24 April 2006

A Search for Identity

Who am I? What a common question for anyone to ask, be her nine or ninety. I cannot help but feel that this is one of life’s questions to which one spends her entire lifetime searching for an answer. So many things make up a person; how could it ever be an easy task to decipher how an entire identity is composed by isolated events and feelings and social constructions among thousands of other things? If it is this difficult to discern an individual identity, imagine how difficult it is to identify a national identity.

My perception of myself and what I conceive as my identity has evolved through the years as I have had new experiences and met new people. When I was sixteen, I found being a musician an important part of my identity; however this does not mean this will be the case in thirty-five years. Not every person involved in music will find music an important factor in her identity. If I were to generalize and say that all people attending SUNY Fredonia for music found their interest in music an important component of their identity, I am certain that that statement would not adequately describe all members of the music school.

One’s identity, or one’s true identity, can be constructed by one person only: that individual. No person will ever be able to ascertain the true identity of any individual other than herself. Even then, defining one’s own identity is a challenge through which people struggle their entire life.

Besides seeking an individual identity, it is always an interesting attempt to develop a national identity. In the United States, the “melting pot” of the world, is it possible to formulate what could be considered a “national identity” that adequately describes all people residing in the country? According to an interview found in the archives of the website for National Public Radio, “Only about one-third of Americans say the country has a basic culture and values that immigrants take on.” The rest of the group surveyed believes that the country’s culture and values change as new people move to the United States. It would seem then, in the mind of the second group, that the American Identity is not a solid, stable condition, but a fluid, ever-changing idea, shifting and adapting to include the new people of the nation.

People seem to enjoy categorizing. Things, people, places, it does not matter to them. Look at college applications, for example. I am in the process of applying to grad school for two different programs. One application for this to-remain-un-named school asks “How are you most comfortable describing yourself?” Answer choices are “African American, American Indian, Asia Pacific, Hispanic, International, and White.” For the other program, the applicant is asked for their “Ethnic Status” with answers of “Black, American Indian, Asian/Pacific Islander, Hispanic, and White” available. On the former application, this question is not considered mandatory; however it is a required question on the latter application. The sister of a friend of mine, who I suppose is for all technical purposes “white,” has friends who are mainly “African American.” She now talks, dresses, and acts “black,” identical to the behavior of her friends. What does this make her? I think that this girl could feasibly answer the first question as “African American,” despite the fact that this question is obviously aimed at determining the skin color of the applicant.

While the people who designed questions such as those described above are looking for a clear-cut answer, the issue of race does not lend itself to a definite, neat, one-word solution. This is especially becoming true as more and more interracial relationships occur. When a biracial applicant is only able to select one answer, how does she choose between her African American roots and her White roots? Should she be forced to make such a decision?

People also try to apply this idea of a clear-cut answer to formulating one identity for all of the diverse people in the United States. What constitutes an American Identity? Are there factors that everyone can see as a commonality in an American Identity? I think that many people would like to think so; however, I disagree. America is made up of individuals and each individual has her own identity which she has declared for herself. There is no clear-cut American Identity.

For the last two and a half years, I have been a relatively sheltered college student. I come from your slightly above-average income middle class family, living in New York state suburbia. One of three children, parents still married; things that I always considered to be normal, perhaps even part of what I may have considered at the time (if I had thought of things such as this then) as part of an American Identity. My parents sheltered me from the world as best they could and very much succeeded in their goal. I graduated from high school still relatively sheltered. When I entered college two and a half years ago, life was very different from living at home. I was still what many, including myself, would say is conservative. Somehow, I managed to stay pretty much the same way throughout most of my time in Fredonia. However, this changed slightly this spring semester.

For my final semester spent in this small, public, liberal arts college, I enrolled in a course entitled American Identities. I had been told that I needed one more course to finish my minor in American Studies, so I pulled out the trusty Course Offerings Guide and found the two courses available that would actually fit into my crazy music education major schedule: American Politics and American Identities. After looking at descriptions of the two courses, I opted to enroll in American Identities.

As previously stated, going into American Identities, I would not hesitate to assert that I was very sheltered. I did not spend time thinking about things like race or sexual identities; I seemed to be struggling with my own busy life enough as it was. For the first few weeks of this class, I was struggling to keep my head above water. I had never really had so much reading for one class before. And open theoretical discussion where people voiced their opinions and sounded so knowledgeable? What happened to my lecture music education classes where I sat listening to a professor drone on about the development of a child through music and critical ages? Needless to say, for much of the semester I had trouble keeping my jaw from dropping to my knees with some of the conversations held in this class. Issues such as race, sexual identity, skin color, stereotypes and immigration made regular appearances in our classroom. Besides these issues, the question of the existence of a common American Identity was an underlying theme which often finds its way into classroom discussion.

I entered the class with the idea that there really is no common American Identity and that belief still remains. Out of curiosity’s sake, I have asked friends and family if they believe that a common American Identity exists. The majority of the time, these people say yes, indeed there is a common identity, citing things such as the trait of Americans to constantly do things to excess and to take the idea of “bigger is better” to the extreme. While I must agree with them that these ideas do exist in this country, I would not be able to say that these things form the core of an American Identity. In the past, I would not have been able to support my views of a lack of common American Identity with more than sputtering out an answer of “Well, because.” Through taking this American Identities course, however, I have gained new understanding and respect for why that is the case.

Among a variety of other topics, American Identities has addressed the issue of race. Perhaps because I am white, I never took offense to the question of race. When asked to fill it in on undergraduate applications or applications for scholarships, I would basically shrug wondering why it is such a big deal, check the box for “white” and move on. This changed, however, after we read a text in class written by Matthew Frye Jacobson entitled Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race. This book brought new ideas to my attention that I had never truly considered previously.

Prior to this book, I had believed what is white, is white, IS white. The possibility of shades of whiteness did not even enter my mind. I have a friend whose his father is from India; his mother is from the United States. It never occurred to me that Jayan might not be considered white. Sure, his skin had more pigmentation than mine, but who would say that he was not white? According to Jacobson, this idea would not be so uncommon. After a class discussion, I could not help but wonder how Jayan might feel about these checkboxes for race. If, as some explanations purport, the questions of ethnicity are spurred by attempts to provide people other than whites with opportunity, why should someone who has a parent or parents as immigrants not be afforded more opportunity as well, even if they are white?

Immigration itself was another hot-button topic in this class. I found it to be particularly engaging due to the amount of news coverage currently appearing on the subject. Prior to this class, I had paid little attention to immigration. Obviously I knew that people immigrated legally, but I never really realized just how many people are in the country illegally. This was another one of those eye-opening experiences. I could not help but notice the irony of all of these people trying to get into America, and yet it often seems like so many American citizens hate it here and want to move to out.

Looking at the topic of immigration, I saw how badly some of these people want to be in the country. I read a book entitled We Are All Suspects Now by Tram Nguyen. The stories of what happened to some of these illegal immigrants post-9/11 were unbelievable. Since reading this book, I find myself drawn to news on the subject. In the quest for their own identity, these people are seeking out components of what they perceive to be the American Identity to incorporate into their lives.

With so much diversity in this country, I believe that it is impossible to identify one American Identity. To each individual, different aspects of this country and its citizens matter more than others. For one person, America may be the “land of the free;” to another, America may be a waste of space; to others, America may be the “land of opportunity.” Thousands of factors can impact the perception of the nearly 300 million people living in the United States. Because the individuals of this country have so many different personal identities, it is impossible to identify just one American Identity upon which everyone can agree. Who can say which of these million individual definitions of American Identity is the correct one?

It took some time before I finally felt comfortable discussing subjects such as the search for an American Identity openly in class. I still wonder how I managed to live in a bubble for so long. I would by no means consider myself a “liberal” (here we return to labels and personal identity once again); however, I have definitely changed how I view some things. Issues that have been raised in my American Identities class that in the past I would have turned away from, I now do not hesitate to discuss. On those graduate school applications, I did check the box for “white.” This time, however it was not without thinking of everything that goes along with that question.

As cliché as it will sound, through taking American Identities, I was given the opportunity to take a moment to critically examine my identity and really question parts of it. Prior to September 11th, I had minimal national pride or any sense of belonging in this nation. While September 11th initiated some pride in being an American, it has since fallen by the wayside. Looking at issues of race and immigration and how many people want to be in this country has since revived my pride in being an American. No, I still do not believe in a common American Identity, but I do know that being an American will forever be a part of my own identity.

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