A friend of mine, an immigrant from another country, recently asked me what I think it means to be an American.
I opened my mouth and words like “home” and “citizenship” and “freedoms” were about to pour out, when I shut my mouth again. It’s not because it’s a hard question for me to answer. There’s no place else I’d want to live and raise my family. I’m thankful I’m American.
Nevertheless, the answer is not simple. Because for many non-Caucasian, non-Christians, Americanism is not merely a function of first person narrative. It is a collective of third person voices. It is the sum of pre-judgments and prejudices of others. I was born in a small town outside of Detroit. I have only spoken English my entire life. I have lived in Texas, Maryland, Missouri, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Georgia and Tennessee, and the only accent I have ever had was southern. I have lived in big cities and small towns, and have never identified myself as anything other than American. And yet, sometimes I must prove my Americanism to others as if I’m proving a mathematical theorem.
In his endorsement of Obama on Sunday, Colin Powell described a photograph of a woman mourning at the headstone of her son who fought and died in Iraq. On the headstone was a crescent moon. He and his family were Muslim. The young man died while serving in the American military.
What it means to be an American is to embrace diversity– to accept others as American no matter the color of their skin, the place they worship, the language they speak, the clothes they wear, or the food they eat. It means making the assumption that someone IS an American, rather than assuming he or she isn’t. It means not equating the wearing of a flag pin with patriotism. It means not harboring suspicion of terrorism when someone criticizes America. It means condemning hatred and racial slurs. It means not looking down on people who can’t trace their roots to the Mayflower. It means treating those who live here with respect and dignity, and ensuring that they are treated equally under the law.
It means walking up to that mourning mother, putting a gentle hand on her shoulder, and thanking her for her son’s bravery and service.