What is it to be American?
Does one need to be born in the U.S. to be American? Does a person need to pay taxes and gain their education in the U.S. in order to be American? What if a person does all that and tops it off with a valid voting registration card and speaks pitch-perfect English?
If a person holds all those attributes and then some, that would be pretty American, right? Except, that could be anyone.
As the battle rages on between the left and the right on what to do with immigration reform and the security of our borders, those that have found legal refuge within the U.S. are still searching for their own identity. Many have opted not to ‘go with the flow’ and accept the government’s umbrella designation for them.
In a study conducted by the Pew Research Center in April 2012, 1,220 Latinos were surveyed on, among many things, their viewpoint on the labels given to them by our government and culture.
“It has been nearly four decades since the United States government mandated the use by federal agencies of the terms “Hispanic” or “Latino” to categorize Americans who trace their roots to Spanish-speaking countries, but the labels still haven’t been fully embraced by the group to which they have been affixed,” the study read.
Only 24% of the surveyed Latinos were comfortable with the labels given to them by the U.S., with 51% opting to identify themselves by their country of origin – Cuban, Puerto Rican, Dominican, etc.
Among the slew of stats uncovered in the study came the reveal that 47% of the surveyed Latinos thought of themselves as just Americans. A typical, every day American. Another 47% thought of themselves as very different from typical Americans, the other 6% was undecided.
In short, calling a Dominican-born citizen of America a “Hispanic-American” probably isn’t going to go over all that well.
The argument that multiculturalism, the use of ‘(native country)-American’, is a problem is a discussion that many Americans have engaged in in recent years; unfortunately the talk often runs into backwards ethnic rhetoric.
Frosty Wooldridge, a “journalist, speaker, teacher, and naturalist” according to his official website, claimed in a blog entry from March 2008 that “our leaders, with their open-borders approach to life, dismantle the fabric of a successful nation.”
Obviously, that dismantling has nothing to do with economic crises, multiple wars, corrupt politicians and the rise of Russia, Europe and Asia from their post-World War II malaise. Nope. It’s all on people with hyphens.
He went on to claim that being African/Asian/Mexican/etc-American was destructive not just because of the confusion that could cause, but because it calls into question one’s allegiance to America.
That’s right, folks. According to this self-proclaimed journalist and teacher, if you have a hyphenated nationality, the threat level just went up.
Wooldridge’s post that day was to raise concern about the destruction multiculturalism is causing America. But in attacking the issue with a strong dose of overt racism, bigotry and ignorance, he failed to hit the mark on what could have been a compelling discussion.
Multiculturalism is a unifying term, like Homeland Security or Joint Task Force, but where it hits the right percussive tone, it fails in the matter of national identity.
The demand for cultural recognition is a direct result of what America used to be. A place where, if you weren’t white, you fought for every right. Every nationality had to fight a different fight for the same result – validation, acceptance and equality.
The primary use for multiculturalism is to show that America is a place where many different cultures co-exist and thrive. The secondary, and largely divisive, use is to attach people’s primary identity to their racial or ethnic groups. These labels became important to some people because they, in a sense, corrected historical wrongs.
An African-American, Asian-American, Hispanic-American, Muslim-American, and anything else-American could now stand on the same high ground as Americans.
See how that doesn’t make any sense? “You’re equal, but here’s a special title.” An American should just be that – American. People in France (not to pick on the French) don’t stop make fun of American tourists by saying “heh, stupid African-American.” They just call you a stupid American and leave it at that. Insulting, but it gets to the point. Our cultural history, globally, is of little significance.
EDUCATION SERVES AS THE BATTLEGROUND
Our education system has been under fire for decades; the battleground for our political and social unrest.
In particular, public schools have never solely endeared themselves to granting willing minds the information they need to become productive adults, but rather the necessary information to make them into Americans.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. Every country gives their youth a national education. But for a country such as the U.S. – the country founded and built by immigrants – a higher standard of learning should not be out of the question.
History is taught in a way that colors America as a world power the second the ink dried on the Declaration of Independence. The greatest world achievements are America’s, and the largest portion of history is American history. White American history.
It’s simple, easy to digest, and its primary function – to assimilate immigrants into American culture – is largely successful.
It’s also largely fraught with inaccuracy and creates endless confusion and unrest as those children become adults, many of whom go on their entire lives believing only the sliver of truth their education brought them.
To teach history as “all-inclusive”, meaning to include the contributions of all nationalities in the construction of America, would be a titanic, and ultimately inflammatory, effort.
History, much like reality, is not fair and balanced. It has winners and losers. The U.S. has always used its strength and a healthy dose of deception to get what it wants. It has won a lot.
Try teaching that to a newly-minted American from Mexico.
Same goes for the Mexican-American War. Glorious advance of the American West or imperialistic atrocity? Depends – you American?
Right-wingers loathe the evolution of education because it suddenly paints America in a more objective, harsher light. It’s not clean and simple anymore. It never really was.
That complex keeps U.S. citizens nationally segregated, even in the face of unparalleled change.
Joel served seven years in the U.S. Coast Guard (2005-2012) and wrote sports columns for the Corpus Christi Caller-Times in Texas from April 2009 to October 2014.