My American identity is something I will carry with me forever. A key informant to people about me. Something that differentiates me when I travel, or even when I am at home in London. My accent and white skin situate me within a certain demographic in global society, one which I’m not entirely comfortable with and don’t fully understand. My own privilege in this world is something that has been invisible to me up until quite recently.
As far as I am aware, I have not faced racial prejudice when applying for jobs or making new friends. As far as I am aware, nor have the majority of my friends and family. At least not my white friends and family.
*I actually grew up interacting with people of many different nationalities and cultures. However I come from a predominantly white, middle class family. And mainstream media pretty much portrays the white experience as the norm. So it was only recently that I learned to question the lack of ‘others’ in the spheres of society I interact with most.
Relating this to the wider issue: in my experience neighbourhoods and social groups are still very homogenous. What you are raised around is what you know the world to be, and will influence your idea of ‘normal’. At least until you are old enough to decide to remove yourself from these constructs and diversify your reality – and many people never make that choice or may not be shown how.*
Returning to the United States as a young adult has jolted me aware of the responsibility I have to get to know this country, and understand my identity in relation to it. Our first non-white President is coming to end his final term, and the country prepares to elect its next representative. As it stands now, the possibilities for America’s political future reach both ends of an extreme scale. It is, undoubtedly, an interesting and nerve-wracking time for the next phase of the project that is the United States of America. And its future affects my life, and the entire world.
I call it a “project” because I don’t believe that the intent behind it has been realised yet. There is beauty in diversity, integration, and equality. Freedom for all. Potential for all. These ideas cannot fully exist until members of society are willing to accept them, believe in them, and embody them. Despite decades of advocacy for equality, institutionalised inequalities and racial prejudices exist within the structures that modern society functions under. These are inter-generational issues, which require the system to be shaken to truly dissipate.
Inevitably, the ‘American’ identity is complicated. It is utterly more layered and distinct from the examples given to us by perpetuated media-driven stereotypes. Does anybody realise this, its citizens included? Being newly back to the country I am learning how important this question is. Can there be one version of being ‘American’ if individual experiences are so different?
As an American I am able to live anywhere in this country I choose, and earn a living to support my life. As an American I have a right to vote for my representative in government. As an American I have access to a drive-thru Starbucks Frapuccino 24 hours a day.
As a White American it does not cross my mind that I might be discriminated against in the work place due to my name. As a White American, my parents never had to outline appropriate precautionary behaviours to use if confronted by police authority. As a White American one of the biggest ‘threats’ to my rights and way of life currently is the campaign to ensure equal rights for others.
My understanding of identity is utterly different to anyone with those experiences. Yet we are from the same nation. And all of our identities are informed by each others’.
My experience of white privilege limits my ability to understand experiences of prejudice.
Yet I choose to inform my own identity, taking into consideration the impact of experiences I cannot share, and how they do affect my life. I choose to be an ally. To become engaged in this dialogue and aware of its impact. Going forwards, accepting the role of an ally forms a key part of my American identity. If you identify with my sentiments, does it yours?
Two dialogues relating to this conversation that I recommend looking into are:
The Black Lives Matter Movement, which critically highlights state de-humanisation of citizens who fall short of the white heteronormative male, and discusses the role of allies.
Nick Cannons’ “Too Broke To Vote” rap, which highlights a feeling of being un-represented in today’s political climate, and aids in challenging the notion of a single ‘American identity’.