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Define 'American'

July 7, 2017


We are living in a country with an identity crisis; because of this, what would you say it ‘means to be American?’


Does being ‘American’ have anything to do with how long you’ve lived here?  Is being ‘American’ defined by a certain race, religion, or culture?  It’s not a stretch to say that the division on display throughout this country hasn’t been seen since the Civil Rights Movement and it boils down to people's perceptions of what they think America should act like, sound like, and even look like.


Like most things in life, it’s not until we leave a situation that we can fully step back and examine what we were engulfed in. That’s exactly what happened when I visited China last month as a coach for a Youth Debate Challenge.  The Chengdu Board of Education hosted the student debate and invited several schools from the United States to compete in order to create cultural connections; however, in order to make connections, one must be confident of his/her culture.


What is our culture?  Actually, what are our cultures?  That’s not an easy question to answer, but maybe if we start with what we all share as Americans, we can get to tip of the iceberg on what it means to be ‘American.’


The constitution grants us the right to free speech and religious freedom - even if the latter is being severely tested.  Christianity remains the largest practiced religion in the United States, and all of the religions that branch off of Christianity (Orthodox, Protestant, Catholicism) are free from persecution.  Yet the one religion that is not free from this is Islam. Muslim Americans are being persecuted for something that is constitutionally bestowed on each and every American citizen.  In terms of language, the rhetoric surrounding this religion is sewed with anger and stereotypes.  After the stabbing on a Portland light rail train last month, the attacker stated that he was ‘a patriot’ and that a young woman who was wearing a traditional Muslim hijab, should “go back to Saudi Arabia and out of his country.”  Two men died as a result of this interaction- and they did so because they stood up for, and protected, these young ladies who were verbally harassed for their traditional attire.


One reason as to why people become angry is the fact that they lack understanding.  In an effort to create a better understanding of Islam, my friend and fellow Happy Friday contributor Sehar Kamal shared what her club, the Muslim Student Association, is doing at Irvington High School in Fremont, California.   At the end of the year banquet, students, parents, staff, plus the mayor of Fremont came to school to listen, learn, and even participate in prayer.  On top of that, since the banquet was during Ramadan, everyone had Iftar together (which is at sunset and when Muslims break their fast).  It’s experiences like this, where people get together with open minds, that true understanding and acceptance blossoms.


As Americans, we know that the anger and resentment represented on that Portland train is not shared by most, but what 2017 has shown us is that throughout this country there is anger over what people perceive America to be, and in this process we undermine the core principles that founded our country.  


When thinking of people expressing their perceptions of America, we’re brought back to freedom of speech.  Since we all have the right to speak our mind, it then becomes how can we use language properly?  Since properly is subjective to every individual, we have to think of common ground with what is acceptable and unacceptable to say in an effort to diffuse the persistent divisiveness throughout our country.


An example of this happened just last week when people in both political parties used the first amendment to criticize President Trump for his antagonistic and degrading remarks regarding MSNBC morning host Mika Brzezinski.  Even though a vast majority disagreed with what Trump said, it highlighted his and everyone else’s right to say what’s on their mind.


Language used to critique those in government is something that has been on center stage from both political parties the past two years; honestly, it’s been exhausting and embarrassing to witness both parties viciously attacking each other.  With that said, critiquing, which is less aggressive than attack,  doesn’t always have to have a negative connotation- especially if the critique is justifiable and grounded in logic or sincerity.  Clint Smith, who gave a TED Talk titled The Danger of Silence reiterated this: It shouldn't have to be said at this point, but critiquing this country doesn't prevent one from loving it. It's how you know the love is real.


The last point regarding our country deals specifically with how it is changing- especially when it comes to our appearance.  As Pew Research stated in 2016,  Americans are more racially and ethnically diverse than in the past, and by 2055, the U.S. will not have a single racial or ethnic majority.”   


The fact that America will not have a major race or ethnicity by 2055 is crucial to understanding what it means to be American.  With this change in appearance, we must alter our perception of what being ‘American’ means.  We are a melting pot of cultures, languages, and religions.  We are defined by our diversity.  We are defined by the freedom to express ourselves, even if that expression is vastly different throughout the country.  

What it seems now is that being ‘American’ is not some physical trait that one can point to; rather it much more mental.  Being American requires a collective understanding and openness to our differences, because we can’t go much longer being a nation that is defined by what divides us.


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