Thursday, June 11, 2009

So Who's a "Quintessential" American?

I've been sitting here trying to find a nice way of saying this, of being judicious and restrained. It's not working, so let me just put it out in the street: I friggin' loathe the idea that the "quintessential" American is essentially Scandinavian, with blond hair and blue eyes. Talk about an image that needs to be banished.

I was reading Andrew Sullivan's blog (a daily read), and he posted about the potential benefit of having an athlete come out of the closet, while still playing his sport (sadly, we are still misogynistic enough when we need a guy to come out to have the maximum impact). Sullivan provided a link to an article written by sportswriter Jeff Pearlman, "the gay athlete." Since I totally agree with both Sullivan and Pearlman on this point, I followed the link, read the article, and found myself nodding my head in agreement, up to a point.

In Pearlman's description of "Americana," he wrote the following: "...Americana—a symbol of all that is good and righteous about who we are and what we stand for. It is a warm day in the sun; a beer and a hotdog; red, white, and blue bunting and the national anthem before every first pitch. It’s a beloved blue-eyed, sandy-haired boy chasing down a long fly into the gap."

I was right there with Pearlman, until he got to that boy. Nope. Sorry. So not buying it. I just find it both fascinating and sad that this image of what is essentially an American has been sold all over the globe. If immigrants and foreign visitors see Americans as blond and blue-eyed, then where does that leave someone like me? I've an old friend, American, who is originally from Vietnam; he often refers to white Americans as simply "Americans." Yet, with other Americans, my boy will use racial and ethnic monikers. I've asked him where that description leaves Americans like me, like himself? He couldn't really answer my question.

I think that we have placed ourselves, because of our tortured racial history, into an interesting corner. I've heard many white Americans ask why American minorities will not simply be "Americans." It might be just a tad difficult when those same people might give a description of what is an American similar to what Pearlman has described.

All I know is that I am a multi-generational American, on both sides of my family. I know that some African country exists somewhere in the past, as does some European country, as does some east coast Native American community, but I am just as quintessentially American as the nearest "beloved blue-eyed, sandy haired boy." It's a shame that too many of my fellow Americans don't automatically see that too. The time will come when we can abandon that false physical image of an "American"; unfortunately, that time, apparently, is not 2009.

UPDATE: Please note that if you link to the Pearlman article, the photo is of a brotha with a rainbow flag in his hand. A friend suggested that I make that point, though I still hold that it does not really undermine my overarching argument.


femmenoire said...

Having grown up on the tail end of the Civil Rights Movement, I have had the experience many times having to defend being African American (to other African Americans). This was mostly because I attended a prestigious "white" private school.

I was well-grounded in who I was as an African American. Came from a strong African American community. All of the children in my nursery school were of the Darker Nation (though many not literally). I learned how to play bid whist with the best of them. I jumped double dutch.

But I also had friends who lived in Spring Valley or Potomac. Their world was as much mine as the world of the segregated neighborhood I spent the 1st 9 years of my life in.

Most of the time, I was just "me"' I didn;t define myself by my brown skin. But at other times, I was definitely African American, or Black, as it was back then. You kind of knew when you had to make the distinction.

I think it's the same about being "American". It's not about how others define you, but how you feel about yourself.

During the dark and depressing Bush years, I will admit that I was ashamed to be an American. I was in Paris, in a taxi (the drivers love to talk politics). Though I was speaking French, he recognized my American accent. I had to struggle with his rapid and colorful French, undrstanding about 2/3 of what he was saying. But in the end, I was astounded that he recognized right away that I was not in the Bush camp.

I was American in his eyes. Was it the color of my skin that tipped him off to my political viewpoint? He was happy to have someone to Bush-bash with. And I felt loved (by a Parisian!).

If my American moniker needs to be tempered by adding the work African to it, I'm OK with that. I am still as American as any blue eyed, blond haired person.

SAL said...

So who do we put on the poster? You have to choose someone don't you?

Anyway, having been outside this country, it doesn't seem to me that non-Americans have a particular racial image of Americans. An "American" (in their eyes) can be distinguished by his/her boisterous egotism and penchant for wearing sports paraphenalia...

Margot Lee Shetterly said...

A month ago or so, I was listening to Terry Gross interview the (very handsome) Mr. Idris Elba about, among other things, his experiences in America.

He described the conversations that he would have with African-Americans when he asked them where they were from. "[Paraphrasing in sonorous British baritone]:'So where you from?' African-American person: 'I'm from New York.' IE:'I mean, where are you originally from?' AAP: 'Well, I grew up in Virginia.'
IE, trying to get to the heart of the matter:'Well, where are your parents from?' AAP:'Ah, they're from Alabama.' IE (confused and frustrated): 'Well where are THEY originally from??' AAP: '????????'

Most of the people of African descent in the UK are much closer to their immigrant roots: Jamaica, Nigeria, Ghana, etc. The idea that African-Americans are from here was something that took Mr. Elba awhile to get his head around.

Though all Americans, and African-Americans in particular, spend lots of time trying to move closer to or distance ourselves from this concept of what it means to be an American, no question that there is something that might be called "Americanness" and that people in other countries of all colors and backgrounds recognize it in us quickly. This despite, or in addition to, our skin color.

This happens to me in Mexico all the time. Maybe it's happening more because of Barack Obama? It certainly feels better to be recognized as an American abroad in 2009 than it did in the spring of 2003.

The description in the Pearlman article read like a real anachronism, and certainly was incongruous with both the photos and the inclusive message of the piece. However, I looked at his photo and have a feeling that the sandy-haired boy he described was himself as a kid.

Kids who are growing up today will have a vastly different perception of who is a "quintessential American". They'll have to do nothing more than to look at that most quintessential of all Americans, the President of the United States.

Anonymous said...

I'm one of your conservative friends who is not excited about people identifying themselves as hyphenated Americans.

I wonder if you are not overacting a bit to Pearlman's choice of words. As a writer he had to make a descriptive choice. Would it have been better if he had written, "It’s a beloved boy with any color eyes and black, brown, or blond hair boy chasing down a long fly into the gap."

I have black hair, but I don't think Pearlman was trying to label me as un-American.

Anonymous said...

By the way, speaking of exclusive language, I was struck by your use of the word "brotha."

Are all Americans your "brotha?"

Richard said...

I was blessed (cursed?) to be raised in post-industrial Detroit, which I feel comes with some nearly unavoidable baggage along the lines of race, class, gender, and sexuality.

One part of that baggage is a tendency to define my "blackness" against my white counterparts, no matter how senseless and wrenching the resulting conflicts are.

I revisit these conflicts perennially, but they were really brought to the surface during a year-long stint in France a few years ago. That was the first time I was deeply challenged to observe and accept just how American I am.

My hesitancy had to do with the fact that the majority of other American in France with me were white, middle class (straight) women. During our more intimate cross-cultural encounters with French people who were actually interested in American life, I almost always provided the voice of dissent. It was a tense, unspoken battle to have my experience and background counted as part of the American experience. Even more difficult for the French to accept was the fact that I wasn't a professional athlete, or singer.

So maybe, at the end of the day, there's a combination of things going on. White Americans, by shear force of numbers, dominate production of the American image, consciously or otherwise. People of color reinforce that dominance by defining their experience against the white majority. And American capitalism, which consumes and produces culture with little regard for social consequences, exports caricatured images of minorities that so few of us ever (desire) to live up to.