What is an American?

10 Sep

The 2012 U.S. Presidential race is a contest between two Americans: Mitt Romney and Barack Obama (also, third party candidates with little realistic shot at winning).

When Barack Obama was elected President of the United States in 2008, I was thrilled from an anthropological point of view.  Minimally, I assumed that having a President with an “unusual” name, born in Hawaii, who spent part of his childhood in Indonesia, and who self-identifies as African-American would generate some interesting class discussions.  Further, I hoped that Obama’s diverse parentage – a mother from Kansas and a father from Kenya – would change the way Americans view “race” and interpret what it means to be American.

Beyond politics, Barack Obama’s international life story intrigued me.  He personifies our rapidly globalizing world; fascinating to anthropologists, but evidently threatening and confusing to some Americans.

A Gallup poll from May 2011 indicates significant confusion about where President Obama was born.  Only 49% of Republicans believed that Obama was born in the United States (compared to 65% for Independents and 81% for Democrats)!  Do that many people not realize that Hawaii is a U.S. state?  Is it the bizarre conspiracy theory that Obama was actually born in Kenya?  There are many possible explanations, but it is stunning that such a basic fact of Obama’s biography could be so misunderstood.

Another poll from June 2012 showed that only 34% of respondents correctly identified Barack Obama as a Protestant Christian – the majority religion among U.S. citizens.  Forty-four percent did not know Obama’s religion and another 11% misidentified him as Muslim.  Again, I wonder about the basis of such misunderstandings.  Do some people think Obama is Muslim because he lived in Indonesia, because his middle name is Hussein (very common in the Arab world), or some other factor?

Needless to say, Barack Obama’s cultural background is probably more misunderstood in his own time than any preceding U.S. President.  (Nobody insisted that Dwight Eisenhower was born overseas, was not a Protestant, etc.).  This confusion is mostly a result of simple ignorance, but also deliberate misinformation and attempts to exaggerate the supposed “foreignness” or “otherness” of Barack Obama by his political opponents.

For example, I drove past a freeway billboard yesterday that read “VOTE FOR THE AMERICAN!”

What does the word American mean?  According to dictionary.com, “of or pertaining to North or South America; of the Western Hemisphere: the American continents.”  Those of us from the United States most often apply the term more narrowly: “of or pertaining to the United States of America or its inhabitants: an American citizen.”  Few people would argue with such a straightforward definition, and, unless you believe so-called “birther” conspiracies, both major party presidential candidates share the same nationality: American.

But the word American can carry much greater cultural meaning depending on how it is used and the intended message.  It can be used to divide the “real” Americans from those other Americans with different political ideologies, races, ethnicities, languages, sexual orientations, religious beliefs – the aspects of human cultural diversity that anthropologists explore.  Apparently, the creator of the “VOTE FOR THE AMERICAN!” sign meant to signal his opinion that one candidate is “more American” than the other.

This problem, which I often jokingly refer to as “fanning the flames of ignorance,” is certainly not unique to Obama.  During the Republican Presidential Primary, Mitt Romney’s opponents subtly implied that his Mormon faith was somehow “less American” than their own religious denominations.  I find this equally deplorable.

As an anthropologist, I am fascinated by cultural differences, and I hate to see such differences, real or imagined, used to divide people.  If Mitt Romney is elected in November, I’ll be thrilled to discuss the anthropology of religion and America’s first Mormon president – but, make no mistake, whoever wins the U.S. Presidential election of 2012 will be an American!  Anyone who pretends otherwise is just fanning the flames of ignorance and burning us all.

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One Response to “What is an American?”

  1. martinezrenuncio 09/11/2012 at 4:59 pm #

    Reblogged this on Peace & Equity and commented:
    Now this piece is a great piece to look at in connection with class discussions this week. What is an American? How do we define American? Historically, it has been defined by whiteness and citizenship requirements. Do we still see it that way? I think there is evidence that says yes.

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