Madeline St. John, News Editor
February 15th, 2017
I never thought more about what it means to “be American” than I did while abroad this past semester.
What identity, what history, what stories are bottled up in this word?
We define everything in relationship to other things. Upon leaving a place in which characteristics of one’s identity are normal, average, or constantly affirmed, one begins to question and examine that identity more closely.
This happened to me when I came to Goucher and I suddenly became “someone from Hawaii.” In Hawaii, my birthplace was not worth mentioning (Obviously). At Goucher, however, and even more so in Argentina, it suddenly became an object of conversation. I began to think about what it meant to “be from Hawaii.” (What does it mean to be from a state that some still don’t know is a state?)
In Argentina, more or less the same thing occurred, as a citizen of the United States. In Argentina, as foreign students, we became objects of curiosity: ambassadors, representatives of our nation, people to whom questions about Trump and walls with Mexico could be posed.
I didn’t really mind being an object of curiosity. It led to interesting conversations. And I certainly couldn’t resent it as I realized the feeling was mutual. To a certain extent, Argentinians were interesting to me purely because they were Argentinian.
With the presidential elections at the forefront of many minds, this “American” question was riddled with political implication. What did it mean to be part of a country in which Trump was a presidential candidate? What was underlying those words, “Make America Great Again”? And then, later in the semester: what does it mean to belong to a country in which Trump had been elected president?
Several of my Argentinian friends, who would have been on the far left of our U.S. political spectrum, asked me to explain to them the psychology of the Trump supporter. When I began to think seriously about this, I began myself to understand better what people were thinking when they voted for Trump. While I do not support the man, his politics or actions, I could begin to learn about the people who did.
I realized through these conversations, that perhaps I had more in common with the average Argentinian youth than I did with many Americans, especially white Americans in rural areas. Perhaps we do not have to go very far geographically to experience a “culture shock.”
What does it mean to be “American”?
Sometimes this question brought up race. Most Argentinians I met—before I opened my mouth—assumed I was Argentinian. This was a privilege not afforded to my blonder, paler, or more Asian-appearing classmates, who were immediately pegged as foreigners. It was sometimes assumed the blondes were from Germany, the Asian Americans from China. Watching people try to guess nationality based on race, I couldn’t help thinking about the stereotype of the “white American,” often perpetuated by Hollywood and the media, as so many U.S. citizens are not “white.” (Also, “whiteness” is a social construct. However, that’s a discussion for another time.)
Sometimes, reflection on “Americanness” led to thoughts about privilege. There are buzzwords out there, like “globalization.” Another similar word is “Americanization.” As a Goucher friend, Lea Lovemore, pointed out, Americans are privileged when they go abroad to see so much “Americanness.” McDonalds. Walmart. KFC. Hollywood. Uber. Amazon. Facebook. The list goes on. American culture and business, tied to American influence, is truly global.
Notably, however, was that many of the material things that American students on our program missed the most were not things typically thought of as “American.” We talked a lot about Chinese restaurants, Mexican food, German chocolate, and sushi (which does demonstrate our socioeconomic privilege, in being able to eat out and eat a variety of food). Clearly, being “American” has nothing to do with eating hot dogs and hamburgers.
What does it mean to be “American”?
Despite what some might think, it has nothing to do with being white, Anglo-Saxon, or protestant. Neither does it seem to signify having any particular set of beliefs, values, economic status, religion, or an acceptance of these differences in others.
Does it mean being a descendent of immigrants? No, because there were people here for centuries before Columbus or Amerigo Vespucci. Our Argentinian culture professor discussed the desire to dispel the myth that “Argentinians came from ships.” This myth propelled another—that Argentina was a country without indigenous populations, populations which in reality been nearly wiped out by land-greedy government campaigns. I reflected on the utopic “melting pot” image of the early United States, and, in the face of the North Dakota pipeline protests, how we often ignore our own indigenous populations.
What about the equation America=Democracy? Being a U.S. Citizen means a vote, right? But what about selective voter-ID laws, limited access to the polls, and changed registration procedures, all of which can take away that “right”? And even amongst those who do have a vote, strategic gerrymandering can arrange things so those votes don’t really count.
Convicted felons can’t vote. And with policies like the “war on drugs” and “stop and frisk” justifying racist policing in predominantly black communities and leading to the mass incarceration of African Americans, a large percentage of the U.S. population has become systematically disenfranchised. According to The Sentencing Project, in 2014, one in every 13 blacks was unable to vote because of a felony conviction.
Perhaps we can uphold the ideal of democracy in the United States. Perhaps it can be upheld to those on the outside, looking in. But what would one say to those numerous Latin American countries, in which the U.S. actively supported military dictatorships through Operation Condor?
What does it mean to be “American”?
It is a highly flawed question, as long as it assumes “Americanness” to be associated with the United States. This word usage, which, as you may have noticed, I have been using this entire time, understandably bothers many of those, including Argentinians, who are American but not from the U.S.A. From Canada to Argentina, citizens of all countries in South, Central, and North America are Americans, too. (And don’t forget the islands!)
So, what does it mean to be American? Having moved through these possible answers, does the truth come out that is there really nothing more to “Americanness” than being born, or moving, to a certain side of the world? Are we left with emptiness instead of identity? A meaningless name? A worthless denomination?
Or can we define ourselves by our diversity? Can we own our history of colonialism and acknowledge our racial and social hierarchies? Can we be people of mixed race, culture, gender, sexual orientation, origin, class, political and religious beliefs? Can we be people of revolutions, past and present? Can we see our human and hemispheric sameness, and build an identity that celebrates difference rather than similarity?
Answer: Yes. In many ways, we already are.