American. For many, the mention of the word brings patriotic images of bald eagles and red, white, and blue to the mind. But, to me, it stands as a synonym for white culture. As the child of immigrant parents and an immigrant myself, I’ve never been able to genuinely call myself an American. And can you blame me? Despite the movement towards a more diverse and integrated society, America still isn’t the melting pot it claims to be. Instead, it’s a compartmentalized storage unit, with Whites in the biggest compartment. During the Super Bowl, Coca-Cola aired a commercial in which “America the Beautiful” was sung in several different languages to reflect the diversity of this nation. The commercial, however, was met with enormous criticism in conservative circles for not being “American” or patriotic enough. This sort of response is a paradigm of how selective American culture tends to be.
American culture seems inclusive of only a westernized way of life. This is reasonable given the fact that, for centuries, the majority of Americans were of European descent. However, with the United States shifting rapidly toward a majority-minority make up, that restrictive conceptualization of American culture is now more subject to change. Yet, despite a greater movement toward integration, I still feel like an outcast in a culture that I have a hard time calling my own.
One of the biggest issues is that, culturally-speaking, we as a nation have difficulty thinking of anybody who doesn’t have white skin and whose first language isn’t English as “just American”. Even when we acknowledge that non-whites are American, we sub-characterize them as something along the lines of “African-American” or “Asian-American.” But an American is anyone who calls this country home, regardless of ethnicity. American is not an ethnicity, but a nationality, and so it shouldn’t be coupled with ethnicity or race. When Nina Divaluri won the Miss America pageant last year, she received an onslaught of criticism for not being American “enough” or American at all, simply because she didn’t look quite like the beauty queens who’d come before her. Yet she was born and raised in America. One’s cultural background does not determine one’s devotion to this country.
We’re also mistaken in thinking that only citizens of the United States are Americans. The term defines a much wider region than we tend to recognize: It’s representative of both North and South Americans, which is why it’s ironic that Latin American immigrants receive some of the heaviest criticism for not being true “Americans.” The truth is that most of our patriotism is rooted in ignorance: the idea that we are the only country that fosters ideals of freedom and equality. Not only is this simply untrue; it also misses the fact that our nation is flawed. This mentality leads to the belittlement of other nationalities and non-white ethnicities within our country. But American culture is itself a fabrication. It’s influenced by so many other cultures that it itself is undefined. Since we can’t specify exactly what American culture is, we don’t have the right to determine what is un-American.
I myself am not blameless in this identity crisis, either. Though I believe that American culture should be far more inclusive, the traditional, white, English-speaking definition of “American” is so ingrained in my mind that I implicitly recognize a dichotomy between that which is American and that which is the other, subconsciously considering myself the other. I don’t have ancestors who came over on the Mayflower, my parents still have difficulties with English grammar, and my name is apparently very difficult to pronounce (it’s Tass-neem). Thus, when people ask me where I am from, I impulsively say Bangladesh, only to be confused for an international student. And if I try to adopt aspects of “American” culture, I’m told that I’m becoming “white-washed” by other immigrants or first generation peers. The word “assimilation” is profane. It leaves a bitter taste in the mouth, because it implies that I am forced to transform myself to accommodate others; it’s degrading. In the end, I’m just left confused, trying to figure out where I fit between these polarities. I was raised in a different environment than my parents, and I was raised with different teachings than my peers.
I have given up the expectation that others will be satisfied with how I identify myself, or that I’ll even be satisfied with how I identify myself. It’s an issue that is almost impossible to resolve until we as a society realize that there isn’t one model or ideal American home life, culture, or physical attribute. “American” is a broad, elusive term, one that’s too often applied to a narrow way of life. We need to stop being so exclusive—otherwise, soon, not even America will be American enough.
Tasnim Ahmed ’17, a Crimson blog writer, lives in Massachusetts Hall.