Monday, July 12, 2010
Can "American" be an ethnic term?
Years ago, my friend Mike O’Connor told me that what made us a unified American culture is that we “all know who Michael Jordon is, and we have all eaten Big Macs.” The quote stuck with me, especially as I moved to different regions seeking a tenure track position. (Mike, it should not be surprising, ended up getting a Ph.D. in American Studies.) The quote came back to me yet again when I found this video of a woman in a German grocery store coming upon an “America Ethnic Foods” section.
The selections should not be too surprising: there are marshmallows and baking mixes (I used to bring these products as gifts to Austrian friends who had visited America, since they did not exist in their country); Hershey’s chocolate syrup, Campbell’s Soup, Hellman’s Mayonnaise (known as “Best Foods west of the Rockies, by the way), and others. I won’t ruin the whole video.
The video does bring up the question of whether American can be seen as an ethnicity or just a conglomeration of people with differing ethnicities. There are philosophical reasons to suggest the latter. Being an American (citizen) is a purely political distinction. A person who is naturalized is as much of an American the moment they become a citizen as someone whose family came to the new world on the Mayflower. A child of any parents, if born on American soil, is considered an American. So, history, culture, loyalties, political perspective, and other such things are irrelevant to the categorization. Yet, at the same time, we do want to think that there is something akin to American culture. I think we would feel hollow without it. But what would it be? Is it just the standard notion that we are all participating in the great American experiment? Or, perhaps, it is that which we absorb by living within the borders, regardless of which part of the border we live in.
If Mike was right – if this video is right – that American ethnicity is somehow defined by its consumer culture, then we encounter an even deeper connection to capitalism than those who claim that it is just democracy that goes hand-in-hand with free-markets. (I do not claim this postulate is true, by the way, just that some people claim it.) It suggests that capitalism is itself a culture and an ethnicity – a heritage in itself.
I found an interesting definition for “ethnic” on Answers.com: “Relating to a people not Christian or Jewish.” That seems odd to me, although it does recall Fraser Crane, on Cheers, declaring that he wished he had an ethnicity.
Someone on Urbandictionary.com clearly agrees with answers.com, and defines ethnicity as “Something white people should never try to relate to.”
Clearly it is a loaded and political term.
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