American Identity and the Mechanisms of Everyday Whiteness

The events on and after September 11, 2001 have intensified global economic and political reconfigurations that have been under way over the last thirty years. These transformations have shifted the balance of public opinion in the United States from a presumption of collective responsibility for the common good and toward a belief in the social survival of the fittest. Drawing on one aspect of a research project that examined the role that race, racialization and racism play within this framework and in the process of uniting or dividing ordinary people this article summarizes findings related to attitudes about democracy and American identity.

Using research data collected between 1998 and 2000 at Brooklyn College (part of the largest urban public university in the nation), we identified everyday mechanisms that reinforce adherence to dominant narratives expressed through beliefs held particularly, although not exclusively, by whites.1 These mechanisms function to maintain and reproduce racialized structures of inequality. During fall 2001 (when I analyzed the findings), daily events underlined the centrality of the link between everyday white racial consciousness and the perpetuation of such structures.

What imagery is conjured up by the concepts of democracy, nation and patriotism? Has American identity been racialized throughout U.S. history? Can we, in the United States, accept a truly multicultural union? Does claiming national allegiance provide a vantage point from which to stand for peace, justice, and equality (Nussbaum, 1996, 136), or does it in fact divide us from people of other nations? The concept of national identity and the characteristics ascribed to “the American people” have become increasingly present in public discourse, most often emphasizing the need for allegiance, unquestioning loyalty, and presumed superiority. In contrast, Congresswoman Barbara Lee articulated her thoughts about being American when she cast the only “no” vote in Congress to the question of giving President Bush full power to make war on Afghanistan. She spoke of the urgent need to challenge mainstream equations of loyalty and military might:

If I am going to be patriotic, and I am, and if I am going to be a good American, which I know I am, I am going to make sure that our democracy works, and I’m going to hold it accountable and make sure that it works not only for my constituents but for the whole country…. Being patriotic at this moment in our history means participating in decisions about the future of our world. It means participating in decisions that will hopefully bring us to peace and ensure that these terrorists are brought to justice and that no man, woman or child ever gets killed in such brutal assaults ever again (Davey D, 2001).

Most students surveyed revealed that they feel disconnected from what it means to be American, yet they believe that waving a flag and referring to oneself as “American” asserts one’s status in relation to the rest of the world.2 They acknowledged that this identity, like whiteness, confers elevated standing on those who hold it, regardless of class position, gender or skin color. At the same time, they distinguish between groups they consider to be “true Americans” and those with a questionable status as imparted by the ambiguous borders and margins where many native-born blacks, Latinos and Asians are positioned. All hold tentative status as Americans, depending on circumstance. Additional distinctions are made between generations, along lines of race and language, and within both immigrant and native-born populations. In this way, American national identity functions as one of many axes from which to understand the imposition of patterns of dominance and subordination, at times to contradict and at others to enhance the status of its holder.

What is a “good” American in a country where an estimated 60 million [people] were either born in a foreign country or have foreign-born parents? (Zachary, 2002, 23) The ambiguity about what it means to be an American, and/or a citizen, and how you become one, allows race to reinforce structured inequality and to simultaneously to challenge it as boundaries shift. Most U.S.-born white students said that they do not think about what it means to be an American; they just “are.” Similar to being white, being American and a U.S. citizen is an assumed state of being from which all “others” depart. This status can be bestowed by birth, inheritance or naturalization, by association or through a belief system, but it can also be retracted, especially for people of color. Recent discrimination against the Arab American population, many of whom were born in the United States, testifies to their vulnerability, regardless of citizenship. A political cartoon circulated soon after 9/11 showed a white American angrily shaking his finger at a man who appeared to be Arab, and saying, “Go back to where you where you were born.” To this, the man asks, “Chicago ?”

The construction of race thereby remains elusive within notions of who belongs and of the entitlements that different populations can expect. This issue became acutely visible, during the fall of 2001, when the FBI summoned hundreds of men with Arab surnames for interviews about terrorism. The government justified this blatant racial profiling in the name of “Homeland Security.” One might wonder why the government has not rounded up microbiologists, given significant evidence that multiple envelopes of anthrax were sent to various individuals by an American microbiologist (Blackhurst, 2001). If the reasoning is that perpetrators of mass murder should be swiftly and summarily executed, why not call upon tobacco industry executives and anti-abortion terrorists (Williams, 2001a, 11)? Students’ comments demonstrate some of the ambiguities of American identity:

Don’t you get a certificate for being an American? You do. Yes, you do. You become an American by going for a special test and they give you your certificate. It’s by law.
— Sonya, black female

No, that’s when you become a citizen, not an American. Being an American is a belief system; it’s the way you act and think towards other people. It’s not where you’re from or where you’re born.
— Keri, mixed female

If you are a citizen you get a lot benefits that you don’t get if you are not. But you are still an Irish person who just became an American.
— Bella, foreign-born white female

America started off as immigrants you know, so it’s not like somebody’s actually American. Ancestors came here from different countries so if you were born here you are automatically an American.3
— Leon, white Jewish male

As evident in these comments, the meaning of being American shifts between something tangible (naturalization and citizenship), something unambiguous (bestowed by birth), something ambiguous (a belief system), and something transitory and continuously shifting (any combination of these). White students who said they had never thought about being American still expected a range of privileges as part of their birthright.

Certain issues continuously arose in discussions about national identity. For whites, does being American mean giving up one’s heritage and being pan-ethnic white? Can an immigrant ever really be “American”? Does loyalty preclude dissent? Is there only one way to be patriotic? It was apparent that being American held many distinctly different meanings. 58% of the students believed that the U.S. can be multicultural and American at the same time, but this belief was higher among foreign-born whites (68%) than among foreign-born blacks (43%). This reflects the racialized experience of foreign-born black students such that they are seen first and foremost as black while the foreign-born white students feel that their ability to assimilate is not hampered by how they are racially identified.

The common equation of the label “American” with someone from the United States, rather than the hemisphere, also intrinsically racializes the image of who is and who is not included. The question of whether being American can mean something more than being geographically from the United States rarely arose, illustrating a presumption of U.S. dominance such that there is no consideration of a broader “American” world. In our survey, only Jean-Paul, a Haitian male, raised this issue:

Growing up, I always thought of myself as an American even though I wasn’t even born here. I was born in Haiti in the Caribbean and part of the continent of America. When I was six years old we kids were discussing, we live here in America, doesn’t that make us automatically Americans? Because if somebody’s from the continent of Africa, they’re African, no matter what country they’re from. Until I came here and realized no, I’m not American; I’m just an immigrant. I’m Haitian and I’ve been living here for six years. I have to be a citizen to be a quote unquote American.

This testimony points to the racial nature of American identity. Jean-Paul raises issues of homogeneity, assimilation, and incorporation into mainstream society. The equation of being American with being from the United States centers and naturalizes whiteness. In addition, national pride was frequently presumed:

I consider myself to be American. I was born in America; my parents were born in America. I think my grandparents were born in America, but I have Irish, German and Dutch heritage. I love this country and that means a lot to me.4 Sometimes I’m amazed at myself when I hear “God Bless America” or “The Star Spangled Banner.” I get emotional, and I think, wow, God blessed this country.
— Mara, white female

It is important to consider what it means to say “God blessed this country” when there are as many Gods as there are religions, and when much of the world’s population does not embrace the Judeo-Christian “God.”5 Why bless our country (5% of the world’s people) and not someone else’s? This notion reinforces national pride and presumes superiority:

Being an American is being born here, and having your parents from here. Having a sense of pride, but I don’t get all sappy. I don’t know why not, because I was born here.
— Karen, white female

Foreigners appreciate America more than people born here. People who come from different governments have more appreciation of the freedoms Americans take for granted. I never really thought if I was American or not. I just assumed I was born here, my parents were born here, my grandparents were born here, and I don’t speak another language at home. In retrospect, people that come here, they’re more American than people born here.
— Marla, white female

Similarly, the dominant narrative of the U.S. as benevolent global peace-keeper projects the image of its citizens as nice (white) guys. This imagery was exemplified in a comment made by a firefighter, as reported on CNN (11/29/01). He said, “We in the United States take care of everyone all over the world and this is what we get?” These passages portray conflicting images of whether to be a “real American” you must uphold a certain ideology or feel a national pride, or whether being born or naturalized in the United States is enough. Students grappled with who determines one’s identity and status, and the roles that self-determination, the state, and legal systems play. They suggested that it depends on whether one has the power to assert judgment. Being white, one is generally provided options to be patriotic and nationalistic, or not, and to decide the terms on which these identities are negotiated. You can decide to think about being American, or not. You can choose one identity one day, and another on a different day. A person of color, however, as Jean-Paul described, does not have that privilege. One’s identity is selected by others, like an arranged marriage. Consider the presumptions inherent within this statement:

Being American means freedom: freedom of religion, freedom to be whoever you want, to say what you want, political freedom. That’s why people come here, other countries don’t have that freedom. There’s so much more opportunity in America. There’s an American Dream, but people have to work for it.
–Jenna, white female

Jenna suggests that achieving the American Dream is a direct consequence of working “hard enough”. Some of the contradictions implicit in this perspective came to light in fall 2001 as media coverage noted concerns about the unequal distribution of funds raised for families of the deceased, and about differentials in the severance packages of people who lost jobs (e.g., Jackson, 2001). These long-standing economic disparities have become increasingly difficult to explain and justify. They thereby provide an opening for broader discussion about how one actually achieves the American Dream, why some people do and others don’t.

U.S.-born white students significantly more than any other group consider themselves to be American; foreign-born black students believe so significantly less. Overall, 50% of all students considered themselves to be American; 22% did not. The following chart provides responses by race:

Table 1. “I Consider Myself American” / Response by Race

Moderately Agree
Latinos 33.3% 29.2% 30.9%
Asians 30.8% 38.5% 30.9%
U.S.-born Blacks 4.7% 34.9% 58.1%
Foreign-born Blacks 47.6% 38.1% 12.7%
U.S.-born Whites 2.9% 12.5% 83.8%
Foreign-born Whites 32.9% 37.8% 29.3%

These data suggest the racialization of the immigrant experience, such that foreign-born whites are more easily assimilated into U.S. society than foreign-born blacks. Another contrast is the difference in response between U.S.-born whites and U.S.-born blacks. One explanation is summarized: “Though I was and am an American, I [don’t] have what most Americans feel that unique sense of belonging” (Gilmore, 2002, 27).

The discourse of America as the “land of opportunity” and as a model of democracy makes it hard to discuss stratification and structural inequality. Mainstream narratives assert that everyone experiences life as white people do. Especially since September 2001, any questioning of U.S. foreign policy tends to be viewed as an “attack on America.” The justification for random interrogation of Arab Americans is framed as “I have nothing to hide, why should they?” However, this perspective epitomizes the experience of someone who has never been “the persistent object of suspect profiling, never been harassed, never been stigmatized just for the way they look” (Williams, 2001b, 11).

Deeply rooted in the concept of an “American identity” are ideals of democratic values and the principles of freedom, justice, and individualism.6 These complex notions sometimes contradict one another; however, tensions are generally accepted as part of their very nature as ideals. This section explores students’ beliefs about how these values are expressed in everyday living, and focuses on implicit assumptions common within popular discourse.

Democracy means being able to say what you want to say, when you want to say it.
— Jacob, white Jewish male

Spoken in one of the focus groups, this comment was followed by a discussion of how the United States differs from other countries. Jacob asserted a principle and said he believes it is actualized within the lives of all people. This principle has been central to the self-definition of the U.S. nation, founded by people fleeing religious and political persecution. However, rights have been selectively implemented throughout U.S. history. “‘Us versus Them’ thinking easily becomes a general call for American supremacy, the humiliation of ‘the other'” (Nussbaum, 2001).

Students view the U.S. as the epitome of democracy and model of egalitarianism. Following are responses given to “What is democracy?”

…Free enterprise.
— Leon, white Jewish male

It’s different than the founders thought it would be. There’s not as much democracy, because of big business. They control so many aspects of our lives. It’s not a democracy anymore. We don’t really have much to say about it. It’s kind of biased because it’s not what I think, you think, he thinks, but just what they think. Anyway, there are so many races now. Then the white male was in charge. Now women are in charge, blacks in charge. Hispanics and Asians come here. It’s totally different. It was founded as a democracy but changed.
— John, white Italian male

These students questioned whether the degree of corporate control in today’s world was acceptable and generally felt that global corporatization has stolen the democratic process from everyday people. The idea that “ordinary” people could make a difference if they recognize common interests seems outside the realm of possibility as a result of the racialization that blames individuals and groups of color for present-day poverty and ultimately keeps people divided.

[Democracy is] the people ruling the country. We are represented in the government, our views and our thoughts and what we want. We are given equality, but the government, of course, is there to instruct and to provide and to guide us. If they disagree with what we say, what we want, of course, they’re the ones to have the final say.
— Penny, Asian female

People sneak in here. People are allowed to come in, so people who are already here don’t realize how fortunate we are to be free. We have a President; the difference between a President and a dictatorship, the President doesn’t have all the power. Certainly we have it better than in other countries.
— Jeanne, white Jewish female

These comments portray a benevolent image of the United States: the government directs, the police protect, the schools educate, and individuals are responsible for the course of their lives. They imply that if one does not “make it,” it is due to lack of motivation or hard work, reminiscent of the “culture of poverty” framework. However, they express ambivalence as to whether there is equality of opportunity:

A lot of immigrants from Russia do very well because they have the chance to go to public school; you don’t need to pay money for that. If you have the brains, you can put your mind to something and achieve a goal, or ambition to succeed, become someone and you get that education. It’s not a land of opportunity for all people. There’s so much racism in this country and prejudice against minorities and black people. It’s not fair but a lot of institutions, or even workplaces, discriminate.
— Sam, white Italian male

Not everybody is created equal. You can’t ask everybody on the street what they think about something, and then implement that idea. Not everybody is as smart as everybody else. Not everybody has the same opportunities. Everybody feels equal, but not everybody is.
— Leon, white Jewish male

These comments raise many questions such as whether those in power are there because they’re smarter than the rest of us. Why can’t we involve everyone in the important decisions isn’t that the definition of democracy? Connections between economic, social and political power are drawn, but explanations for how patterns evolve remain individualized. Elites explain that they are there for the benefit of society as a whole, and got there because, in fact, they are truly better and smarter. Students express doubts about this narrative:

The United States was founded on hypocrisy. They left England to get a better life, ran away from being controlled and turned around and rejected everyone else. It is a double standard.
— Etienne, Haitian male

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