“Where are you from?”
“I’m from America,” I answered hesitantly.
“Oh, you mean the U.S.?”
“Because my father comes from Guatemala. That’s also America.”
“Yeah, of course.”
In the moment, I had hesitated merely because I have a difficult time pronouncing the German: die Vereinigte Staaten.
There is an unavoidable problem with the term “America”.
After this conversation, a couple of my German friends insisted that they always correct people.
If someone refers to the “United States of America” as simply “America”, they said, that person is using imperialistic language.
I disagree, mostly.
In fact, perhaps we could use it as a method of fighting imperialism through language.
We should start with a longer view towards history. Undoubtedly, the very term “America” is inherently imperialist.
“America” is derived from the name of an Italian explorer named Amerigo Vespucci, who at least made two visits to the Caribbean and South America. Initially thought to be parts of the West Indies, it was Amerigo Vespucci who probably was the first European to recognize the territory as part of a completely separate landmass.
On top of this, the term “America” is the feminine form of his Latin name: Americus. Here we see the classically gendered language of the “Age of Discovery”. The underlying sexual metaphor behind imperialism is clear: the continent is available for penetration by the male explorers.
Today, it is next to impossible to get away from this word. So, regrettably, we rely on it rather than on a perhaps more desirable indigenous term. There are literally thousands of available words we could use, but “America” has become the name of the two continents.
Regardless of this, in what way could I possibly justify using “America” in place of the “United States of America”?
I defend using this term out of simplicity and clarity.
First, people from countries use shorthand names for those countries. No one from Australia says, “I am from the Commonwealth of Australia.” No one from Guyana says, “I am from the Co-operative Republic of Guyana.”
You can say it if you’d like, but I’m willing to bet that’s not the case.
Second, when we talk about people from specific places, we utilize demonyms. Someone from Russia is a Russian, someone from Germany is a German. What about someone from the USA?
A United Stateserin! A United States of American!
It seems to me like the demonym here might be misleading, but nevertheless indicative of a clear shorthand. If we call someone an American, then which country should they be from?
So even if we say that a preferable term would be “The United States”, then we still run into a problem.
The official name for Mexico is Estados Unidos Mexicanos – The United Mexican States. So which “United States” are you talking about?
Then we have another problem if you respond, “The United States of America.”
Are you talking about Organización de los Estados Americanos? The Organization of the American States? Because that’s a political, regional organization between all the states of the hemisphere.
Therefore, unfortunately, none of the dominant terminology is totally unproblematic.
There is a way, it seems to me, of decolonizing this word and using it in an anti-imperialistic way.
Although I admit that I did mean the USA when I said “America”, I think there can be an alternative.
For example, if someone from Guatemala were to also simply say, “I am from America,” then this could serve to show a form of unity between the peoples of the Americas.
We can all begin to hollow out the meaning of term until it serves as a shorthand for peoples beyond national borders. “America” can become decolonized when we all use it together, to move past and against arbitrary divisions.
When we use “America”, we ought to use it to signify that we are from the continents (even if our ancestors are not). We can maintain the signifier and permanently broaden the signified. We can find “America” to be unifying. We can establish some level of solidarity against imperialism.
Who owns “America”? I’m tempted to say that we all do.
I may be mistaken, but for now, this seems like the clear path.
I’m going to break my usual rule and tell a personal story. When I was 13, I was ticketed for smoking a cigarette in Lansing, Illinois. I struck up a cigarette and walked into an alley. Moments later a cop car drove up and I was busted. The cop reminded me that it was a crime for me to smoke (especially five years under the legal age) and wrote me a nice little yellow ticket.
A month later, my mother had to drive me to the courthouse in order to deal with the situation.
For about an hour we sat in a crowded room as the district judge read off sentences for petty crimes. Finally, he came to what he called his “favorite part“: underage smoking. One by one he called off names in reverse alphabetical order. And one by one young men stood in front of him as he ordered them to pay $100 fines.
My name was one of the last he called. I walked to the front and he asked me if I was indeed smoking a cigarette. When I replied in the affirmative, he nodded, said that I looked like a “decent young man” and slapped me with a $50 fine.
This was my first conscious experience with racism.
You see, all the other boys who stood up in front of him were different from me in only one way – they were black. They were young black boys who received no kind words from this white judge. None of them looked like “decent” young men. They were all dressed as nicely as I was. They all walked up with their mothers like I did. They all stood there with their heads down, knowing the trouble they were in. But they received totally different treatment.
I was a misguided boy. They were criminals.
And even this first moment of recognizing racism was a moment of absurd privilege. Not only because I received clemency, but also because I was 13 years old. All of these other boys had experienced racism their entire lives. They were already conscious of race. It took me 13 years to see racism and that, in and of itself, was based on structural privilege.
The reason I’m telling this story is because it’s February again. Black History Month has begun and already the white people in America have shifted from talking about the Superbowl to talking about how black people don’t deserve a month to remember their history.
Why isn’t there a White History Month?
As if this wasn’t the single dumbest question on the planet.
Let’s pretend for a second that this question isn’t the most racist thing you could possibly ask.
I’d like you to think about 5 famous white Americans who lived before World War 2.
I bet that wasn’t too difficult.
Now, I’d like you to take a moment and think about 5 famous African Americans who lived before World War 2.
I bet you’re having a hard time coming up with five.
This is why we need Black History Month.
Black History Month traces its roots back to Carter G. Woodson in order to keep the history of African Americans alive. In order to show that black people have helped weave the fabric of the society from the beginning, despite being relegated to the status of slaves and second-class citizens. The sacrifices and struggles of black people is totally white-washed (pun intended) and glossed over in the classrooms of the United States.
Especially in predominantly white schools.
Now, there are some interesting critiques of Black History Month, but I can assure you that none of them are coming from white people. Why is this? It’s because white people today don’t understand racism. In fact, my experience at the courthouse has been one of my only personal encounters with such obvious racism, which wouldn’t have occurred if I had gotten ticketed in a predominantly white community.
Why isn’t there White History Month?
Because we don’t need a White History Month. All the history you were taught up through high school was white history.
And it was certainly His-story, because not only was it racist, but it was absolutely biased with patriarchy as well.
Let’s run through the standard curriculum of high school history classes. You start in Egypt with “the birth of civilization” and then you switch over to Mesopotamia for a week or two. And then by the end of the first month, you’re smack-dab into European history. Greece, Rome, Byzantium. But wait, what happened to Egypt?
Ah, you see, this is the beauty of it all. “Civilization” only refers to Western civilization.
Subsaharan Africa is never discussed. Central Asia is never discussed (meaning the Mongol Empire is almost totally ignored). East Asia is barely discussed (The Chinese invented paper!). And the pre-Columbian (that is, before Columbus) Americas are barely discussed, except to say that they were brutal and savage, but were also in tune with nature like Pocahontas and stuff.
After the fall of Constantinople (not called “the rise of Istanbul” for some reason) in 1453, the Reformation is briefly covered without mentioning the terribly bloody wars that ravaged the European continent. And then we have the heroic, round-earthed Columbus “discovering” America (actually Hispaniola!) in 1492 and then the birth of America with Jamestown!
No mention of the Ottoman Empire in this period. No mention of South Asia. No mention even of the Europeans and Africans who came to America between Columbus and Jamestown!
We’re left to our own devices to discern that there was history happening in this period, because the textbooks don’t bother covering it.
And neither do the teachers (with a few exceptions).
After Jamestown, we have the “Founding Fathers” (who were all rich, white men who just happened to enslave black people and own women). Then we have a brief discussion on slavery, which is solved with Abraham Lincoln saving all the black folks. Then a glossing over of Reconstruction and Jim Crow. A line or two about how we used Chinese slaves to build the transcontinental railroads. And on to World War 2, which is going to take up a good month and a half.
No mention of the Plains Wars. Nothing on the peonage system that basically kept African Americans enslaved in huge parts of the South. Definitely nothing on the African American struggle for equality during this period, because that doesn’t start until Rosa Parks sits on a bus.
I’m not slandering Rosa Parks here, I’m just pointing out that the history that is taught is so contrived and demarcated so poorly that it’s almost not even worth talking about. And after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., there’s no discussion about the Black Panthers, Angela Davis, or the Nation of Islam.
God forbid we talk about any level of radical movements for equality!
Meanwhile, all the white kids at school are wondering, “Why are all the black kids sitting together in the cafeteria?”
Just as African Americans are part of the tapestry of the history, culture, and society of America, so is the racism that has attempted to neutralize and destroy the African American struggle for equality. White people don’t see that, because they haven’t experienced it. And they haven’t experienced it, because they haven’t learned about it.
Why isn’t there a White History Month?
Because the history of the United States isn’t centered on the systematic oppression and subjugation of white people.
It wasn’t black slavemasters whipping white slaves for centuries.
It wasn’t black mobs lynching white men less than 100 years ago.
It wasn’t a black judge giving white boys inflated fines for smoking cigarettes.
Black History Month doesn’t “divide us”, racism does.
So why don’t you use this month to learn about it?
These questions may seem initially self-evident, however I think that upon further reflection, you’ll find that they’re a bit tricky to flush out. Is America the government, the people, both, neither? Is it the geographical territory between the Atlantic and the Pacific? Isn’t it actually in reference to the two continents that are ignorantly called “The New World”? Is an American someone who holds citizenship? What about the indigenous people of these continents?
The purpose of asking such questions may seem sort of rhetorical and meaningless, but it also allows us to get to a more important question: Who is “Anti-American”?
Anti-American. A charge that you can imagine I’ve heard fairly consistently over the past 8 or so years. Considering the questions I brought up above, and at the risk of sounding flippant, I regard the insult to be perfectly representative of an infantile mind sputtering out nonsensical dribble.
How am I an Anti-American? Is it because I criticize the policies of the American government? Does that disqualify my nationality? My passport is blue and my accent is as Midwestern as can be. If a German criticizes the policies of the German government does that make her an anti-German? (Coincidentally, there is a fraction of Die Linke Party that does call itself “Anti-German”, but it’s still not used as a political slur.)
What the hell does it really mean? Am I Anti-American government? Anti-American people? It’s a meaningless attack.
The real reason I think the term Anti-American gets thrown around is because The United States of America suffers from a terrible, rabid inferiority complex. American’s know, on some level, that the only government that’s stood as the bastion of European domination of this continent has been, in practice, one singular government since the American Revolution.
Unlike the average elderly person living in Leipzig, who has gone through three or four governments in her lifetime. The government doesn’t play a role in her self-identity, because she knows that governments come and go. And while they’re there, governments ought to be criticized. The Germans know that and it’s time for the Americans to learn that too.
Where this becomes incredibly pernicious is in the case of the grotesque intrusion on our privacy by the National Security Agency. Edward Snowden, someone the American public should be praising endlessly, is instead being called a traitor by many. Why are people demonizing this man? Snowden, the man who saw something despicable and revealed it, exposing some of the crimes of the government. Why are people defending the government?
But Americans, due to a societal inferiority complex, don’t want to recognize the crimes of the government, because we’ve somehow deluded ourselves into believing that their crimes are our crimes. That’s what really bothers Americans. No one actually thinks that Wikileaks or Edward Snowden is putting peoples’ lives at risk. Rather, Americans are upset because they’re identification with the government is, in effect, as central as the holy writ of the American constitution.
When discussing dictatorships throughout history, common vernacular is that people live “under” that government or regime. The people who had to live “under” Stalin, Hitler, Mao, etc… It’s about time we started recognizing that, even in a supposedly democratic society, we’re living under the American government.
This is part of the process. America needs to get over it’s inferiority complex.
Until then, don’t call me an Anti-American. This is a term that is used to marginalize dissent and slander people who hold views outside of sanctioned political opinions. I’m not anti-American, I’m a matrix of the different Americas that exist. Criticizing the policies of the government is the purpose of having a “free country” after all. Therefore, I myself am someone who is deeply American, because of my political views, not in spite of them.