Developing My Identity in a World of Stereotypes
It is precisely 4:20 on August 22, 2011, as I am walking to my American Identities class. It is the first day of classes of my senior year of college, and I am feeling nervous, anxious, and excited all in one. As I am walking towards Fenton Hall, a friend stops me to ask where I am headed.
“American Identities” I reply nonchalantly.
“What’s that?” she asks indifferent.
“Good question,” I mutter.
It was a great question. One that I began wondering about during the rest of the walk to class. Even after the first class, I was not fully aware of the answer. Little did I know, there is not one specific definition of American identities. Rather, it is a question that relates to your own personal identity, and how that relates to your idea of the ultimate American identity, if you believe in one. For me to better understand American identities, I had to first explore my own identity and how it has shaped me into the person I am today. And so it began on that day, August 22, 2011, that I first set out to explore my identity.
Beginning the journey of exploring my identity has given me perspective on my life. Without knowing who I was, I could not develop my own goals as a person or as a citizen of this country. I urge you all to take a step back, and as you read this, think about who you are. Has your identity changed over time? Have you tried to accomplish goals that meant a lot to you? Think about what defines your world and how that in turn plays a role in what American identities means to you. The first step I took in this journey was simply going back to the basics by exploring my age and gender.
Age and Gender:
For some, the fact that I am twenty-one years old and in college may already say a lot about my personality-that is, a hard-core drinker who just wants to party and hook up all the time. These college stereotypes are common throughout the United States, with at least half the college population actually living up to these expectations. Both my age and gender say a lot about what I am “supposed” to be like, instead of who I really am.
In retrospect, my gender plays a huge role in my own identity development. As a senior in college, I look back on my first few months at Fredonia and I do not even know who that person was. I was under the impression that if I did not drink on the weekends, then I was “uncool.” If I stayed in on a weekend to watch a movie, I would be made fun of by my roommate. Why couldn’t I do what I wanted to do? Even in high-school, I was known as the “class ditz.” I thought this was great because it meant that guys noticed me. Guys wanted girls they could make fun of because it meant he liked you. That was my philosophy. But soon it was not an act anymore. Celebrities who said funny and stupid things were always in magazines constantly being talking about. Jessica Simpson’s “Is this chicken or tuna?” comment made national headlines. I was beginning to act “blond” all the time. I colored my hair, wore lots of makeup, and lost 10 pounds just to be “that” girl. When I began to attend college, it was no doubt that I had no idea who I was. After a few months of adjustments, I began to grow into my own skin little by little and begin developing into the person I am today.
After that stressful freshman year of college, I always made the Dean’s list, tried my hardest, and did not let myself be that “stupid” girl who did not know who she was. My gender is who I am. So many women feel like they need to be quiet and timid to live up to society’s “expectations” of them. I personally know many women in today’s society that graduate college and then become housewives, merely living off of their husband’s money. This phenomenon has become so popular that there are even reality television shows called “The Housewives of Orange County” or “New Jersey” or even “Atlanta.” As a society we have become so obsessed with watching how wealthy people live and act. We crave the drama that takes place in their lives and love to look at their designer clothes. My sisters watch these shows and I often wonder why. I’d much rather read a book, but that’s just me.
At twenty-one I can now honestly say I know who I am. I am going to be an English teacher. I am a lover of books and music. I always say what is on my mind, and I do not care what people think of me. I do not let college boys walk all over me. I am strong and determined. I am a woman, and I love who I am. This may change throughout the years, but regardless of that change, my age and gender will always play a role in my identity.
Family and Friends:
My identity at twenty-one goes way back to my roots. I would not have gotten to the place I am today without my family and friends. Everyday I feel so grateful for the people I have in my life. Granted it has not always been this way. As an adolescent, I took my friends and family for granted, only caring about myself. Coming to college, I really began to appreciate everything my parents have sacrificed for me. I have been extremely lucky in having both of my parents there for me as I was growing up. They never missed the softball games, prom pictures, and music concerts that meant so much to me. Even through that struggling time in high-school when I did not know who I was, my family and friends both stuck by my side, knowing I would soon see the light in the tunnel.
My parents have passed down generations of traditions for our family to experience. Traditions that I will pass down to my own family as well. My ethnicities are both Italian and Polish, so respecting my heritage is also important to my family. During the holidays we always honor Italian and Polish traditions, whether it be through what we cook or how we celebrate. Family recipes have been passed down from generation to generation, ones that I will teach my family in the future as well. I want to keep my American identity, but at the same time, stay true to my roots.
Reading the Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua in class has really helped me to better understand the role of cultural diversity in the world. Amy Chua is a Chinese-American mother, who is raising a family in America. Her parenting style differs greatly than most American parenting style because she stays very true to her ethnic identity. Chua’s own parents were very hard on her as a child, believing studying and working hard were the most important things. Chua passes these beliefs down to her own children as well. Regardless of whether we agree with Chua’s parenting styles or not, it is still important to note how she brings her own ethnicity and her new American identity into raising her family. Even if she lives in a different environment, she still holds true to her culture, and that is very respectable.
While reading The Death of Josseline in American Identities, I became even more aware of how my family plays a huge role in who I am. This work of journalism and investigative reporting, written by Margaret Regan, is about the treacherous journey Immigrants have to make when crossing the Arizona border. Regan’s reporting was hard for me to read at times because I could not imagine never having one of my parents with me while growing up. Granted we did not have a nice family dinner every night, but my dad does not have to live in another state or country to make money to support us. Regan goes into great depth about what America is doing about Immigration and migrants who cross into Arizona. People are dying slow deaths on the trails because of the poor conditions and Border Patrol. Mexico is very close to the United States, and I was not even aware that this was happening until I read Regan’s work.
How does our country feel about the, as Regan says, “human tragedy” that is taking place? Immigration is no longer just a word to me. Immigration means poverty, death, hardships, lonesome families, and struggle. This piece of journalism enables me to connect to Josseline, the young girl who died alone on the trail. Regan takes me into the heart of these people’s lives. I can even sympathize with these migrants. Where else are they supposed to go? They want to go to a better place, and to these migrants, this place is America. America, the same nation defined as freedom. The same nation that is going to spend billions of dollars to put up a virtual fence in 2014 to protect its borders. America identifies itself in two contradicting ways in a sense. What does freedom mean to us? Does it mean that Immigrants cannot migrate to our country because they are from Mexico? Does it only matter if we are free and not if the migrants are free?
Our country was founded upon Immigrants, yet we do not even want them to enter our country. If they do, many people discriminate against them and use racial slurs towards them. People all over the world immigrated to our country hundreds of years ago, but now it seems like we make them the minority because some may not be Caucasian. For example, many Native Americans settled in our country long before the Thirteen Colonies were developed, but we still treat this group of people as though they are not part of our country at times. This brings me to my next thought: what is “national” identity?
The first week of this class was very interesting, to say the least. I have always thought about common American stereotypes, but I never really put labels on them before. It was very helpful for me to discuss these stereotypes with a group of classmates. I learn a great deal by having discussions with others, so I gained a lot of insight about different experiences and interpretations from this group of people. The Ultimate American Stereotype Competition was fun, but at the same time really informative. This competition consisted of my classmates and I forming groups and coming up with our own example of the “Ultimate American Stereotype.” This not only enabled me to think about my own identity as a whole, but the competition also gave me time to reflect on what America and the American people mean to me. I began to ask myself questions such as, “are we really a lazy, ignorant society?”
Though I am not obese or lazy when it comes to my health and mind, I may be ignorant at times. During class we watched a Jay Leno video where he asked Americans random questions about our country that they should know the answer to. I found myself astonished that these people could not answer simple questions such as “how many stars are on the American flag?” But, at the same time, I am no better than them. Before taking this class I have never read The Constitution nor The Declaration of Independence. I also did not know much about politics. I felt so embarrassed and mortified to even admit that I did not know much about the government at all. I always told myself that I would put time aside to read the newspaper or watch the news, but I’d never end up doing it. I wanted to be interested in politics so I could understand more about the daily decisions the government makes regarding the country I am living in and my future. I wanted to be informed about events and issues happening around the country and the world, but I was having trouble finding something that relates to me, something that I can connect with.
Hurricane Irene was something that affected my extended family, so I began strengthening my national identity by religiously informing myself on the status of the hurricane when this took place. My family also has a lot of health care troubles, so I try to keep up to date on health insurance issues. When my mother was diagnosed with cancer, I made it a habit to constantly be up-to-date about the health care activist Elizabeth Edwards (who has sadly passed away) and what she was doing in regards to health care coverage. I find that if I cannot connect or relate to something in the newspaper, I will not read it. It is not only that I cannot relate, but I find myself so intimidated by some of the terminology used in the USA Today, for example, that I do not even bother reading the articles because I feel like I won’t understand any of it. Is this what happened to the Americans on the Jay Leno show?
National identity can mean many things to different types of people. To me, it does not mean needing to have legal status or believing in a certain set of ideas. National identity to me is believing in your own set of ideas and opinions, but being respectful of others’ differing opinions as well. America is made up of many different types of cultures and ethnicity's. National identity is accepting these cultures and beliefs for what they are, and still being able to maintain your own ideas and values. While my American Identities course is coming to an end, I can now say I know so much more about politics than I did before. I have made time to be up-to-date with current events so I can form my own beliefs and opinions on issues regarding America, because this I believe, is a huge part of one’s national identity.
I feel most American, for example, when I set time aside to learn about the virtual fence the government wants to put up on the Arizona border, disagree with it, but still accept the decisions and ideas the American government makes and believes in. These same ideas relate to the identities of Americans who are racially, ethnically, or religiously different than me. By understanding and learning about other cultures and ethnicities, I am able to become more tolerant and accepting of those who are different, and still form my own beliefs based off of what I have learned about different cultures as a whole.
Understanding the World Around Us:
American identities means how we as a country define ourselves and what that impact is on our society today. I believe understanding world history plays a huge role in how we think about our society, and the struggles and challenges we face on a daily basis. I also believe that in order to understand American identities we need to understand our country’s impact on the world around us.
Contrary to the Ultimate American Stereotypes Competition we held at the beginning of the semester, I do not believe there is one stereotype that can define all of America. In my opinion, America is not a word that signifies one group of stereotyped people. Many history textbooks focus on the perspective of one group of people, but I think a huge part of understanding American identities is reading and learning about different events in history and in society now, and how they have influenced multiple groups of people. Everyone in America has their own story that represents who they are and what they can do for their society. I think it is so wrong when History teachers teach right from the text, merely having his or her students memorize facts in order to pass the class. We as a nation need to learn from experiences and events and reflect upon them. Knowing the facts of World War II is not going to give me a huge insight and perspective on what the War did for the American people. I have read memoirs about wives and children who grew up during this time, as well as talked with many veterans to better understand what America was like during these years. Instead of placing judgments on the decision to drop the Atomic Bomb, for example, I want to take many different perspectives into consideration in order to better understand the world around me, and not just the world the textbooks give me.
My identity has changed throughout this course because I have thought about what American identities means to me. Instead of using others’ opinions, I used those thoughts to develop my own beliefs on my own identity and what national identity means to me. Being able to examine one’s self is not easy, but it is extremely important. Nothing is going to get accomplished if we are all just a cloud in the sky. Instead, we as a society have to learn about ourselves and our world and take those beliefs to better understand what we can do to make America less about stereotypes and more about acceptance. Stereotypes are always going to be around, whether it be in America or in another country. What matters is what we do with those preconceived notions and perceptions.
It has been months since that first American Identities class, and I can honestly say I feel like I have become a different person. Instead of walking down the hall endlessly dreading another class to go to, I found myself questioning my own thoughts and opinions about myself and society. Each day I have become even more aware of how much my opinion does matter and make a difference to others. I am not just another number and neither are you. Your opinions and perspectives matter to an ever-growing diverse society.
Explore your own identity; it may surprise you.
Chua, Amy. Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. New York: Penguin, 2011. Print.
Regan, Margaret. The Death of Josseline: Immigration Stories from the Arizona-Mexico Borderlands. Boston, MA: Beacon, 2010. Print.