Sometimes, this is who we are

Tim Dowling captures something that had been vaguely bugging me for some time but that I could not quite put my finger on, and that is the way that some people in the US, when someone in their organization is exposed as doing something outrageous or criminal, are quick to say “This is not who we are”.

This has become quite common as a way to avoid taking collective responsibility for a systemic problem. It is usually followed by the other cliché, that the wrong acts were the work of a ‘few bad apples’. The question that they should be asking themselves is what is wrong about our orchard that so many apples go bad?

“This is not who we are.” So said Oklahoma University’s president, David Boren, after fraternity members were filmed chanting racist epithets on a coach. The leadership of the fraternity in question, Sigma Alpha Epsilon, released a statement that said, among other things: “This is absolutely not who we are.”

Both assertions echo President Obama’s reaction to the CIA torture report published late last year: “This is not who we are.” Chicago’s mayor, Rahm Emanuel, said exactly the same thing in 2013 while apologising for years of systematic torture of suspects by the city’s police: that may have been who we were, he seemed to be saying, but that’s not who we are. Recent reports that the Chicago police department operates its own CIA-style black site suggest it’s not all in the past.

Obama liked to use this construction even before he became president. In a 2007 speech on Iraq he said: “A war to disarm a dictator has become an open-ended occupation of a foreign country. This is not America. This is not who we are.”

I can see this is a catchy way to encapsulate outrage, to address the gap between American ideals and American realities. But used over and over again, in response to depressingly similar situations, it begins to sound merely self-exculpatory, if not completely delusional. It’s like handing over your CV at a job interview and saying: “This is not who I am, by the way.”

As an American living abroad, I sometimes find it convenient to distance myself from injustices that happened while I was minding my own business on another continent. But it’s hard not to look at these incidents – and many others besides – without being forced to acknowledge: this is sort of who we are.

The Daily Show had a great segment on one particular manifestation of this practice, the way people seem to go out of their way to deny that racism is a serious, lasting problem in the US.

(This clip aired on March 11, 2015. To get suggestions on how to view clips of The Daily Show and The Nightly Show outside the US, please see this earlier post. If the videos autoplay, please see here for a diagnosis and possible solutions.)


  1. moarscienceplz says

    Rule #1: America is the most fair, most free, and most peace-living country in the whole wide world!

    Rule #2: If America does racist or sexist things, or makes life harder for poor people, or bombs third-world nations back to the stone age, please refer to rule #1.

  2. Pierce R. Butler says

    Semantically, all these people have a point: those things aren’t what we are, just what we do.

  3. chigau (違う) says

    If that is not who we are, why don’t We™ remove the bad apples, just to be sure?

  4. Rob Grigjanis says

    Well, it is consistent with the ubiquitous ads addressing weight gain, greying/disappearing hair, arthritic pain, etc, which insist that these things are not really who we are.

    Funny, because they’re all part of who I am as I age. Acceptance of reality isn’t a very popular idea in the US, is it?

  5. says

    “This is not who we are” is the new “not-pology”, the new “sorry that you were offended”.

    Why take responsibility when you can take liberties? Why admit blame when you can shift it?

  6. starskeptic says

    It’s like handing over your CV at a job interview and saying: “This is not who I am, by the way.”

    …more like handing over your rap sheet and saying: “This is not who I am, by the way.”

  7. khms says

    I think Google translate got this one good enough (about the plane crashed by the co-pilot):

    Lufthansa CEO Carsten Spohr said at a press conference in the afternoon: “In our worst nightmares we would have never imagined that such a tragedy can happen to our group.”

    (You could hear in his voice he was very distressed.)

    (Incidentally, that crash was made possible by anti-terrorist measures -- specifically, those that enabled the co-pilot to lock the pilot out of the cockpit.)

  8. grumpyoldfart says

    Here’s how the British viewed American racism in the 1960s.
    From the TV show “That Was The Week That Was”

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