On “American”

8 Nov

In yesterday’s post, I quoted someone referring to “the American Dream.” It’s a familiar phrase that people use without qualification because we all know which dream that is and where you can find it. Still, that word “American” always gives me pause.

I’m that person who says “US American” to talk about people and things that others call “American.” I’m also that person who gets The Look from people: the one right before they roll their eyes to let me know that they recognize my need to be politically correct.

But I’m going to stick by my word choice and argue this isn’t about political correctness. It’s about plain old accuracy. “American” as an adjective is not very informative. All it denotes is something or someone who came from somewhere in the 16,350,000 square miles that comprise the Americas.

The fact is that saying “Americas” is like talking about taking a trip “to Africa”. Do you mean Egypt? Morocco? Tunisia? Kenya? Zimbabwe? South Africa? or even Madagascar (which according to Lonely Planet, “barely [but still] qualifies” as Africa)? Generally, people mean sub-Saharan Africa when they refer to “Africa.” The same synecdochical effect holds for “Asian,” which is generally stands in for East Asia (if you mean India or the Pacific Islands, you have to say so). 

So the map of the world has two unreconciled sets of demarcations: the ones that describe the continents (Asia, Africa, North and South America…) and the ones that describe the groups of people and cultures that we associate with those continents.

And what does it matter? What’s the big deal if we all know what we mean: if we know that “American” is really code for “US American”? Why change what ain’t broke?

Because language shapes our attitudes and actions. If I call the classroom where I teach “mine” long enough, I begin to believe that it is, indeed, mine, even though the truth is that it’s just a loaner from the school while I work there–and not even a guaranteed loaner. But since I believe it’s “mine,” I am either disgruntled or magnanimous (and quite pleased with my own generosity) when I am expected to share “my” classroom with another teacher, as opposed to recognizing that the terms of use are not for me set. Because it’s not “my” classroom in the first place.

And I wonder: if we US Americans define ourselves and only ourselves as “American,” how does that shape our interactions with other countries and cultures that geographically come from the American continents but don’t–at least from our point of view–count as “American,” too? How does our co-opting of “American” influence our perspectives on immigration? How does this appropriation entitle us and fuel the righteousness of our points of view because, we are, after all American?

Maybe it’s a leap, but sometimes I think I hear an echo of “Mine!” when people claim to be American. 

So what difference would it make to call ourselves and our culture “US American”? I suspect it would ground us in a more concrete sense of place–as well as identity. And I can’t help but think of Newspeak in George Orwell’s 1984, a language in which brevity is encouraged to minimize speakers and listeners actually thinking about the meaning of words: perhaps those two extra syllables would allow us to be more intentional in what we say about what or who is “US American.” Almost certainly, it would restore, symbolically and cognitively, the other countries and cultures who are “American” in both our minds and our discourse. 

So go ahead and roll your eyes. I’m going to keep saying it: “US American.”

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