“In America We…” Who Determines American Culture
In this past week’s focus on colonization and how it has affected racial and ethnic minorities, ideas surrounding culture were a continuous theme. Since the beginning of the United States just about every ethnic group that had already existed here or immigrated here has been stripped of its culture. I will start with the Native American population, who were the first group affected by “Americanization”. Native American culture was disrupted as early as the mid 1500’s when Native children were being taken from their parents and given European educations. By 1898 it was being recommended by the U.S. Indian Peace Commission that Native children attend European American schools so that the cultural differences between Native and white European American children would disappear (marsiglia & Kulis, 2009, p.119). Then there was slavery. Slavery in itself, given its dehumanizing nature, is a surefire way to lose culture. Slaves were brought from Africa to the Americas in the 1700s (Marsiglia & Kulis, 2009, p. 122). Upon arrival slaves were given English names and taught English traditions. The traditional religious practices, ceremonies and general way of life for these people were taken from them.
Other groups, though not brought in as slaves or being massacred and relocated for land, have come to the U.S. and had to change or suppress their cultures to fit in or even survive. My maternal grandfather’s father was a Lithuanian Jew who came to the U.S. around the turn of the 20th century as a refugee when the Jewish population in Lithuania was being chased out of the country by the Russians. Once in America, my great grandfather did not often bring up his heritage because to be Jewish was frowned upon here in Minnesota as well. He ended up marrying a Presbyterian woman and claiming Christianity as his religion. If my own mother would not have done the research and discovered this, I would never have known about my Jewish ancestry. There are so many more stories like this of cultures lost in America. Regardless of how many generations ones family has been in the U.S. What stumps me is that this is a nation of immigrants. Unless people identify as Native American, their families came from somewhere other than America. This country was also established on the basis of religious freedom. Should that not also encompass cultural freedom as well? Why is it that the White European Christian American determines what “American culture” means? Or even whether a culture is good or bad?
Yes, we have our China towns in New York and San Francisco and, more locally, Somali markets in Minneapolis…so…we have bubbles of land that serve as oases for people that may not identify with the dominant white American culture. What about the world outside of these cultural safe havens? Billboards, food, commercial clothing, the people on TV, radio, and every other aspect of American life screams “White America!”. One could argue that like every other country America has its own culture, be it good or bad. This brings me back to the now widely famous YouTube video of the girl at UCLA talking about Asians on their phones in the library. This girl uses the statement “In America we…” referring to cell phone etiquette in the library. It is this statement “In America we…” that closes so many minds. The fact is in America we…forget that this nation is made up of more cultures than what is perceived by the mainstream.
Marsiglia, F.F., & Kulis, S. (2009). Diversity, Oppression, and Change: Culturally Grounded Social Work. Chicago, IL: Lyceum Books, Inc.
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