What is an “American”?

When reading the chapter on Culture in the “Theory Toolbox”, I was struck, initially, by the short-short story by Franz Kafka. Really, before reading this less-than-a-page story, I hadn’t really considered society and what my role is within American “culture”. Kafka writes that “the five of us did not know each other, either; and it could be said that we still don’t know one another” (p. 59). This line, in particular, really resonated with me. It made me think of American as a whole. More than any other nation, America is a melting pot of different cultures, lifestyles and religions, yet we all call ourselves “Americans”. Thus, when speaking from a political standpoint, what right do certain politicians and American citizens have when they claim that they are trying to keep American culture intact? In actuality, they are merely directing their attention to the ideas of English colonialism. They forget that America was founded, too, by the French and Spanish, and populated by a host of other cultures and people of separate nationalities. I am, fortunately, able to trace my own lineage, and I spring from an array of different cultures: Scottish, English, Welsh, German and Middle-Eastern Judaic. Some of these share similar cultural attributes, yet are vastly different in their speech and traditions. Thus, why do I find that there is one certain “American” ideal? Which culture, then, should I focus on? Should I manifest my patriotism in my Scottish church, my Welsh last name, or my Grandmother’s tan skin and Jewish features? However, I tend to focus only on the dominantly Anglo-Saxon attributes of my heritage, since that is what I have been taught to do while living in America. However, we have no right to say that we should only speak one common tongue, practice one religion and push out immigrants fleeing from lands of tyranny. None of us are truly American, unless you descend purely from Native Americans. Thus, I agree with Kafka when he writes that he and his four cronies “prefer not to explain and not to accept [the sixth man]” (p.59). In dominant American culture, we prefer not to explain our highly patriotic reasoning, and find it easier to simply keep our mouths shut when turning away those of differing descent.

5 Responses to What is an “American”?

  1. Whitt January 23, 2016 at 2:39 pm #

    I definitely agree with you about the politicians and others with a closed, one-track mind. There is no such thing as “American culture.” Sure, there is “pop culture,” but that has more to do with celebrity than anything else associated with true culture. As you said, our nation has a always been a melting pot, even before it was actually born. From the very beginning, we had Spanish, French, English, and Native American influence. For people these days to be concerned about the loss of “American culture” is ignorance. I agree with you that we cannot and should not all be assimilated to the same language, religion, traditions, etc. There is no possible definition of a “true American,” especially since that includes two entire continents of people.

  2. parkrc January 24, 2016 at 6:03 pm #

    Erin, your post about true “American” culture led me to reflect on a church service I went to this morning in downtown Charleston. On my walk past the welcome sign I read “Circular Congregational Church, a progressive and inclusive community since 1681.” This certainly captured my attention for a few reasons. Throughout history Christian communities have not had the best reputation of being inclusive places, even though I think the central theological message of the Gospel is meant to be. Beyond that though, after reading the culture and history sections in “Theory Toolbox” I wondered exactly was progressive and inclusive meant in 1681 and how drastically different that definition of community is now. Why is it even necessary for a church to call itself inclusive? And to what extent can a community be inclusive and still define themselves as a community? The definition of community is, after all, a group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common. I think the authors of the “Theory Toolbox”, Nealon and Giroux, nailed these questions on the head. They write, “Meaning is a process of social contextualization; the same signifiers can be read in many, many differing ways.” (pg 65) I’m sure this church has been a welcoming community to many, but also restrictive to others. Perhaps it is only through a historical understanding of an “exclusive” past that this church has arrived at a particular direction in the present, constructing a place of “inclusivity.”

  3. youngdw January 24, 2016 at 9:47 pm #

    I often used to find myself wondering what American culture was, too. Honestly, one of the few things I could think of as purely American was hamburgers. The only substantial cultures in America that I have come across are racial, ethnically, or religiously defined. Growing up as a young black American, my parents feared that I was leaning too much towards “white culture” and constantly pushed me towards “black culture.” I found this very restrictive, and almost suffocating, because it meant removing myself from the interests I enjoyed that were deemed “white.” My parents relent now, and I don’t think too much about trying to fit in any sort of racial lifestyle. I personally find it very boring to do so, because I want to be able to experience everything that America and the rest of the world has to offer.

  4. tierneyal January 24, 2016 at 10:51 pm #

    I think that the “Culture” chapter of the text, as well as this post as a reinforcement, served as a sort of unsettling wakeup call. When we first learned about culture as a a kid in grade school, the textbook examples given were inherently foreign to many of us – vividly painted images of say, Chinese customs, for example, come to mind more readily than anything I could have identified with as my own. Before reading this chapter, though, the lack of a specific culture belonging to America and America alone was not something I ever gave much thought. The more I think of it, though, the more jarringly true it seems. As a people, we are not just a fairly homogenous handful of qualities and customs. We are descendants from every corner of the globe who have populated a land that was not initially ours. We are Christians and Jews and Muslims all riding the same city bus; we are young, bilingual kids who speak English in the classroom but Spanish at the dinner table. Individually we are at once all of these things and none of them, and that’s kind of hard to grasp. It’s hard to come to terms with the idea that as a fairly privileged white person who grew up in Florida, I don’t really have a “cultural heritage” in the sense I so clearly remember from those old textbooks. I readily call myself an American, but maybe that word implies so many things that I’m losing track of where I fall in it all.

  5. Luke January 25, 2016 at 2:57 pm #

    I can see your point about politicians clinging to a Euro-centric notion of “American.” In actuality, the United States are made up of a wide variety of cultures and backgrounds, a “melting pot,” as you said. I think that the idea of “American” that most cling to is the fact that we mostly speak English, and Christian tradition is prevalent throughout our society. That automatically relates us to our English colonial roots, but since the founding of our country, many new cultures have been formed and introduced to our land.

    I think that American culture is the combination of all these cultures, because we are supposed to be a free country. Our foundations are built on the idea of liberty––economic, social, religious, and intellectual. In this ideal society, all backgrounds that support this foundation should be celebrated and welcomed into the ever-changing idea of “American.” Despite our deep cultural roots in colonialism, for all its positives and negatives, our social traditions are not what needs to be preserved. Rather, our roots in freedom should guide our culture into diversity, respect, and prosperity.

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