On Race and Being American

As we approach the iconic holiday of Fourth of July, where Americans celebrate their independence, thoughts naturally turn to American history, culture, and the question “What does it mean to be an American?”

This is something I have been pondering lately.  America, as a nation, is fundamentally different from most other nations in the world.  When you think of Germany, or Japan, or Norway, or Mexico, there is a distinct ethnic group associated with each country.  Granted, there has been a lot of immigration and integration, but there is still the concept of an ethnic, native citizen of that country.

In America an ethnic American would have to be a Native American, but unfortunately they have been marginalized and pushed to the edges of modern society by the European settlers and the government that they set up.  Throughout the history of the nation known as the United States of America, we have been a nation of immigrants, of settlers, of different ethnic groups coming together to form a new nation.  This is clearly evident in the names we choose to call ourselves and how we identify ourselves, as German-Americans, Irish-Americans, and Greek-Americans.  We still remember where we came from and what our old heritage was, but we also recognize that we are not entirely German, Irish, or Greek, but now Americans.

What I have found interesting, though, is that in recent years, we have been hearing less and less about German-Americans, Irish-Americans, Greek-Americans, or Italian-Americans, or any other form of white, European ethnic group.  It seems that a white person is only considered an American, but if we are dealing with any form of minority, we still cling to the appellation -American.  We have African-Americans, Chinese-Americans, Japanese-Americans, etc. even three and four and more generations after they have immigrated to this country, but when have you ever heard people talk about an English-American, or Canadian-American?

And, at what point did we stop with the European-American thing?  My great-grandfather, who was born in Chomatero, Greece, when he immigrated in 1910 was legitimately referred to as a Greek-American, but does that make me a Greek-American, four generations later?  I don’t think so.  And I have a friend whose parents are both Korean, but he was born here in America, is he a Korean-American?  While he still respects and holds onto his Korean heritage, I think that he wouldn’t call himself a Korean-American, but simply an American. But, really, that’s not my place to call.  I don’t think anyone does or should have the right to define someone else.  If my friend wants to call himself a Korean-American, power to him! If he wants to call himself an American, that’s great, too.

I don’t refer to myself as a Greek-American, German-American, or Irish-American, I am an American.  And to me, that word “American” means that we are Greek, and German, and Irish, and whatever, all rolled into one.  The beauty and the strength of America has always been its diversity, and the inclusion of all who wanted to come and be a part of this great nation.  I was reading about the Revolutionary War the other day, and found that when the Hessian soldiers, who were loaned to the British by their prince in Germany (rented out is actually more accurate), were captured by the Continental Army, they were imprisoned for a time, then they were offered a choice: Return to Germany, or stay in America and settle.  That is the legacy of America.  Even to those who were marshalled against the fledgling nation, were offered the choice of staying and helping to build the nation.

And so, on our biggest patriotic holiday of the year, as we celebrate being American, I believe we need to reevaluate what exactly it means to be American.  We have a history in the country of being a “melting pot” of cultures, yet we still have problems with race.  We are an extremely racially diverse nation, more so than most other countries, yet we still seem to have an integration problem.  If we could throw away all other names and embrace that name American more fully, I think we could work our way past most of these problems.  If we look for it, I believe that we will find that we have much more in common than we believe.  And the more we look for the commonalities and look past our differences, the stronger we can  become as a nation, and the brighter our future can be.

The greatest strength of America seems to be its greatest weakness as well: Our diversity.  The fact that we have so many different cultures and opinions and people coming together to form this nation means that we have so much potential for collaboration and growth, yet as I look around me, watching the news and listening to political discourses I see a nation that is becoming more and more divided, not willing to discuss or compromise.  What made America great in the past was its ability to bring diverse groups together, I sincerely hope that we are not ruining this nation by now driving them apart.  That is my dream for America.  That is my prayer this Independence Day.  

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