While working as a peer tutor in both community college and a four-year school, I frequently had to come to terms with my identity as, well, a confused American.
One of my tutees—I’ll call her Kate for the purpose of privacy—sat across from me in the computer lab, tapping her pen against her textbook.
“I am trying to learn more about American identities,” Kate said, speaking slowly so that I could understand her through her Japanese accent. “Since I am taking it as class, I want to know more.”
“I can try. What do you want to know?”
“What is your American identity?”
I faltered. “My identity?”
“Yes. What is it like to be an American, to have that identity?”
“Well,” I paused for deliberation. “There’s not really one answer. I mean, how I am isn’t how everyone else is.”
She looked at me in confusion, and I shifted nervously in my chair. Her questioning glance begged for an explanation, but it was one I was unwilling to give—although at the time I didn’t know why.
She looked at me with that I-don’t-get-it face as I twisted my pencil through my fingers, trying to find something to say. Meanwhile, she decided to take a different approach.
“In America, are certain birthdays bigger than others?”
I resisted the temptation to heave a sigh of relief. An easy question. “Sixteenth birthday parties are important to some people. I guess because you can start driving then. Also, sometimes eighteen, because you can vote then, or twenty-one because you’re at the legal age to drink alcohol.”
“Drinking is important here, isn’t it?”
“Um,” the question was one I wanted to avoid. “It is to some people. I don’t drink at all, but most people I know do. It is kind of important to a lot of Americans, but especially in college I think. I’m pretty sure people think I’m really weird for not drinking.” I laughed as I said the last sentence, hoping to appear as if I didn’t care about being weird.
Kate scrawled some notes in her composition book. “Do Americans like people from other countries?” I must have looked uncomfortable because she laughed and added, “In general. Not just me.”
I laughed too, but I still felt uncomfortable. Most of the time, my classmates avoided these kinds of discussions. “Of course,” I said. Then I stopped. “Well, people at Fredonia do I think. We care a whole lot about welcoming people from other cultures. But, to be honest, I don’t think it’s like that everywhere in America. In my hometown, people don’t talk about ethnicity much, but I’ve heard stories about places where that’s not the case. I mean, I like to know about other cultures for sure. I love to know people from various parts of the world, but I guess not everyone does.”
Her pen stopped moving. “What about girls who are fat? Are they accepted here?”
I shifted in my chair, considering her question. “No,” I said after a moment, “Not really. The posters in stores are all of very skinny girls, and pretty much all of our advertisements tell us we should lose weight.”
“But, I see fat girls on campus with boyfriends.”
“Yes,” I said, “That’s true. Do larger girls in your country not have boyfriends?”
“No, they don’t,” she said, “not usually.”
I was startled. My culture was suddenly looking very different.
“That’s another thing,” Kate continued, “I see girls in bikinis lying right in the middle of campus. Is that normal for Americans? They seem so free. In my country, no one would do that.”
I grimaced inwardly. “Again,” I said, “I would never do that. And, people at my community college would never have done that. They wear bikinis at the beach, not at school. It’s confusing because I’m not really used to Fredonia either. It’s so hard to say that certain actions are American. We’re all so different.”
Kate bit her lip in contemplation, and I shifted nervously in my chair. She was very good at English, so I knew her confusion had nothing to do with the language barrier.
“Americans are so free,” she said again. “They do things I never thought were okay before.” The way she said the word “free” made me wonder if she valued this freedom.
“Yeah, we are free. We value freedom very much in a lot of ways. I don’t agree with the things that some people choose to do, just as they don’t all agree with the things I choose to do, but in America we’re free to do lots of different things.”
I don’t know how much Kate considered this conversation after our session was over, but I thought about it all the way home, the whole evening, and well into the next day. And, ever since that point, her questions have haunted me.
What exactly is an American? And what is my American identity? Why was I so reluctant to explain my own differences?
As I considered these questions, I discovered that the root of my reluctance was found at the sole reason for my differences: my status as a Protestant Christian.
For the remainder of my narrative, please expel the following images, and all similar images, from your mind whenever I refer to Protestant Christianity.
“Realist” or even “Realistic” art cannot properly convey a sense of who Jesus was. Think of it this way. If a painter had never seen someone she was about to paint, how could she accurately depict that person? If she had a good verbal or written description, she might be able to recreate a fairly accurate image, but, if not, she must simply use her imagination.
In the case of paintings of Jesus, the artists have no descriptions of his physiognomy. In fact, The Bible says that Jesus just looked like an ordinary man. In this “ordinariness” there might have been space for artistic creativity, but the longstanding traditions of the church have, at least to some degree, suppressed the imaginative nature of these paintings. Jesus looks essentially the same in many of the paintings, creating a false sense of knowledge about what he looked like, and, even worse, about who he was.
Jesus, first of all, was not white. Second, he didn’t always have a glowing halo around his head. Third, I have no concrete evidence for this, but I’m sure he didn’t always look off into the distance like some kind of cold, inhuman being. He was a real person.
With that said, understand that I have never loved church. The cold stained-glass murals, the empty eyes of an artist’s rendition of a white, melancholy savior, even the dull purple of the new carpet—nothing about church buildings register in my mind as majestic or noteworthy.
I attended a small, Protestant church regularly as a child, following the example of my family. I viewed this attendance, even at a very young age, as a necessary part of the proper working of my world—although I found sitting still through an entire sermon a tedious task even in my teen-age years.
This oblivious attendance, I have often been told, is what forms the aspect of my identity called my religion. I, however, reject this idea—along with another frequently expressed opinion that family pressure formed my so-called religious views. My family believes in unconditional love. I can openly reject their views on any subject and see no difference in their actions towards me.
It is my firm conviction, therefore, that the part of my identity others call religion developed from a realization unsolicited by either my family or the numerous churches to which I have belonged.
As a young child, I remember having an epiphany as I rode my bike in circles at the end of our driveway. As I rode over the worn-out pavement, I reflected on the circles of my life—home, church, my homeschool cooperative group, and extended family gatherings. As I thought about my role in these circles, I came to the realization that I saw the world as centered on myself. I did not consider myself a bad person; after all, I obeyed my parents for the most part and tried my best to be kind to my friends. Yet, I was haunted by a sense of wrong motivation. Why did I obey my parents? Because if I did not, I would be in trouble. Why was I good to my friends? Because it made me feel good inside. I had a feeling that I was not as nice of a person as I liked to think.During my childhood, I also spent an extraordinary amount of time outside the confines of buildings and among nature. Since my education took place at home, in a fairly safe rural neighborhood, my parents let me read, play, and exercise outdoors as frequently as I wanted to—provided, of course, that I finished my school work on time. And, I wanted to be outdoors frequently.
I believe that it was there—in those moments when I sat nestled at the base of a tree, staring up at the network of branches above, or on a boulder in the creek as minnows swam below—that I developed the part of myself that I most value—that is: the part that was transformed by the realization that there is so much more to life than just living for my own happiness.
As a teen-ager, I began a slow, but continuous, journey to learn more about the man introduced to me as the Messiah—the one whose cold, iconic images now render him cliché and distant in so many minds. I wanted to see who he really was, beyond the dusty paintings and the exclusive pillars of tradition. I read the Bible, and I was amazed to find the message of love and forgiveness he brought to the world. I delved into the Old Testament and saw that God is more complex and powerful than I had ever thought before. And, after all—as C.S. Lewis taught me—should I not have known that God would be so far beyond us from my own experiences with the complexity of life and nature?
It was during this time, that I began to realize that following Jesus was not about the church building at all. Instead, it had to do with a remarkable quality among the people who followed him.
My childhood eyes were always watching the people in my church—from the young couple with the baby that cried every Sunday to the elderly woman who fell asleep in the middle of every sermon. I watched them closely to see what, exactly, brought them all here into this sub-par, moldy building. This is what I saw.
I saw a woman in my church forgive her husband for cheating on her, even before he came back to her; I watched their marriage rebuild. I saw the people from my church come visit me in the hospital when I had appendicitis. I saw the church members pray together, openly admitting their own shortcomings. I saw my youth pastor work in a homeless shelter, called the Bowery Mission, tirelessly, giving his time and money to help those with nothing. As a teen-ager, I saw my close friends choose sexual abstinence until marriage, even when it was hard, because they cared so much about following what he taught. I saw racial and economic boundaries disappear between friends. And, I watched as my pastor in college took away the part of the service dedicated to the morning offering in an effort to show his congregation that he wanted to help them, not to take their money.
After all that I had seen of the power of Jesus’ name, why did I not wish to talk about my differences? Why was I afraid to speak up?
As Americans, one of our main points of weakness is our prejudice. We create false boundary lines between groups of people in more ways than I can describe. From the division of social groups in high schools to the glass ceiling in the workplace, we divide ourselves in terms of perceived race, educational level, type of education, religion, appearance, eating habits, salary, living conditions, clothing choice, level of fitness, height, gender, overall social status, and more. The fact that America contains such diversity, such differences, is wonderful. Yet, all too often, we draw these lines not as points of interest but as points of making ourselves look better, forgetting that we all share the common identity of humanity, in search of fostering an “other.” We forget, in the very process of trying to encourage “respect,” that we are not showing proper respect to certain groups of people.
American history has shown, time and time again, that we, as Americans, are biased, racist, and prejudiced towards outside influences. We do not want immigration to wipe out our identities. We want to remain distinctly apple-pie American at all costs.
How, you might ask, does this relate to my own reluctance to convey my religious beliefs?
First, Protestant Christianity has been guilty of shameful acts of prejudice over the course of history. There is no denying that people have committed atrocious, hateful crimes in the name of the one who told us to “love your neighbor as yourself” and to “forgive seventy times seven.” Many people, now, see Jesus as the cold figurehead of an ideological movement intended to make everyone who is not a Christian the evil “other,” and, in the light of certain historical movements, they are right to be skeptical of the ideology that the church has formed around the original life and words of Jesus.
However, this is not to say that Christianity has only had negative impacts historically. The Quakers were among the first to consider the moral dilemmas surrounding slavery, and many branches of Christianity supported the civil rights movement. Indeed, historically black churches greatly supported the civil rights movement, providing places for meetings and encouraging the congregations to support protests. For example, Martin Luther King’s famous “I have a Dream Speech” was widely supported by the black Christian church. Currently, Christianity also serves as a kind of transnational identity, as an increasing number of individuals from other countries, such as Korea, embrace the religion. So, while Christianity has a negative history, it also has a positive history of supporting oppressed groups and of welcoming social change.
Also, in the thread of history that mainstream culture has all but forgotten, in the quiet lives of Christians who take Jesus’ words and actions seriously, lives another branch of so-called “religion." True Christianity is about embracing differences, about unconditional forgiveness, about always having a chance to start over again, and about ridding oneself of hatred. The kind of Christianity that truly seeks to understand Jesus’ mission centers on, not social pressure conversions, but on living one’s life with the intent of showing unconditional love, not in word but in action.
In the wave of secular humanism present in educated societies today, Christianity has come to mean, for some, a way to inhibit progress, a crutch for the weak, or a downright malicious form of squelching free-thinking.
That is precisely why it is so difficult to voice my American identity, to explain my differences. I have a voice, but it is a voice that, like so many others today, is often pressured into silence. Caught between wanting to share our views and the fear of being discriminated against or of offending someone, we are, often, silent when we should be sharing our ideas.
while in my undergraduate studies, I found myself increasingly alone.
“How old are you?” The words came from a professor of religious studies, whose hour- long interview with me had just come to a close. I had agreed to participate in a “religious study” since my co-worker was having difficulty finding any “fundamentalist” Christians.
“Twenty,” I answered.
“Twenty. You are too young to be so sure about what you believe. I am a doctorate of religion. I’ve spent much of my life studying different religions. You cannot be so certain.”
I said nothing. What was there to say?
He continued. “Do you know your Bible?”
“The respect of the Lord is…?”
“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom?” I asked, uncertain if that was the verse he was looking for.
“I like ‘respect’ better. You have to show people respect, and you have to listen with an open mind. Ever since you came into my office you’ve been defensive and too sure of yourself. How old is Christianity? 2,000 years, right?”
I was starting to wish I had left the moment he turned the recorder off. After the interview, I had refused payment, feeling that it wouldn’t be right of me to take money for simply talking about my beliefs. And, in that moment, his attitude towards me changed completely, like the flipping of a switch.
He was waiting for an answer.
“Well,” I said, “It is...But, it’s older if you consider The Old Testament order as part of Christianity.”
“Do you know how old Hinduism is?"
"No." I had a pretty good guess, but I didn't want the conversation to escalate into any further perceived disrespect on my part.
"5,000 years, " he said."You are too young to be sure of yourself. You need to learn respect."
As someone who hadn't been accused of disrespect since junior high school, I was starting to feel ovwerhelmed. He would have continued, I think, but I broke down in tears.
I had answers for him. I had reasons why I believed and why Christianity’s state as a seemingly younger religion didn’t negate its truth. But, how could I explain them without engaging in an activity he saw as disrespectful?
“If you will not consider other views,” he said, “then you are dead to me.”
I was late to class because of the interview, and my professor asked afterwards if I was all right. She was very kind, and I wanted to tell her what had happened. But, I was too afraid. She didn’t know me well enough to vouch for my character, other than the fact that I came to class and participated. I told her I was just having a bad day.
I thought about telling a classmate about the interview, but I decided against that as well. My classmates were all very kind, and I loved hearing their different perspectives on the world. Listening to them helped me learn about the incredible diversity of thought and ideas that can exist inside of even just one classroom. Yet, I didn’t expect them to understand my own views. As I listened to their ideas, I came to realize that the life I lived was completely different from my classmates. And, maybe they, too, would think I was disrespectful and too sure of myself.
So I lapsed into a kind of pressured silence about my views.
At the same time as I felt this pressure towards silence about my religion, I also felt a pressure of guilt over the color of my skin.
Generations of white Americans have oppressed Native Americans, African Americans, and Asian Americans. The books that I read constantly point to the guilt of my ancestors, and, since my ancestors have been in America for a very long time (I have Daughters of the American Revolution status on both sides of my family tree), I cannot escape this guilt by placing my past in a different country. I am as white as I can be. As such, must I uphold the guilt of my ancestors?
I cannot fully answer that question. However, I have come to learn that upholding guilt from the past should not consume us in the present. Instead, it should motivate us to make changes, to look towards the future with the idea in mind that we can make a positive difference.
During college, for the first time, I became sharply aware of my race. In my hometown, and even at my community college, diversity was an accepted part of life. Black, White, Hispanic, and Asian people lived and worked side by side. We hardly ever even talked about the differences in our skin. If we were from separate countries, we talked about it as a point of curiosity—always with the understanding that we shared the common identity of being human.
At Fredonia, however, among a new group of friends, I started to perceive racial boundaries.
“You are racist because you are white,” one of my best friends informed me, “You can’t help it.” This remark, coming unexpectedly, almost randomly, from my friend, haunted me for months afterwards. Was I racist just by existing, regardless of what I did to fight against racism?
As I learned more in history class about the horrific racial oppression in which my ancestors took part, I found myself becoming more and more ashamed of my own race. I wished desperately that I could trace my ancestry anywhere but here.
As I met my husband, however, whose ancestry is in the Philippines, I began to come to terms with my race as well. Some people, like my husband, do accept me in spite of the mistakes so many of my ancestors made. I can never undo the wrong that they did, but I can make sure that my life is devoted to welcoming people who are different, to seeking their best. Besides, it is not what people think of me that matters the most—believing that it is has been one of my most frequent downfalls. Instead, what matters is how I view the world and how well I put other’s needs before my own.
Just as I wish for more acceptance of my own identity as a Protestant Christian, so my friends wish for acceptance of their identities.
Ultimately, I do believe our goal as Americans is to respect one another, to learn about our differences, and to become individuals who live up to the statement that “all men are created equal.” Sometimes respect means listening to someone whose opinion you may not want to hear, sometimes respect means staying quiet about a disagreement, and sometimes it means giving up the notion of being right about an issue. But, in the end, respect should never mean that an individual fears to voice his or her beliefs, no matter how young he or she may be.
I have a voice now about my own identity as a Protestant, Christian American who believes in the power of loving others unconditionally.
It is time for us, as Americans, to allow for true respect to govern our actions, the kind of respect that allows for us to stand on truth, but to also be prepared to let others voice their ideas. There is nothing wrong with knowing where you stand and voicing that truth, as long as you are willing to listen to other people.
That is my voice. Now, let me hear yours.