Opinion: The way you might define America or American is more problematic than you think

It is time to realize that America is more than the U.S. and question what it means to be American

Opinion: The way you might define America or American is more problematic than you think

Editor's Note: This article appeared in The Eagle's March 2021 virtual print edition. 

Growing up in Latin America, whenever someone mentioned America or American, my first thought went directly to the continent itself. Although we were taught in school to differentiate between North America, Central America and South America, the term would always be linked to the entire region, for me. However, the more I began to interact with movies and people from the United States, it came to my attention that they used those terms to refer to their country and its citizens. When I moved to the U.S. for college, the term “American” became more and more present in my daily life. The way the people around me, media and even people in the government used the word as a universally-accepted concept referring merely to the U.S. and its citizens made me question the definition of the term itself. Have you ever asked yourself what being “American” really means? 

Given the ambiguity of the social understanding of the term, I decided to take a look at the official definitions of America in dictionaries from different languages. If we were to create a general definition based on the ones found in Italian, Portuguese, French, Spanish and English dictionaries, it would primarily refer to the continent as a whole. Nevertheless, I was not surprised when I found that the Real Academia Española, which some regard as the most relevant Spanish dictionary, makes a special emphasis on how the word “America” should not be used to refer merely to the United States. Similarly, I thought it was amusing that the term America in the Urban Dictionary, among other definitions, is defined as “a country that claims the name of an entire continent to itself alone for no compelling reason.” On the other hand, the Merriam-Webster dictionary makes sure to include the direct association of the label “America” with the U.S. The assertions across these dictionary definitions push us at American University to question the term with which we closely identify. 

If you ask people from Latin America, being American does not require being a U.S. citizen; in fact, many from the region might say that they are also American. Likewise, in France, there is a feeling that the use of the term American in that manner is simply imprecise. After all, America is a continent composed of more countries than just the United States. The mere assumption that America or American is directly associated with the United States often creates an imperialistic feeling, what many call “American exceptionalism.” The presence of power that the United States has in the world has made it possible for the term to be more generalized, but it still calls for the exclusion of all the other countries present within the continent. Even if you separate the continent between Latin America and North America, Canada would still be a part of the equation. Hence, the generalization is not only excluding those in Latin America, but also those in the northern region. 

Taking a step aside from the whole geographical perspective, it has come to my attention that indeed being an American for most within the U.S. is more than just being part of a piece of land; there is a sentiment and a symbolism behind the term. But have you ever stopped and wondered where that sentiment comes from? Where does the sense of greatness that is often conveyed in the terminology comes from? If you really think about it, you might be able to notice that it does in fact come from a notion of power and exceptionalism. An article for The Atlantic asserts that it is the equivalent of going to a foreign country and not learning the language because you assume that they will speak English back to you. How many people have been harassed for speaking their native language in the U.S., regardless of the fact that they are talking to someone that understands that language? Having experienced this, I think it is clear that the hypocrisy runs deep. 

Contrary to my belief, I found that the use of these terms to refer to the U.S. is not only present in the social scenario, but also in the academic frame. This hypocrisy was clear in the classroom where, sadly, the feeling of American exceptionalism was more present. It was and is used back and forth between students and professors. In fact, I even had a class named “America in the World.” The generalization of the concept is being used when producing and sharing knowledge, something that I find deeply problematic. The problem begins when you, a professor or student, assume that when saying America or American, everyone will make a direct association with the U.S. You are at the same time assuming that American exceptionalism is so widely accepted that, without thinking if there are international students who might also identify with the term, America is universally seen as the U.S. If the generalization is accepted in the academic area, then how do we expect to make a change? As an academic institution, American University is forcing the problem to run deeper the more the term is used in this way. 

Not many people question something that comes so naturally. Sometimes, an external perspective is necessary for us to realize the problem that might come with something that is so embedded in our daily lives. I want you to ask yourself: What does America mean? And what does it mean to be an American? Because as simple and common as it may appear to you, there is a problem that comes with it. In many cases the language that we use to communicate plain ideas can also communicate insidious implications of power and exclusion. 

Isabela Linares Uscher is a sophomore in the School of International Service and a columnist and assistant copy editor for The Eagle


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