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Different individuals living in the United States of America define their identity disparately. The ever-increasing ethnic diversity in the country is compounding the problem of defining identity (Hughey 111). The ambiguity of defining identity revolves around the ‘immigrant’ issue, which appears to be dividing public opinion on being American. The pertinent question in this case is the extent to which immigrants feel ‘American’. The first, second, and even third-generation immigrants hold on to some cultural practices, which are connected to their native countries. Therefore, when defining identity, they are torn between being American and natives of their countries of origin. For instance, an Indian born in the United States might not know whether to define his/her identity as Indian-American or American-Indian. This paper explores why it is hard to define identity based on what it means to be American.
The ambiguous identity
According to Schildkraut, “A complex and contradictory set of norms exist, and it is difficult to reduce them into a single measure of ‘Americanism’” (598). Conventionally, identity is formed from shared values and norms, which underscore cohesiveness in a given society. However, when these norms and values are diverse, the cohesiveness disintegrates, and thus every person develops his or her own identity. Therefore, it becomes hard to come up with one definition for identity. The American society is divided along racial, ethnicity, religious, and ideological lines. Therefore, people from a certain ethnicity, like the Latinos, will have a different definition of identity from that of Native Americans (Huntington 84).
Similarly, the affluent will have different a definition of identity from that of the poor. The rich might define their identity based on their material wealth, which paints the United States as a land full of opportunities. On the contrary, the poor and the homeless in the United States may form identities based on their experiences and struggles, and thus opportunities in the country might be defined as elusive. Therefore, the definition of ‘being American’ between these two groups will be different, hence the differing identities, due to the lenses used to view the prevalent circumstances.
Similarly, when immigrants to the United States define identity based on what it means to be American, they have differing opinions depending on their experiences and places of origin. Therefore, identity based on what it means to be American is subject to nativity, ethnicity, locality, and ideology. For instance, in Jahromi’s article, Shila posits, “I think I’m American-Indian, but not Indian-American. I think I’m more American than Indian, but I still think that I retain parts of my culture” (Jahromi 82). The definition given here underscores the earlier claim that identity can be tied to ethnicity. To Shila, she cannot define her identity without mentioning India, even though she was born and brought up in the United States. On the other hand, Beth defines identity based on ideology. She posits, “[People] are considered equal, but they aren’t really…money determines more than you technically being an equal person…So equality is a great concept, but I don’t think it ever actually plays out the way it’s supposed to” (Jahromi 85).
Her definition of identity is based on ideologies concerning equality, capitalism, and opportunities amongst others factors. Finally, Nina defines identity based on location. She notes, “I was born in Guatemala, which I’m very proud of. I have been raised in South River all my life. I’m probably more connected to South River because I’ve been raised here and I’ve only visited Guatemala a couple of times” (Jahromi 86). Therefore, to Nina, her identity revolves around her location. She does not identify with Guatemala because she does not live there. On the other side, she identifies with South River because it is her locality.
Therefore, defining identity hinges on different factors. In addition, the meaning of ‘being American’ is diverse based on several elements. Currently, Americans do not share the same values and norms, which form a culture. Therefore, the American culture is divided (Gitlin 86), and thus it becomes hard to define identity. Jahromi concludes, “There is certainly not one way to be an American” (90). Similarly, there cannot be one way of defining identity. Abdelal et al. argue, “One key aspect of identity content is the set of constitutive norms that provide formal and informal rules that define group membership” (698). However, the ‘constitutive norms’ are lacking in the American context, which underlines the difficulty in defining identity.
The definition of identity based on what it means to be American is arbitrary. As noted in this paper, the constituents of being American are diverse and they are subject to different aspects like race, ethnicity, ideology, locality, and religion. Therefore, without a common definition of what it means to be American, it becomes difficulty to define identity based on the same premise. Jahromi’s article supports this argument as the three interviewees define their identity based on different parameters. The lack of cohesiveness, common values, and norms in the American society disintegrates the fabric that can be used to define identity based on being American.
Abdelal, Rawi, Yoshiko Herrera, Alastair Johnston, and Rose McDermott. “Identity as a Variable.” Perspectives on Politics 4.4 (2006): 695-711. Print.
Gitlin, Todd. The Twilight of Common Dreams: Why America Is Wracked by Culture Wars, New York: Macmillan, 1996. Print.
Hughey, Matthew. White Bound: Nationalists, Antiracists, and the Shared Meanings of Race, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2012. Print.
Huntington, Samuel. Who are We?: The Challenges to America’s National Identity, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004. Print.
Jahromi, Parissa. “American Identity in the USA: Youth Perspectives.” Apllied Development Science 15.2 (2011): 79-93. Print.
Schildkraut, Deborah. “Defining American Identity in the Twenty-First Century: How Much “There” is There?” The Journal of Politics 69.3 (2007): 597-615. Print.