What Does It Mean To Be American?


As the United States is struggling to define itself under the Trump Administration I have been thinking back on my time abroad and what it means to call myself American. I have lived abroad for a significant percentage of my life, often times as the token American, incidentally becoming an informal representative for the American people. But what does it actually mean to be American? Sure, I have a United States Passport, but I am often confronted with the fact that I don’t actually know much about the vast majority of the U.S. While at the same time, my Americanness is never questioned.

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Living abroad, especially as a young person, I was confronted daily with American stereotypes, making me question what it meant to be American. This was especially true when I lived in Santa Fe, Argentina, when I was 16, when I was the only American not only in my school, but the entire city. Naturally, American stereotypes were a commonplace in my conversations:

Wow, you’re not fat, I heard all Americans were fat.

You speak Spanish perfectly, I thought Americans didn’t learn other languages.

Is it true every American student is given a laptop for school?

While I often broke these stereotypes, one I reinforced was the American appearance – I’m a blondish white girl– the image of what the rest of the world thinks America looks like. Although this stereotype is clearly a fallacy, a result of the blonde, blue-eyed bullshit American media spews to the rest of the world, when in fact roughly 40% of Americans are non-white. This image the media portrays is dangerous as it allows white Americans to unjustly claim, represent, and therefore define “Americanness” abroad without being checked.

Everything I say and have ever said about being American has been validated solely by a genetic lottery in which I happened to be born white. I am writing about this because I know and believe my privilege as a white person needs to be checked not only everyday while at home in the United States, but also while I am traveling. There is no reason why my representation of America should mean more than someone else’s just because of how I look.

This checking needs to happen both on a personal level and on a macro level. The media that breaks down this stereotype should be recognized for its significance and importance in defining and redefining what it means to be American, while the media which continues to reinforce this stereotype should be actively criticized.

Too many times while traveling with friends of different races have they been asked, “No, but where are you really from,” when I am never questioned. It is my job as a white American to not only challenge this assumption, but continue to speak out about how it is wrong.

Our forefathers may have crossed the ocean and different times in history, but we are all American, and no one should be excluded from that category because their exterior does not match the Barbie doll that American media has forced on the rest of the world.

Photos: Hunter Conrad

How do you feel about being American? Share with us in the comments.

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