Is the American Identity Based on Appearance?

At an Immigration Reform Rally in Washington DC in 2010. Photo Credit: Anuska Sampedro

Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are the qualities that build the American identity. However, what we fail to acknowledge is that throughout history, Americans have challenged and contradicted these values without even realizing it.  Beginning with the Three-Fifths Compromise, an overwhelming majority of American citizens accepted discrimination and denied Constitutional rights to certain groups of people simply for having different physical appearances. Sadly, these acts of injustice continue today, especially among the children, grandchildren and ancestors of “new immigrants.” Although definitions vary, Rosemary Salomone says “new immigrants” include people from Mexico, other Latin American countries, Asia, the Caribbean, and Africa (True American). As a result, this increase in globalization has allowed people from around the world to interact and connect with each other both geographically and in rising communities. Inevitably, perceptions of the American identity will change.  Ironically, the mainstream perception of the American identity seems to be in a fixed state where society continues to insist that Anglo Protestant values define the contemporary American identity. As Samuel Huntington claims in his article, “The Hispanic Challenge,” rejecting those values will lead to disunity of the United States (The Hispanic Challenge). He, like many others, builds his argument on fear, assumptions, and the logical fallacy of a slippery slope, which implies an unrealistic and inevitable doom.

Interestingly, even when children and grandchildren of immigrants assimilate into our society, Americans continue to have biased opinions of them. In fact, one in every three Americans believe that most Hispanics are undocumented when only thirty seven percent of Mexicans are immigrants and only eighteen percent are undocumented (Poll: 1 out of 3 Americans inaccurately think most Hispanics are undocumented). A critical question to ask now is- what does this say about the American society and Mexican-American citizens? Even if the family of a person of Mexican descent has been in the United States for several generations, most likely others will perceive him or her as a social, political and economic burden to the country. Unlike the “old immigrants,” these “new immigrants” are not as easily accepted into the mainstream society due to our assumptions based on phenotypic appearance. Although assimilation is expected eventually, paradoxically, it is impeded by the very people who insist on Americanization.

This leads us to our next question- Who defines what it means to be American? An identity is not a fixed state, but an ever-changing quality. As we assume our place into this globalized society, we must also understand that the exchange of culture will lead to new ideas and identities. However, if society continues to see Mexicans and other new immigrants as inferior, then how can the United States expect to absorb them into the mainstream American identity? Furthermore, the false assumption of a person’s identity or nationality can be especially problematic when it comes to certain legislative acts such as Arizona’s SB 1070 which encourages racial profiling. In this way, we can easily assume that society will continue marginalize the children and grandchildren of new immigrants based on their phenotypic appearance. However, this cannot be the case. Essentially, the United States must come to terms with the changing identities of the nation- we must either make progress by learning different customs and accepting our new title as a country of many diversities, or continue to face our current problems by failing to address racial tensions among our own citizens.

One response to “Is the American Identity Based on Appearance?

  1. I definitely agree that the fact that these “New Immigrants” look different will play a big role over time on either how quickly they assimilate, or how quickly our society accepts them for who they are (or both). I was listening to the radio show “Q” this summer right after news broke out that whites/Caucasians are now in the minority in the U.S. The guest on the show was joking about how this news flash is going to change the U.S. forever, and everything from Uncle Sam to apple pie will have to be reconstructed.

    The most memorable thing he said, though, was that the taco is the new “American food.” He first pointed out that tacos aren’t just a Mexican thing. You can put whatever you want in a taco; it can have multiple identities and ethnicities. Then he proceeded to make an analogy similar to that of the “salad bowl.” Within the taco are many different ingredients, but they all work together in the fold of a tortilla (or whatever) to make a delicious meal.

    So now to relate this story back to your post… I definitely feel like in this past year with the whole freak out that whites are now the “minority,” we have seen a slight change in attitude towards immigration. More and more people, i think, are realizing that American culture is fluid and what it means to be “American” is really, really broad, whether you’re and immigrant, an American-born, or you’re a taco.

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