What I Want to Mean When I Say American

Taking a break this week from writing about KimchiFry Breadmy new novel Monster’s Children and how it is doing.  I take a break to talk about something I have been thinking about lately.   I want to talk about what I would like to mean when I say something is American.

There is a thing, in the end, a thing that we all must face.  I don’t know how to explain this thing.  But I know I need to try and explain it.  Instead of explaining it I will likely ramble, around and around.

I am an American, and as an American, I must say I hate to hear people label things “American.”  People talk about American food, American politics, American sensibilities, a host of American things.  I hate this.  I hate it because they are not talking about us.  Do you understand that?  They are not talking about you.  The US Census shows that 13% of the population is foreign-born.  They do not mean that group.  The Hispanic population, African, Asian, Indigenous, all of these groups that make such a large percentage of our population, they do not mean them.  It goes beyond race and anyone that is not part of the majority is left out.  This label that is meant to cover all of our citizens covers only part of them.

This coalesced in my mind with a recent debate over movies.  I was excited about the Ghost in the Shell movie.  I really was.  I even enjoyed the movie, though I agree it missed out on key ingredients that could have helped it capture the original better.  But the quality of the movie is not what I think of, now as I set to write this.  What the movie could have been is another discussion.  What I want to talk about is the controversy over the film, or more to the point one defense of that controversy.

There was a controversy (which most of the world knows about) over the film’s whitewashing of main characters, more specifically the main character.  I did not pay much mind to it all until I read one of the defenses to casting.  They said they were “Americanizing” the movie.  Let that sink in.  They were Americanizing the movie by making its characters white.  That phrase upset and hurt me.  In that single phrase, they washed away every non-white citizen of our great land.  In that one phrase, they washed away parts of my family from the spectrum of what it means to be American.

Now I know this was just a movie.  But I hear that word, American, and I know what people mean.  With a single word, American, we whitewash the entire country and its population.  We do not exclude a few individual exceptions, we wash away half of ourselves.  We deny and ignore huge swaths of what makes us such a great country.  We do this with our intentions of what the word means.  America is massively diverse, and yet when we use this word we mean one segment of the population.

People talk about American Food, and when they do they remove our diversity.  They take a big brush and paint over the multitude and diversity that makes up our cities and citizens.  They do not mean poke, or tacos, or California rolls.  They do not mean gumbo or fry bread or the fusions we create.  They mean a bacon burger and only a bacon burger.  The pride of the United States is that we are the melting pot of the world, and yet people cannot seem to grasp that.  We cannot seem to grasp that.  I have heard myself use this word in its limited form, and it kills me that I have.  It feels like I am turning my back on all those people that make this land so amazing.  I am turning my back on my grandmother (pictured above, isn’t she beautiful) and my mother who does not fit the white male narrative that the word tries to reinforce.

I do not want to turn my back on my countrymen (country-people?).  I want to embrace them when I use this word.  I want to open my mind so that when I say an American Party I mean Pow Wows and Quinceañeras.  When I think of American holidays I want to think of Carnival/Mardi Gras.  I want to take back this word and stop letting it gloss over our diversity, make it stand for our diversity instead.  I want to go beyond stopping the whitewashing of our movies and stop whitewashing our country.   I want to make the word American great again.

This is difficult for me.  It is important to me.  It is a thing I cannot help but wring my hands about.  I am of mixed heritage and too much of my life I have always been native or I have been white.  I wasn’t all of myself because it was easier to be only one thing.  People were comfortable if I was one or the other. And as I get older, and I embrace all of what I am I see the discomfort in people.  They want me to fit in a box, ignoring that fitting into that box means that I have to sacrifice swaths of my family.  But I am not native and I am not white.  I am both, and I am better for being mixed.  Our country has been denying who we are for too long.

Our country is not as a country that is a full blood, but a country that is a half-breed, better a country that is mixed, a Heinz 57 as my grandmother used to say.  We are a hot-mess of mixing peoples and cultures.  For us to finally be true to ourselves as a nation we have to embrace all of ourselves.  The best way I can think to do this is to look to those among us that have come to terms with being more than one thing.  We need to stop denying all of ourselves.  The mixed race must stand up and point the way.  We must learn to embrace all of us, with pride.  Just as my mixed ancestry makes me a better person, so too does our country’s diversity make it great.  Help me to take back what it means when we say American, help it to mean us all.  I want when I say American I mean you, all of you.

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