The ongoing debate over “who is an American” must seem old to our neighbors who have lived for generations with the appropriation of “America” by a single nation self-assured for generations by its own exceptionalism.
That this nation early on proclaimed itself the United States of America may have been well-intended (in the most generous interpretation) as a declaration of belonging with the rest of the Americas, but the cultural and political identity that eventually emerged to produce the singularity “America”—referencing the US alone—has long been commonplace across the globe.
The Americas—the land mass spanning two continents—constitute almost thirty percent of the earth’s land area and is home to some nine hundred million people. Many of these good folk, especially to the South, consider themselves Americans in the broadest and truest sense; others—because of US dominance and appropriation of the term—want nothing to do with such an identity. Just ask a Canadian. With only a third of the Americas’ population, the United States has successfully laid deep claim to the term and to a particular identity associated with it.
This claim and its outcome is not a matter of splitting hairs over the use of a geographic or political reality. Rather, it is a matter of the degree to which the historical appropriation by a single nation of a broader, hemispheric identity parallels US dominance in the global context. America is our term, thank you. Others may try to use it, but we know what it really means.
Or do we? Historically, culturally, and politically, to be an American is to be of European descent, or bluntly put, white. Indigenous peoples were pushed aside and afar to reservations on unwanted lands, their own nations within the dominant nation. Slaves were first nonhuman and, freed, only three-fifths human, their descendants kept violently from civic participation till the late twentieth century. Chinese were excluded. Eastern Europeans were notched into earlier eras of low-wage labor. Even Irish were despised. Mexicans were deported en masse and still are targets of an infamous Homeland Security End Game. And on and on. America, you see, has been white in the eyes and mirrors of most who live within the borders of the United States.
Yet, American identity has been and is (especially) today a moving, shifting phenomenon, shaped and reshaped in light of race, the contemporary immigration conundrum, the global migration of peoples, and the demographic trend that points to a minority-white nation by mid-century or sooner. The appropriation is in flux and will be for years to come. The Ad Council’s earlier television portrayal of diverse peoples, races, ethnicities, and nationalities was a jarring—and to many, unsettling—view of a dramatically changed and changing nation. The Obama family in the White House is a reality that many cannot and will not accept. Fueling the fires of old, the racist movement has not been silenced and still plies its despicable and violent trade. The anti-immigrant movement and its moderately-laced, but nonetheless brutal white nationalism advanced through the Federation for American Immigration Reform (with its ill-named acronym FAIR) and its allies clings to the old notion of nation—white, “Western cultured,” and still-dominant in a world of shrinking populations of European-descent “Americans.”
“Who is an American” will be a matter of ever-increasing debate and tension in years to come, unfolding in countless ways and places, practices and policies. This is not a small or insignificant matter, nor a simple question of semantics. It is a matter of deep, serious, and continuing reflection grounded in a democratic vision of community and justice. It is a matter of serious analysis and conversation, of hard work and organizing in a nation long-resistant to change in and by the dominant culture that appropriated and now “owns” a term—America—long-ago applied to a third of the earth.
Enrique Valencia put the matter in a different and equally powerful light in “Somos Mas Americanos” when he wrote that the peoples of Mexico “are more American than any son of the Anglo-Saxon.” Let the conversation unfold.