American Culture

By Bhavana Ravala (Passionate Teenager)

When you think of "American culture", what comes to mind? Well, everyone seems to have a different perception of it. My perception is that there is no American culture: that in this country, we just have a huge mess of different cultures, and that's okay. In my opinion, that's what makes it so great. But now there’s an overwhelming sentiment that America isn't great, that it needs to be fixed, and that it's all the fault of the immigrants.

What is “American culture” to people who don’t want immigrants in this country? I wouldn’t know. Maybe it’s the stereotypical thing that the rest of the world thinks we're like, focused on Christianity, football, fast food and white people. Now, anyone who's lived in America knows there's more to it than those four things, but they do seem to be the overwhelming majority to everyone else.

When did the US become widely accepted as a bunch of white Christians? Black people have lived here just as long as white people have, although they were unfortunately enslaved or discriminated against for most of the time, and arguably still face prejudice. And let's not forget about Native Americans: they were here first, probably crossing over from Asia centuries before Columbus according to historians, but have been mostly wiped out or confined to reservations. Not to mention the slew of immigrants that came here during the Industrial Revolution. Eastern and Southern Europeans poured in through Ellis Island, while the Chinese and Japanese came in through Angel Island. Asian immigrants are not a new phenomenon: there are families that have been here since the early 1900s, despite the idea that rich, overachieving Asians have only just started coming to the United States recently.

America has an extremely diverse makeup, yet over the years almost all of the white people from various parts of Europe have assimilated into one, dominant "American" culture, leaving out the rest of us. And people who are born into that culture cling to the belief that outsiders are not as good, or don't deserve to be here, despite pretty much all Americans coming from immigrants in the first place.

There are a few instances in my life that have made me think about this issue more recently. Not just the issue of immigration, but the culture within America, the idea of assimilation versus cultural pluralism. Is it possible for multiple cultures to exist within the U.S. and still have them all considered American? I certainly want it to be possible, but it might not be: especially not when the culture of Asian-Americans who have lived here since 1910 is somehow considered less American than that of Irish-Americans who came during the 1940's. The only explanation I see is that somehow the word American has come to mean white.

A few real-life examples to back up my theory. I am an American citizen. I was born in Illinois, and have lived in Illinois for most of my life. But I am not white. My parents moved to the U.S.from India in the late 90s, and had me in 2000, followed by my sister. We are both U.S. citizens. Technically, we are just as American as the white kids we sit next to in school everyday. But I certainly don't feel like I am. I speak with a slight accent because at home I speak in Telugu instead of English. I do not eat beef because I am a Hindu, and I usually don't eat meat in general, usually only eating chicken once in awhile. I bring my lunch everyday instead of buying it like the other kids in high school do because my mother doesn't trust the school cafeteria, and I usually bring leftovers from last night's dinner. I eat plenty of poori, dosa, and roti, with spicy curries on the side, the likes of which my white friends have never seen before. I am an American, but I do not feel like one, and I am still an outsider. It is no wonder that the other Indian-Americans in my school band together and have formed their own little "clique".

I have been asked where I am from. Illinois, I reply, because it’s true. But somehow people don't believe that. They persist. Not Illinois, before that, they ask. I know what they mean, I know what they're asking, but I hate that they assume I'm from somewhere else because I'm not white. Normally I reply that I'm from Illinois until they get the hint and switch to asking where my family's from. If they don't get it, I just offer up the information myself, telling them that I was born here but my parents came from India. If it's someone my own age who I’m not afraid of offending, I'll get frustrated enough to snap "My mother's womb," when they say "before Illinois."

My mother is an immigrant, but she has lived here for many years and intends to become a citizen soon. She speaks almost perfect English, albeit with an accent, and she knows all the mainstream American events. I looked over the citizenship test for her the other day, and I laughed to myself a little bit. The kids in my social studies class wouldn't know the answers, but my mother is expected to. One of my white friends even admitted to me that she and most of her friends probably would've failed the citizenship test, despite having learned American history ten times over by this point. Something about didn't seem right to me.

A similar incident happened when I was talking to a Canadian-Indian friend of mine. She and I are both on the speech team in our high school, and we wanted to take part in the American Legion's Constitutional Speech Contest. However, one of the requirements for being allowed to compete was that the student had to be a U.S. citizen or permanent resident, meaning my Canadian friend was ineligible. She remarked to me that, even as a Canadian of Indian descent, she could probably write a better speech on the Constitution than the average American high school student, and I think she was right about that.

A final thought: the picture above is from the actual contest last March. The twenty-something teenagers shown who made it to the semifinals, including myself, were from throughout the state of Illinois. We went through rounds of competition and were selected from many students as having the best speeches on the American Constitution. And as you can see, a good one third of us were people of color.

Here's how author Bhavala Ravala suggests you can get involved: United We Dream

Take Action Now: Immigration, Racial Justice, Asian American