where are Asian-Americans? Where are Latinos? Where are African-Americans? Each of the illustrations obliquely reference a more complicated history, but never depict that history. Who built the railroad? Chinese immigrants. Whose ancestors were forced to come to this country in ships? Who lived in concert with the bison and who shot hundreds of thousands of them and left them to rot on the plains? Who considered the mountain that became Mt. Rushmore a holy site before the rock face was cut away to reveal presidential power?
In short, this passport creates a stylized version of Sarah Palin’s “real America,” a country that never existed. Yet, this white-washed, masculine, rural country clearly appealed to the lawmakers who approved it and to the State Department that created it. In fact, when the passport was released in 2007, the deputy assistant secretary of state for passport services stated, “We thought it really, truly reflects the breadth of America as well as the history. We tried to be inclusive of all Americans.”
What’s the link to reproductive justice? Well, if our lawmakers think the country they’re governing is the one in this passport, then they haven’t considered whether a woman of color has the support to parent her children with dignity, or whether a Native American woman can access emergency contraception through Indian Health Services, or whether an Asian woman working at a nail salon is adequately protected from the toxins in nail polish. Until we understand that an illustration of bison feeding in front of a mountain does not mean the same thing to every American, until we recognize that depicting Americans as only white men ignores vast and valuable American experiences, reproductive justice will remain just out of reach. Until our government and our fellow citizens recognize that we’re a nation of interesting people, delicious food, different languages, widely varying experiences and opinions, reproductive justice will remain an ideal, not a reality.
I have no choice but to carry this passport. When I do, though, I will do my best to honor the people it doesn’t.