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I’ll never forget the day I became an American. My naturalization ceremony was one of a handful around the country to coincide with America’s 240th birthday—July 4, 2016. Taking the citizenship oath amidst the sprawling cacti of Arizona’s Saguaro National Park was a powerful moment that I will always remember. After moving to the United States when I was just two years old, my family and I waited 14 long years to gain U.S. citizenship. On that scorching midsummer day, we were proud to finally be able to call ourselves Americans.
Roughly 700,000 people become American citizens every single year, mostly originating from countries including Mexico, India, the Philippines, and China. By law, an American denotes any individual born or naturalized in the United States. In practice, however, the word takes on a different meaning. Perhaps Toni Morrison said it best when she proclaimed in 1992, “In this country, American means white. Everybody else has to hyphenate.”
Over winter break, I traveled home for the holidays after completing my first semester at Harvard. Upon my return, my family friends were eager to know the details of my experience—one of them asked me whether I’d made lots of friends, adding, “Are most of them American?” For a moment, I was confused. But upon her clarifying, I realized she was actually asking if I had mostly white friends. To her, “American” and “white” were tacitly synonymous. Throughout the rest of my break, I’d run into similar comments made by family and friends who were quick to conflate the two terms.
But this misguided perception spans beyond the realm of just my community. Rather, it pervades communities across America, and Harvard is no exception. Many of my classmates of color anglicize, truncate, or entirely change their names to make them more “American-sounding,” while some deliberately mispronounce their names at the convenience of others, premising such actions upon the troubling idea that even today, “American,” by default, means “white.” In fact, just last year, in her new book The Origins of Others, Toni Morrison stated that “the definition of Americanness (sadly) remains color for many people.”
Morrison’s words ring true. According to several social psychology studies conducted by Professor of Social Ethics Mahzarin R. Banaji, non-white Americans are consistently associated less often with the label “American” than white Americans. In fact, implicit association tests reveal the prevalence of the “American equals white” bias, which has persisted up until today and bears deeply harmful impacts. Specifically, it can lead to discriminatory actions and judgments, especially in the realm of employment. Three 2010 studies found that when given resumes of job applicants, participants were less likely to choose qualified Asian-Americans for national security jobs compared to qualified white Americans, which—according to the researchers—stems from the perception that non-white Americans possess less national loyalty than white Americans.
Since elementary school, I have always considered myself to be just as American as my white counterparts. I’ll always remember learning about the foundations of U.S. government in my fifth-grade social studies class—since then, I’ve cherished our Constitution and passionately embraced the rights and liberties it has bestowed upon me and my peers. I love American television shows and movies, listen to American music, and happily partake in hallmarks of American culture. I’ll always remember the years I spent ardently watching seasons five through nine of American Idol, observing fireworks from my rooftop during the Fourth of July, and waking up at five in the morning to go Black Friday shopping with my family. Nor will I forget receiving my U.S. passport in the mail last year, registering to vote just a few months ago, or the proud, momentous day two summers ago that a federal judge proclaimed me and my parents to be the nation’s newest Americans.
Through Harvard’s Institute of Politics, I teach a weekly civics class to a diverse classroom of Boston fifth-graders. Many of my students are nonwhite. When we get to the citizenship unit, I start off by giving them the textbook facts about what it means to be a U.S. citizen, discussing relevant portions of the Constitution and pertinent vocabulary. But I also supplement this information with my own American story—a dynamic one that has continued to evolve into the present. Ultimately, I want them—and all Americans—to have unequivocal faith in this nation when it affirms that, regardless of race, color, or creed, each one of them deserves the title of “American.”
Meena Venkataramanan ’21 lives in Canaday Hall.
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