I recently had a person respond to a comment I made on a Facebook post deriding me for my concept of what an American is and is not. I commented that America is not what it once was and that it has gotten to be a place vastly different from where I was born and raised. This becomes even more apparent to me since I am temporarily living outside of the States due to family employment. I am gaining a much different perspective on the US while living in Canada and being able to visit my native land on occasion. What I am seeing, in addition to what I hear from my neighbors and acquaintances, saddens me sometimes when I think of the potential that exists in the United States to do so much more with the wealth that is there than what is currently occurring. What has happened to my country? To our country? Why are we acting the way we are? What exactly is a real American?
As I see this becoming more of a series of posts rather than one concise posting, I will just touch on the one concept that bothers me. That concept is what a ‘real’ American is. When I was growing up, an American was someone who was either born in the United States or immigrated to the United States and worked his or her way to citizenship. It could also be a child born overseas to US parents or even to one US parent. Sounds simple enough. I even think it is still the legal definition of what an American is. So, what happened?
The scene is becoming increasingly common. Someone asks another person the question, “What are you?” I heard this often from students I taught and even neighbors where I once lived in Florida. They asked me this. They asked others this. They did this in a quest to place a person in a box. Ironically, the people asking the question were usually white and they asked this question to someone who was not White, more than those who are white. Interesting. The concept of what a “real” American has devolved in some way to mean a person who is not Caucasian. Given the skin tone of most Native Americans is not Caucasian that makes the question both rather idiotic as well as rather insidious.
The idiocy stems from the fact that the United States is a mixture of people and cultures far beyond those from Northern Europe. The Southwestern Untied States has people from Mexico, Central and South America. They were there before the first Europeans arrived. The rest of the United States was once vastly inhabited by Native Americans who, as I mentioned before, are predominantly non-Caucasian. After Europeans arrived, many others started immigrating to the United States and settled here. Some Asians were brought over to work on the West Coast and help build the once vast railroad network. African-Americans were brought over both as slaves and some came as free persons. If something happened somewhere in the world, people came to the United States to change their lives for the better. The United States earned and enjoyed being called the Melting Pot of the world. Our country is a land of diversity. That diversity once made us great. We fought a Civil War and went through the Civil Rights movement to make all races seen as equal. It set us apart from many countries in the world where the make-up of the people is the same. Somehow, the love of our diversity has morphed into division.
Part of this idiocy has been manufactured in the form of certain media outlets attacking the skin color of our current president. He presents a quandary for what was once the majority of the American population. President Obama is neither entirely Black nor is he entirely White. He is of mixed race. That mixture seems to have scared some people who are just too xenophobic to realize that being of mixed race is okay. Perhaps these same people once advocated laws that banned intermarriage between people of different races. They saw that taboo fall with the advent of Civil Rights and dealt with it. However, when the leader of their country became someone with those qualities, they could not handle it. Therefore, we have seen a rise in those who question his citizenship and even hate him for being someone they cannot place in a box.
These same people have taken this even further and started to question their neighbors being citizens or not based on skin color or religious beliefs. Somehow, this has also changed into questioning someone’s citizenship or loyalty to his or her country. Recently, we heard of a young man who is of Mexican descent who was ridiculed when he sang the National Anthem at a basketball game. Even though he was born in the United States and is therefore a citizen, people were accusing him of being an illegal immigrant to the United States simply because of his cultural background. What difference should it make when it comes to his being an American? We are a nation of immigrants. Look at the names in the telephone directory. They are all not European names. They are names from the world pantheon of names. With those names are cultures, religions, and lifestyles that all blend to make the United States unique and wonderful. It is a shame to disparage anyone based on his or her cultural background.
Here, in Canada, the question is not asked as “What are you?”, but rather “What is your cultural background?” Yes, that may simply sound like a politically correct way to ask the same thing, but it goes beyond that. It acknowledges that the person is a human being first, and then presents a curiosity about what that person believes, practices, or lives. It is less combative, in part, due to the length of the sentence, but also due to the nature of the words used. Perhaps we, as citizens of the United States, should take this and apply it to our country. No, Canada is not perfect. No country is perfect, but imagine if we started viewing each other as people first, then whatever culture, religion, gender, gender preference, or whatever box that is needed to make us feel better. We would be better able to define a ‘real’ American as someone who loves our country because she or he was born here or immigrated here for a better life.