“What is the craziest thing in America?” one of my Austrian high school students asked me in the last five minutes of class.
It was just a few months before the COVID-19 outbreak began its crescendo, before Fulbrighters and Peace Corps volunteers across the globe returned to the United States from their assignments. In response, I played a video of “mutton-busting,” a competition in which helmeted 5 and 6-year olds at the Houston Rodeo are ranked by their ability to hold onto the back of a disgruntled woolly lamb for as long as possible.
The crowd (my class of 16-year-old Gymnasium, or pre-university students) went wild. It was a victorious teaching moment in my eyes, if for no other reason than knowing that for the duration of that video, I had my students’ undivided attention. In recent weeks, from the comfort of my parents’ Central Illinois home, I have wondered how I would answer that question now.
During my year abroad in Germany and my teaching assistantship in Austria, I strove to make the distinction between being an “American abroad” and a “citizen diplomat.” For me, making this distinction meant making concerted efforts to learn about regional cultures and dialects of the countries where I was living, being an active listener, asking questions, and when appropriate, sharing viewpoints of my own home culture. On light-hearted days, such viewpoints might include mutton-busting being the “craziest thing in America.”
But my colleagues in Austria also granted me the opportunity to teach about the Civil Rights Movement and key events that preceded it. My students utilized my lessons as a chance to voice their media-based observations, such as how “the police are very brutal” in the United States, but also how the U.S. has a prominent activist culture which readily engages with racial prejudice, acknowledging it as a threat to the elusive American Dream.
Conversations about race in the United States constituted an integral part of my public diplomacy experiences. In addition to class discussions about race in the U.S. today as a teacher in Austria, the American Studies department at Otto-Friedrich University in Bamberg, Germany included me in their discussion of the topic, too.
In one seminar that I took during my year abroad in Germany, titled, “The Challenges of Intersectionality: Race and Gender in German and American Culture,” we explored Germany and the U.S.’s respective pasts with race and gender. The course’s survey of African American history began with the slave trade’s origins in the American colonies and continued to present day; additionally, we read literature about Asian American and Hispanic experiences in the U.S.
I remember being simultaneously impressed by the course’s attentiveness to American social dynamics, yet wanting for perspectives on the experiences of Turkish Germans, Russian Germans, and Syrian refugees in Germany. That particular American Studies seminar was popular, culturally diverse, and highly attended, marking an international attentiveness to the United States, including our ongoing discussion of race.
Even in the midst of a global pandemic, the U.S. has continued to engage with its racial prejudice through the murder of George Floyd and subsequent protesting. Despite a record-low number of citizen diplomats stationed throughout the world, in recent weeks we have seen the extent of public diplomacy’s influence, as Black Lives Matter advocates have taken to the streets in Vienna, Berlin, Amsterdam, and Madrid, among many other cities. Though rooted in tragedy, these demonstrations across the globe in honor of George Floyd denote a fundamental good.
Yes, Americans have a deeply troubled past with racial injustice; yes, we are a more controversial player in the global field than ever before. But the willingness of some Americans to engage with our societal issues and ugly history has set the example for numerous countries internationally to reassess the historical figures they honor and the problematic symbols they uphold in their respective cultures. For example, the Netherlands has recently revived its conversation surrounding “Black Peter,” a traditional Dutch Christmastime symbol, and countries such as Belgium and the United Kingdom are removing their statues of historical figures who were slaveholders.
Although our global public diplomacy presence dwindles, our movements for change are leading by example.
Elizabeth (Betsy) Cornelius is pursuing her M.A. in International Affairs Policy and Analysis at American University’s School of International Service. There, she applies her experience in Germany and Austria in her research assistantship with the Transatlantic Policy Center.