17 December 2011

American Identities: What They Mean to You and Me

American Identities: What They Mean to You and Me
K. Thompson

How I Used To Think About My Identity

Personal identity is a complex entity that combines many different aspects of a person. It encompasses a person’s gender, race, religion, class, ethnicity, sexual orientation, where they were raised, their beliefs and many other things. Your personal identity is essentially how you view your self. Who are you? Most people, including myself, have a very definite idea of who they are. It has become clear to me that this idea of who you are may be incorrect. But how can you not know who you are? Let's start with my original evaluation of my identity from a few months ago.

The most obvious characteristics of personal identity are probably sex, followed by race. These two traits can be distinguished just by looking at someone, most of the time.

            Another important identifying characteristic is my religion. I am agnostic, which isn’t so much of a religion but a belief that the existence or non-existence of a God is unknowable. This belief sets me apart from the rest of my family; it also contributes to the way I act and view the world. I think that this belief is just as important as being white and a male.

Another important part of my personal identity is my economic class. In our society cash is king and it is no surprise that it influences people’s identity. Both of my parents are self-employed and their earnings put them into what is labeled as the middle class. This is also an important part of my identity because it has let me do certain things such as travel abroad and attend college. It is obvious to see that my personal identity is made up of a multitude of things and they all combine to make me who I am.

Another part of my identity is where I was raised. Where you are brought up has a large impact on your personal identity. You become accustomed to certain social norms from your region. I was brought up in the same small rural town all my life, Wellsville, New York. Wellsville is about two hours away from Fredonia near the Pennsylvania border and has a population of about 4,000.

My ethnicity also plays a big role in my life and is another crucial part of my identity. I don’t know too much about my father’s side of the family since his parents died when I was very young. However, I do know that my father’s side came over from England and settled in Canada sometime in the late 1800s then eventually moved to the United States, primarily New York. Since I do not know much else about my father’s side of the family it is not a big part of my identity. However I know much more about my mother’s side and it plays a much bigger role in my life. My mother’s parents were born in Hungary in the 1920s. They later moved to Germany because of World War II and then in the early 1950s they came over to the United States. I regularly visit my grandparents and they are always telling me stories of “the old country” and how things were in Hungary. My grandparents have taught me how to count in Hungarian and a few other random words here and there, such as macska, which means cat. When I am at home with my family we even occasionally eat traditional Hungarian dishes. My heritage is an important part of my identity; everyone’s heritage is unique, which is why I think ethnicity is always a major part of personal identity.

The Problem With Taking Identity Categories For Granted

At SUNY Fredonia, throughout this semester in American Identities, we have read numerous books, had many discussions and debates about the ultimate American Identity. The first class was dedicated to finding the ultimate American stereotype. A poll was taken and the best 16 stereotypes were chosen. The stereotypes faced off tournament style with our class as the voters until just one was left standing. Our class ended up picking “American Idiot” by a landslide. Our class thought that this stereotype best represented America due to Americans’ general obliviousness and apathy toward other cultures and other points of view. Obviously this stereotype is not true for all Americans, yet we thought it was the best representation of America’s people. Stereotypes, true or not, sometimes will be accepted and even considered to be fact. These stereotypes become even more entrenched as time progresses and can eventually be accepted as fact. Stereotypes are not always negative, they can be positive, and when a certain group in power has enough influence they can choose their own positive stereotypes and assign negative ones to people who are not in their group. This can be seen all throughout history; Hitler and the Aryan race is a good example. Another good example is slave owners using stereotypes to justify slavery. By making another group inferior it is easier to keep power and exploit the other group.

Considering all this, it is necessary to reanalyze my identity, and I encourage you to do the same. When I first analyzed my identity I identified race as one of the most defining characteristics. But after reading Matthew Frye Jacobson’s book Whiteness of a Different Color my opinion has changed. I have realized that the term white has not always been consistent; in fact, it has been constructed. If you identify yourself as Irish, Italian, Greek, Slavic or Jewish, at one time you would not have been considered white. In his book, Jacobson states that:

This increasing fragmentation and hierarchical ordering of distinct white races (now in the plural) was theorized in the rarified discourses of science, but it also reflected in literature, visual arts, caricature, political oratory, penny journalism, and myriad other venues of popular culture. It was this notion of variegated whiteness that surfaced in 1863, for instance, when the New York Tribune characterized the rioting Irish in New York as a “savage mob,” a “pack of savages,” “savage foes,”… It was this notion of variegated whiteness that undergirded Henry Cabot Lodge’s claim, in 1891, that Slovak immigrants “are not a good acquisition for use to make, since they appear to have so many items in common with the Chinese.” (Jacobson 41-42)

Jacobson gives many more examples of different prejudices against these probationary “white” groups, such as Italians being referred to as “white niggers” in the South (Jacobson 57). However, because of the Naturalization Law of 1790, which permitted “free white persons” to become citizens in the United States, these prejudices eventually fell away because the debate shifted toward two other minority groups, specifically the Blacks and the Native Americans.

Being partially Hungarian I can relate to the Irish being called savages because the Hungarians have been referred to as barbarians. When my Grandmother lived in Germany she told me a story that her second son was mistaken for having a black father because of the darker hue of the Hungarian skin tone. The malicious side of stereotyping people based on race can be seen in James Der Derian’s book Virtuous War. Der Derian begins his book by talking about the conflict in Kosovo. This conflict arose over a territorial dispute but turned into an ethnic cleansing led by Slobodan Milosevic and the Serbian Government. After seeing how the definition of “white” has changed solely for the purpose of power, political and economic, I can no longer consider being white an important part of my identity because I do not think it means anything. My definition of my whiteness has been built off of other people’s attempts to make other groups inferior, and at one time my Hungarian heritage fell under this category. To continue to accept this “white stereotype” would go against my personal beliefs.

American Identities in the Real World

I think it is hard to analyze American identities based solely on experiences that took place in America. We are so used to our own culture that it is very difficult to see what is really going on and how we are actually being perceived by others. When I was a junior in high school I went on a ten-day trip to Italy and Greece. While we were there we visited all sorts of tourist attractions such as The Vatican, the Coliseum, the Parthenon, and Pompeii, to name a few. Being immersed in a totally different culture was a bit of a shock but it made it easier to analyze how people in other countries viewed Americans. One of the first things that I noticed dealt with the language barrier. Our tour group knew practically no Italian or Greek words; we relied on our tour guide from the area to handle all the speaking and translating. Most Italians and Greeks we talked to knew a little bit of English; I assume this is because they were shop owners and most of their business came from tourism. Since I did not speak to any Italians or Greeks on the street I cannot comment on how their English was, but regardless this goes to strengthen the stereotype that Americans do not care to learn other languages and that we expect everyone to speak English.

This also goes hand in hand with culture. While we were there I was trying to absorb and learn as much as I could about the Italian and Greek culture. However I noticed that other people in my tour group could seem to care less about the culture they were in. Some people were even bored with all the tours we were taking and were even complaining! One night about half of our tour group went to an Italian club/bar, since there is no drinking age in Italy. We did the typical “American thing” and got drunk before we went to the club. While we were there I noticed some Italian girls staring at our tour group and a few other American tour groups that were in the club. This was obviously due to our drunken nature. One of my friends ended up getting kicked out of the club because he had too much to drink and was falling down all over the place. A few people in our group also puked out on the street. I was walking back alone form the club and accidentally stumbled into the wrong hotel; after realizing I was in the wrong hotel, I apologized and left. All of our actions were scrutinized by the locals, and rightly so. I think a lot out-of-control drinking was because we were so young. It was obvious to see that it is not the norm in Italy to party and get drunk like in America. Alcohol is treated very differently in Italy and all throughout Europe; they grow up with alcohol and learn to drink in moderation. This seems to be a severe contrast to Americans and the way that we drink alcohol.

I think that this behavior also enforces the negative stereotype that Americans are irresponsible and only like to party. American shows, like Jersey Shore, which are popular in Europe, can give Europeans a false sense of what the American identity really is. It is very hard for foreigners to get a sense of the real American identity without sitting down and getting to know us. Otherwise all their assumptions are usually based off of television shows and stereotypes. We need to make an effort to connect with other cultures and learn what their true identity is, not just assume things that reinforce stereotypes.

Analyzing Culture as an Identity

            If you have traveled to a different city, state, region, or country, you have probably noticed some cultural differences. The most obvious is often language or dialect. If you look deeper you will realize these differences occur because of how these people are brought up. I think that this shows where a person grows up influences them much more than their race.

My time in another country and reading Amy Chua’s book The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother made me realize this. Now after reading Chua’s book I can make a connection between the differences in culture in the United States and abroad. Chua’s style of parenting seemed very strict to me and to our class. At the start of the book Chua gives a list of things she never let her children do:

Attend a sleepover, have a play date, be in a school play, complain about not being in a school play, watch TV or play computer games, choose their own extracurricular activities, get any grade less than an A, not be the #1 student in any subject except gym and drama, play any other instrument other than piano or violin, not play the piano or violin. (Chua 3-4)

Throughout the book Chua tells stories about raising her children by these rules. To most people this standard of parenting is considered very strict and some of the stories Chua tells, in my opinion, border on abuse. However in the book Chua states that her mother was even stricter. It became obvious to me that we were looking at her book and style of parenting through our own cultural lens. To us her parenting seemed strict and abusive but Chua’s Chinese mother might think she was too lenient on her daughters.

I connected this difference in cultures with my time in Italy and Greece. Until I actually went abroad I would have never know the extent of differences in other cultures. When you grow up in one town your whole life that mentality becomes your status quo and this can be hard to break. This is best illustrated by my story of my classmates and I drinking in Italy. In our culture alcohol is treated very differently than it is in Italy. Kids over there grow up with alcohol and it is not the “forbidden fruit” that it is in the United States. This has taught me to recognize the differences in other cultures rather than the differences in people, such as race. The association between race and culture can cloud people’s judgments and lead to false interpretations that can be harmful such as the American Idiot stereotype or the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo.

My Opinion of America  

I truly believe that America is the greatest country in the world. It is also very unique when you compare it with other countries. The most important thing about America is that it was founded on the premise of freedom and individuality. The pilgrims came here in search of religious freedom; along with freedom of religion came a list of others such as freedom of speech and freedom of the press, to name a few. But there is also another kind of freedom, the freedom to be yourself and pursue your own interests, essentially the entitlement to the pursuit of happiness. I think that this is a good example of American identity.

When you compare America to other countries many differences become evident; for one thing, America is made up of a multitude of different people. America doesn’t have a definite ethnicity like most countries. Most countries in Europe are made up of people that have had a claim to the land for hundreds of years like the Germans or Swedes. America is truly a melting pot of all different ethnicities and cultures. Another thing that sets us apart from other countries is the diversity of different languages that are spoken here and the religions that are practiced. Unlike other countries, such as Iran, we do not have an official religion or official language. While the majority of Americans are Christian and speak English we have a sizable population that does not and we recognize this as a country. Because of the sheer variety of people in America it is hard to define what the American identity actually is; we cannot define our country by race, or religion or even language like so many other countries can. As Americans it is sometimes difficult to come together because we are so different and believe in so many different things.

I think that as Americans we are united not through a common religion or common language; we are united through freedom. We are united through the ideal that we are all created equal, that we are individuals, and that we are free to pursue our own happiness, whatever that may be. I think that this is the true American identity--it is not based on the characteristics of our people such as language or culture, but it is an idea. Everyone can get behind this idea and support it, which is part of the reason so many immigrants have come here in an effort to better there lives.  The American dream sounds cliché but rather than the American Dream being a house in the suburbs with a white picket fence, 2.5 kids and a dog I think the real American Dream is about opportunity. This opportunity for a better life has brought people from all across the globe to America in pursuit of their own American Dream. I think that this is the true American identity: freedom and opportunity.

Expanding on My Opinion of America

The above section describes my view of the ultimate identity of America; this idea of freedom. However after reading eight different books and discussing various aspects of the American identity, I am again forced to change my view. It now seems as though this idea of freedom is not distinctly American but it is an idea that the whole human race strives for; America is just the place to be for this idea of freedom to flourish. One of the more analytical books we read was Peter Spiro’s book Beyond Citizenship. His book analyzes what citizenship means and how important American citizenship actually is. Spiro states in his book that even non-citizens', such as illegal immigrants, freedoms are protected under the Constitution. If you do not have to be an American citizen for your freedom to be protected it is not inherently an American characteristic. I linked this theme back to the first book we read, The Death of Josseline by Margaret Regan. Her book is a tale of various immigrants trying to get into the United States to enjoy this freedom I described in the above section. It chronicles their journey across the border, the dangers, and what people are doing to help. Their own country does not provide the economic freedom that they need so they are forced to find it elsewhere. In addition to Regan’s book Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father also plays with this idea of freedom in a more subtle way. Obama chronicles his grandfather's, father's, and his own struggles for freedom from oppression in various ways. This idea of freedom is not isolated to America.

Analyzing Your Own Identity

My American Identities class really got me thinking about every aspect of my identity. It was something that I never really thought about because identity is so natural and usually something you usually do not analyze critically. Now I think that it is essential to analyze identity on a personal level and national level. We all need to be more conscious about what influences us and where our identity comes from and what it is based off of. I was very surprised with what I found when I examined my identity and I think you will, too.


Chua, Amy. Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. New York: The Penguin Press, 2011.

Der Derian, James. Virtuous War. New York: Routledge, 2009.

Jacobson, Matthew Frye. Whiteness of a Different Color. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999

Obama, Barack. Dreams from My Father. New York: Three Rivers Press, 1996.

Regan, Margaret. The Death of Josseline. Boston: Beacon Press, 2010.

Spiro, Peter. Beyond Citizenship. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

1 comment:

alex amarxon said...

There is nothing more elegant than a tall and lean, white-trunk aspen. Lower branches shed to leave delicate leaves quaking in the slightest breeze at the tastefully decorated crown. The Old Ones are regal and dignified. (THW, photo)wooden fence post