22 November 2013

The American Identity...

As told by a hopeful English Graduate Student

I’m sure many of you who have stumbled upon this page have already seen at least one of the stereotypical symbols of America flash through your mind.  (If one were to search “America” through Google, he or she might find images of stars and stripes, bald eagles, The Statue of Liberty, and fireworks.)  I’ll admit that when I think of America, I briefly picture the Liberty Bell and the American Flag, both of which symbolize freedom; I can’t help but look through that idealistic lens.  Who wouldn't want to believe their country was the greatest in the world?  However, we have been raised to sing praises to our country as “land of the free” without really asking ourselves, How true is our song?
So, what does it mean to be “American?” The citizens of this country have a responsibility to the world as a model for freedom. Even after 237 years, we have a long way to go. Based on my personal interpretation of Thomas Jefferson’s declaration of the American right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” I will attempt to explore the “American Identity:”

I, as an American have the right to live my life with the freedom to be responsible for myself. I will be able to make choices that, for better or for worse, affect my future. I am guaranteed my right to live in pursuit of what makes me happy so long as my actions do not infringe upon the rights of other citizens.

How we all wished college
works, right? 

In other words, I don’t believe in depending on others for my own success.  For example, I do not maintain the “right” to attend college because of my desire to attend. Rather, I was accepted in academic fields based on my dedication to academic excellency.  This sounds like a simple enough concept; do the work, gain success.  But is it that simple? My definitions of freedom, success and happiness might seem clear to me, but what does it mean to “infringe upon the rights of others?”  Just as I have my own ideas of what is free and just, so do other citizens.  There is a particular competition within America to define “equality” because citizens have competing values.  I would be arrogant and self righteous to assume that my definition could work for everyone.  So reader, take this definition with a grain of salt as I have have found my definition to be more and more exclusive to my life and the way I was raised in America.

Redefining Equality

To explain where I’m coming from, let me tell you first where I came from. I was raised in a small town in upstate New York; Adams to be exact.  I would be surprised if you could find it without a GPS, and the demographic is exactly what you would expect- white, heterosexual and conservative.  I’m not exaggerating when the number of black students in my high school could be counted on one hand.  I don’t remember have a conscious racist, sexist or homophobic attitude growing up, but maybe I did because of limited face-to-face exposure.  I was raised to appreciate the arts; listening to musicians that were predominantly nonwhite, such as Sammy Davis Jr., Miles Davis, and Ella Fitzgerald; and learning about visual artists such as Georgia O’Keefe. (I maintain that my interest in artistic expression in dance, music, art and writing were born through these influences).  At any rate, I can’t imagine myself with intentionally prejudiced attitudes now.  Even though my college experience in Fredonia is not the most ideal for exposure to diversity, I have taken an interest in civil rights issues.

Immigration Carnival
In the education before college, I was told that America is the “land of the free.” What I didn't realize is how America can quickly be classified as “land of the exclusive.”  Our obsession with immigration laws strikes me as odd, since our country was born through immigration.  (But then I remember, all those people were Anglo-Saxon, white as could be, and imposed power over American Natives. We started exclusion early.) But the exclusion does not stop with race. In the drafts of this project, I did not consider myself a civil rights activist, but I think I am headed in that direction.  My obsession with equality began through my support of the LGBTQA community, but has grown to include work in both gender studies and feminism. For citizens outside the binaries, equality is still only a concept.  Even though I am a straight female, I believe that every American citizen should have equal rights regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.  

Opposition to such equality doesn't make sense to me for the following reason: a homosexual person who was born or has legally immigrated to the United States is legally a citizen.  Since this person is a citizen, then he or she should have the same rights as a heterosexual citizen.  If there really is separation of church and state, then a law denying marriage or any other right based on sexual orientation or gender identity is unconstitutional.  Some may argue that I have oversimplified the issue, to which I have concluded that Americans still seem to struggle with removing prejudices against those who are different from themselves.  I can recognize how current civil rights mirror those present in the 1960’s, which Americans are educated on at an early age.  However, many aren't as aware of the prejudices faced by other demographics in the past, such as Chinese, Italians, Irish and Jewish immigrants.  Reflecting upon history, there will always be a demographic that struggles to achieve equality.
Yes, society has improved enough to deem women fit for citizenship, but there are so many more hurdles before social equality is met. Gender roles are still very concrete, such as the sexualization of women in the media. I'm not suggesting that women cover themselves from their ankles to their necks, but there should not be an overwhelming pressure for women to "show off their curves" or submit to the societal definition of "femininity." Likewise, a man should not be pressured to conform to the socially constructed masculine identity. He should not be pressured to show aggression or apologize for wearing pink. (It's just a color...). I analyzed the novel Gone Girl with a feminist lens. The author, Gillian Flynn is a feminist and invokes some critical thought on gender roles and the images of women.


It’s funny... because I’m a feminist with German ancestry.
Maybe I’ll try to reclaim it...

I honestly never thought I would consider myself a feminist, but I suppose this is due to the baggage that term brings.  All I knew about feminism before leaving my hometown was rooted in the false stereotype that all feminist are radical and/or lesbians; hearing labels such as  bra burners” “feminazis and “man-haters.” A legitimate definition of feminism explains feminism as the advocacy of women’s rights on the grounds of political, social and economic equality to men.  Instead of being taught that feminism was about equality, I was exposed to the idea that all feminists are over-dramatic and radical.  I soon realized that this view of feminism is flawed, and is a reflection of how women are perceived in general.  Equating the woman to emotion was once so crippling that she was denied the rights of citizenship and leadership.

"Women are citizens now. They have a right to an education as well as career and are independent of men. Why do we need feminism?"

The following conversation took place at a fast food restaurant, between a female co-worker and myself.

Friend: Don’t talk about feminism or rape around Ellen. She’ll get mad.
Me: Well...
Friend: Oh don’t make that face... I don’t understand what the big deal is.  Feminism is stupid and girls are annoying. Trust me, I have to deal with a lot of lesbians.
Me: What does that have to do with anything? You enjoy having a job and playing sports right? How do you think you are able to do that?
Friend: Well yeah, but why are you so obsessed with rape?
Me: It’s a little different when it actually happens to you (cue hushed silence from the rest of the kitchen).
Friend: No it’s not. I was raped. I got over it. Life sucks you know?
Me: Yeah it does, don’t you want to do something to prevent it from happening?

rape culture.

A growing part of my identity is my involvement in the Vagina Monologues because I realized that I can make a difference in the lives of women who have been abused emotionally, physically and/or mentally.  Women are still living in a world where lessons to  “avoid rape” are taught over “don’t rape.” Again, I don’t maintain that strictly women are victims in the situation. However, I must be aware of the reality; that as of 2012 statistics, 1 in 5 women in America have reported rape crimes, while “only” 1 in 71 men have reported the same crimes (Sexual Violence Facts- CDC).  In learning more about violence against women (and men) I am now able to identify multiple types of abuse (physical, mental and emotional), and I place great importance in this ability.  Perhaps my concern with the legitimate safety of my fellow Americans can explain my interpretation of freedom.  When I say “infringe upon the rights of others,” I am questioning those who assume they have the right to control another person’s body or mind simply because of their desire to do so.  

One of my most recent poems is based on what I have learned concerning violence against women, the other was inspired by the transgender community. Both pieces are the beginning of what will be a portfolio representing the American identity:

In trying to explain the above ideologies, I feel I have failed thus far in explaining certain aspects that are crucial to my identity.  As previously mentioned, I was born in a small city and grew up in an even smaller town.  In 1991, I was born with the physical disability, cerebral palsy. I don’t like to consider CP as one of my main identifiers, but I’d like to think the difficulties concerning this disability has contributed to my character in a few ways.  Perhaps this is why I am so caught up in the definition of equality.  I am an American citizen who is, in a very small way, outside the majority.  In no way do I claim to know what it’s like to be a minority in any other sense than being a woman, but I am familiar with explaining personal differences to others in the dominant culture.


Reader, you are most likely wondering how a woman so obsessed with expanding the definition of equality could place any value in competition.  On the surface, competition seems unfair.  The negative connotations caused by corrupt businessmen and women and the devaluation of hard work, for example, can deter us from believing in competition.  Our history of inequality gives us reason to constantly question the motives of others.  However, if we had a more equal opportunity driven society and group agenda, then competition might have a better name.  If you remember my definition of freedom, I make a point to say that I have the right to have responsibility for myself; meaning I have the right to live my life as I please, so long as I willingly accept the appropriate consequences of my actions and efforts.  We need a better balance of equal opportunity and sense of obligation to ourselves. And sometimes, that means we end up in places we don’t expect.

...which is exactly what I experienced.

Last year, I failed to complete students teaching successfully.  At first, I was completely devastated.  How could I fail myself in a goal that I was so focused to reach, especially when I have never previously failed myself in academics?  A main criticism of my teaching was a lack of management, which is a skill that virtually all new teachers struggle with.  My first instinct was to blame the system, but then I started to think back to my time in education courses.  My transcripts may read near a 4.0, but that was exactly the problem- my success was just proven on paper.  When I had practical teaching assessments in methods courses, I would freeze on the spot, or lose my train of thought.  After having time to process my “failure,” I do have qualms with the education department. After my experience, I realized my time in a full classroom in the early stages of the program was limited; therefore, I was not as prepared for such an environment during student teaching.  However, I see a difference in myself from other students in that department. Some are so dedicated to teaching that I joke they might work for free.  Since beginning English Studies, I found that my passion for feminism might finally match what I originally searched for through education.  
So what does this have to do with my perspective on American identities?  Even though I still support the daily competition among citizens in their “pursuit of happiness,” I have come to realize how much pressure young people are under to plan for their future, and the pressure to choose a career in a STEM field, which makes sense. The rising influence of technology will require more work in these fields. However, the thought process, What will be my salary? is programmed into young adults, rather than What will make me happy?  I am ashamed that American students have a tendency to devalue the learning process. I see this especially in the humanities, which is a much wider field than most realize. I threw myself into education, thinking it would work out because I loved children and school; and because I knew that even though the market for new teachers is delicate, at least teaching is a well known and socially respected career.

What most STEM majors think I'll be doing with my life... 

Can a teenager really determine what he or she wants to do for the rest of his or her life?

The lucky ones find passion early, but what about the rest of us? I for one, am interested in many different subjects, which is why I had a difficult time choosing a major. Luckily this interest allowed me to create an Interdisciplinary degree out of my elective courses. Others are not so lucky, some “indecisive” students struggle to finish a degree in 4 years. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, only 59% of students were able to complete a 4 year program in 6 years in the graduation year of 2011 (NCES). There isn't even a statistic for completing such a program in 4 years.  

So What am I Trying to Say?

In this piece, I have mostly discussed a specific slice of the American identity. My focus is naturally on young people, ranging from teenagers to citizens in their late 20’s.  Attention to this age group seems well deserved to me, because these people are current and future decision makers.  If I may say so, this country was founded on the principle of representation of its citizens.  However, for this to be effective, the citizens must be educated in current issues.  More specifically, young Americans should have a larger voice in politics. The ceremony for the anniversary of the March on Washington was moving, but also missing a very important component; future leaders.  Two young citizens were prepared to speak before a massive crowd on a highly relevant social issues and their time was cut due to “time constraint.” (They wanted 2 minutes). On one side, we are encouraged to speak up when we have a pertinent opinion, but on the other, we are hushed and brushed to the side. I think the disregard of the young American’s opinion has caused some of us to give up on trying to figure out what’s happening in the world. That being said, we need to have strong arguments (and possibly become as obsessed as I have proven to be with feminism) in order to be taken seriously and ultimately, represented.
As American citizens, we have the freedom of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” We work toward bettering ourselves as a nation; whether socially, financially, or economically.  These areas are constant as are the words “freedom” and “equality,” but the interpretation of them will continue to be dynamic with each generation. Americans are encouraged by the Constitution to challenge former interpretations of these concepts in order to secure their rights as citizens. The logic is somewhat circular, but the object is for the people and our government to keep each other in check.
           Some may argue that we are close to achieving absolute equality. I must disagree with this notion.  The dynamic nature of “equality” has been addressed.  However, as a feminist, I am now clearly tuned in to how unequal male and female citizens remain.  I am not just speaking about the right to earn an equal salary or the right to work in a certain position.  My concern lies with the severity of stereotypes in gender, race and sexuality because these attitudes have remained present through multiple generations.  I move to grant Americans a reminder of what our country was meant to represent; to be a people relentlessly dedicated to redefining “equality.”


Egalitarian said...

The "1 in 71 men have been raped" stat from the CDC survey doesn’t tell the whole story. It defines "rape" as the attacker penetrating the victim, which excludes women who use their vagina to rape a man (rape by envelopment) which is counted as “made to penetrate”. The very same survey says “1 in 21 men (4.8%) reported that they were made to penetrate someone else,” which is far more than 1 in 71. Also, the study says that 79.2% of male victims of “made to penetrate” reported only female perpetrators, meaning they were raped by a woman.

The above, lifetime stats do show a lower percentage of male victims (up to 1.4% rape by penetration + 4.8% made to penetrate = 6.2%) than female victims (18.3%) although it is far more than the 1 in 71 you stated. However, if you look at the report’s stats for the past 12 months, just as many number of men were “forced to penetrate” as women were raped, meaning that if you properly include “made to penetrate” in the definition of rape, men were raped as often as women.

Melissa said...

I think you bring up many important points. I am very interested in feminist and gender theory, and the history of patriarchy. It seems to be threaded throughout culture all the way back to Adam and Eve!!! How unfortunate....good thing we are beginning to realize our past mistakes and attempt to change such dated misconceptions. We need more conversations like this.

Ellen Scherer said...

Thank you for pointing that statistic out. I suppose this proves my over-arcing point that many Americans are violated regardless of their race, gender, ethnicity and what have you. I suppose the statistics are often misleading because trying to prove rape cases is so difficult. On top of that, it seems like women are more likely to recognize/admit to being violated than men are. Do you suppose this has something to do with our hegemonic masculinity?