As a military brat, I’m an American who has spent most of her life overseas. And as a Korean-African-American living in Korea—a highly racially homogenous and prejudiced society— I experienced acute racial discrimination on a daily basis. Because of it, I idealized my notion of the American identity.
In Korea, I chose to identify myself as American. I told myself America was a “melting pot,” and I had a place in the inherently hybrid cultural identity of being an American. Back “home,” I could find my place within a group identity without feeling caught-in-between while simultaneously being made the Other.
But these past few years back in the States have shown me the hopelessness of my endeavor, so much so that I’m forced to believe there has been a contemporary death of the American identity. The addition of a hyphenated “American” to tie subgroups such as “Asian-American” or “African-American” to a larger overarching identity has, to some extent, become superfluous.
Both my personal experience and exposure to cross-cultural social science research has led me to suspect that there might be significant negative implications to the spread of this cultural movement toward “diversity.”
There has been some commendable progress in the discussions surrounding race relations as a result of this movement— particularly in the field of academia. Scholarly articles such as the one published by Markus and Kitayama proclaiming a dichotomy between “Eastern” and “Western” societies—the first as interdependent and the latter as significantly independent—have been critiqued for their sweeping generalizations and ignorance of the incredible degree of cultural variation amongst large geographic groups of people.
The recent exploration and acknowledgement of the vast array of diversity within these previously overgeneralized groups by social scientists has paved the way for studies focusing on the now clearly evident subcultures within them. Theories such as Spencer’s PVEST highlight the role of sociocultural variability in individual identity development. Spencer’s study of African-American youth resilience is a prime example.
However, this apparent pursuit of inclusivity and appreciation of an idealized conception of “diversity” has led to a greater solidification of lines separating these varied racial and ethnic groups. It unintentionally promotes the further separation of these groups from the greater fabric of the wholly “American” society.
Take, for instance, the inclusion of multiracial individuals in comparative racial studies. The use of multiracial peoples as a definitive category is, in many ways, significantly heartening. It is a clear recognition of the multitude of Americans who choose not to be limited to identifying with a single traditional racial group.
At the same time, the label “multiracial” itself demarcates a clear division between those of a dominantly identified race and those without. In a society where a person’s hierarchical classification of their race is so tightly bound to their predominant cultural affinity, when mixed individuals are repeatedly shelved as “Others” when it comes to race, so too is their identity.
Nevertheless, the shortcomings of this attempt to increase the visible appearance of diversity at the societal level has not merely slighted racially-mixed or non-singularly identifying individuals. In fact, the cultural identity of any and all individuals is now consistently attached to their allegiance to their respective dominant racial group.
What role then does the term “American” in “African-American” or “Asian-American” play? In our society, the American portion for individuals with culturally hyphenated identities is purely rhetorical; at the end of the day an “African-American” individual is mostly considered black and an “Asian-American” individual is an Asian. The normative American— the Caucasian-American— is simply (and always) “white”.
In our frantic pursuit of diversity, we have moved away from achieving the broader unity we are capable of when we acknowledge diversity and variety as inherent components of the overall fully “American” identity.
Our failure to do so is apparent in our increasing lack of unity even within these broadly clustered racial groups. Racial groups who share economic plights and similar societal discrimination fail to stand together in solidarity, sometimes doing exactly the opposite. An authentic sense of acceptance and belonging for formerly marginalized and minority groups in the United States necessitates the formation of relationships based on reliance and trust rather than on competition and divisiveness. The modern American populace is a majestic house divided, and as a result, continues to falter.
America has a great variety of all social identities, both racial and otherwise. Therefore, our overarching cultural identity must reflect these forms of diversity without a fixation on racial demarcation. This shift toward the emergence of a more truly inclusive conception of our national identity is one that must be forged in part by discovering our existing commonalities, as well as through opening up the dialogue to a vast multitude of exciting differences contained within our fabric. In recognizing this, we, as citizens of the “United” States, can begin to reflect in our actual society the lofty values we proclaim in our name.
MeeSoh Bossard is a second- year in the College studying comparative human development.