Someone referred to me as African-American. I corrected her by saying no, I’m American, no modifier. She didn’t get it. Her expression clearly wanted to ask questions she was not sure how to phrase. So I asked if she referred to herself as British-American, which of course I knew she did not. Her response was to patiently explain, as though speaking to a young child, how her family has been here for a few generations now, they do not claim their roots from long ago, they are simply American. It was as she reached the last few words that I saw the light bulb go on for her. I then asked, so why does everyone else in a similar vein get a modifier? To her credit she had the grace to be embarrassed as it sank in.
When I was a child, oh SO long ago, we were Black, White, Spanish and Chinese. The only time a modifier came up was to differentiate between American Indians and Indians from across the ocean or a specific Asian culture. Regardless, if you were born here you were automatically American. Naturalization information did not take family background or culture into consideration. On US passports you are not African-American, Irish-American or Spanish-American etc. If you chose to become an American citizen, you didn’t abandon your culture, you mixed it in. People came here on purpose to be American, not _____-American.
Then something happened in the late 70s – early 80’s. People wanted their familial cultures, individuality recognized and thus _____-American became a thing. The flavors in this melting pot of the USA no longer wanted to blend in, but to stand out. Individual cultural pride not-so-slowly began to override national pride. At what cost? Sometimes it feels as though, instead of a melting pot, America has become this barrel of crabs in which each race, ethnicity, culture etc. is simultaneously pulling the other down while clamoring to the top.
It took 9/11 to make us one nation indivisible again. Like most families, we may pick on each other, but don’t you dare pick on us. All prefixes dropped as we clutched our flag, like pearls, to our collective bosoms; “America The Beautiful”, “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “God Bless America” in our ears and on our reverent tongues. Still, it was a short-lived patriotism as the strands of solidarity popped when the finger-pointing began. Because like most families, once the immediate threat to the overall clan seems over we are right back to ripping each other’s guts out. We had a slight, and I do mean slight, resurgence of national pride last year as some stood up in proverbial arms when North Korea made threats against America for the release of the movie “The Interview”. After the movie was re-edited, to be slightly less offensive to the North Korean government and finally released, we learned the film was not worth the brouhaha being made over it and national fervor melted faster than an ice-cube in the desert in summer.
Why do we need something to hate collectively in order to not hate each other individually? In the past century we’ve in turns have had beefs with Japan, Germany, Russia, and the Middle East. Now we have “tensions” on multiple fronts. I am not advocating another tragedy. There’s enough in our history books as it is. We should not need a common threat to find common ground, but what will it take for us to be just American again?
Diversity is not supposed to be divisive.