My daughter and I were on a school field trip the other day when a boy came up to her with a question. “What are you?” he asked.
At first, my daughter gave him a quizzical look as she tried to figure out what he was asking. Finally, she just responded by saying, “Huh?”
“What are you?” he repeated. “I mean are you Chinese or something?”
(For full disclosure, I am Japanese and my wife is Caucasian so Emma is a beautiful mix of the two of us — but she definitely has an Asian look.)
Emma answered, “Oh, I am Japanese, but I have some American Indian and some English and some other stuff, too. What about you?”
(His answer is what really got me.)
“I’m an American.”
I felt the need to speak up,:“Emma’s an American, too. So am I. We were all born here.”
And then he said, with some conviction, “Yeah, but I’m an American American.”
The kid then went back to his seat — seemingly his question was answered. But Emma was slightly peeved. She blew it off with a, “That was weird. I’m as American as he is,” and went back to talking to her friend.
Honestly, I don’t blame the kid. He only knows what he’s been taught – or not taught – by his parents, by his community, by the media and pop culture which often fails to include the rich diversity of people that make up true American culture.
Cognitively, I’m sure he’ll learn that being “American” is not an ethnicity, but I wonder if he’ll ever totally understand that he’s not “more American” than other people who look differently than he does. He might acknowledge it, but this attitude that somehow some of us are slightly less American than others is one that seeps into our national landscape.
It’s time for this attitude to change, because that landscape has already changed, and will continue to do so. It’s estimated that by 2043, white, non-Hispanic people will no longer be in the majority. And if we’re going to fully love and embrace this richer and more diverse America, we have to be aware of what we teach or don’t teach our kids. Hopefully, we’ll embrace the concept that America really is the Great American Melting Pot — and that we are made better because we embrace and incorporate the cultures of those who come to this country. What makes America unique is that we are a truly heterogeneous society with no one origin story.
Everyone can be an American American.More On