To be honest, I hate the word American. I also hate the word hate, which is important to understand my contempt here. American is an ugly term loaded with what David Slater calls ‘the imperiality of power’, whereby one state asserts self-perceived moral and physical power over a lesser culture that should be grateful for the benefits of civilization, protection, and modernity. This simple lesson of nomenclature has come from a lifetime spent growing up and immersed in Hispanic communities as well as extended time living, working, and traveling in South America. However, despite my dislike for this particular element of nationalism that comes from living in the United States, it can play a crucial role in the self-reflection necessary to combat the rising chaos and division playing out in our country and help chart a course towards a sustainable, peaceful, and harmonious future.
It is exactly this seemingly common sense discord between being American and being from the United States that threatens to tear our society apart. Over our country’s history the line between the two has been blurred but never fully destroyed. The reality is that the terms mean different things to different people, and these disparate definitions have always been overlooked as trivial and swept under a rug of feel-good patriotism and the Stars and Stripes. The unfortunate self-perceived ability to label along a continuum of ‘Americanness’ is perhaps the most troubling of many inequalities that line our national history. Current turbulence seen as so surprising to some has existed since the country was founded by religious dissidents upon a bedrock of slavery and then amplified with the arrival of millions of immigrants from all over the world. The fissures of yesterday, glued together for so long in the name of freedom, are splitting open in the form of #AmericanCarnage and #NoWallNoBan.
So what does it mean to be from the United States? Is any one inhabitant more American than another? What constitutes true ‘Americanness’? These are the questions we must now ask ourselves as a society in this crucial period of reckoning.
To me, being from the United States means not only recognizing but celebrating the fact that one man’s apple pie might be another’s collard greens, beef pho, chicken mole, cheese arepa, or eggplant parmigiana. It means that people live different lives when they are surrounded by ocean, mountains, plains, forests, marshes, and swamps, and that all are okay. It means that communities filled with whitewashed picket fences and skyscrapers alike can and do produce respectful and hardworking people. It means that unless you are of Native American descent you or your ancestors came from somewhere else, forming the amazing melting pot of culture that makes ours such a vibrant country. It means that our devotion to the separation of church and state has resulted in a place where people from all faiths could escape persecution and have their fair shot at a prosperous life. It means building on a tradition of energy, courage, dynamism, and vigor, seen in Washington’s Continental Army, King’s Freedom March, and the millions of women and men who have started a business, put themselves through college, and loved and cared for a family. It means recognizing the imperfections of our democracy, but doing what we can to make the country and the world a better place.
This is not the first time that our country has faced an identity crisis, nor will it be the last. We’ve survived a Civil War that resulted in the deaths of 620,000, two percent of the entire country. We’ve survived two World Wars, three impeached presidents, and both a Great Depression and Recession. The road has been marked by fortune and opportunity as well as marginalization and oppression. Through it all, however, we have persisted through the storm.
The United States is not a static entity, but rather a living, breathing, dynamic being that changes and never sits still. Similarly, what can be considered the ‘American’ people ebbs and flows, and it is precisely the struggle that leads to this fluctuation in composition that defines what true ‘Americanness’ is. Being from the United States means that you strive to uphold the values of our Constitution: nothing less, and nothing more. It is by coming back to this most fundamental notion of ‘Americanness’ that we can witness the “turning over of democracy” observed by Lincoln and strive to build a more perfect union.