What Are We, America?

‘Old Bones’: photograph by Nick Voon.

As the White racial group in the United States loses its majority and becomes one among several, many pundits have proclaimed the end of White America and the emergence of a multiracial, multicultural America. Yet the entrance of a great number of persons of colour does not speak to the question of what place ‘White’ culture should have in these United States. If people are free to choose their nationality, they are also free to choose whether, or to what extent and in what manner, they will assimilate to the dominant culture. Eugene Yi says,

But as this post-’65 generation ages and assimilates, there is a different aspect of whiteness that comes to mind: whiteness as lacking a culture. As being ‘merely’ American. The fear is that something essential is being lost, a sense of self and identity that goes beyond advice on Korean restaurants and maybe a word or two in the native language. The single largest ethnic group in America is from Germany. There once were literally hundreds of German-language newspapers circulating in the U.S. Now, there are barely any, and few really even think of Germans as anything but part of the white spectrum.

Well, one thing that should change is the capitalization of Whiteness. Whiteness, capitalized, is not the same as whiteness, lowercase. The latter is a physical colour, the former a cultural marker. A White American with maybe a bit of Cherokee blood may be rather tan in the summer, far from white, and still be White.

Am I White? Maybe. My English is certainly enough. My cultural preferences may not be: I eat the cartilage from chicken drumsticks; I have no trouble kowtowing to the right people; I often like to speak obliquely. With my parents, I speak Chinese at home. So I don’t know if I should be considered to have assimilated to Whiteness.

In any case, I have no problem whatsoever with general American culture being identified with a certain kind of thing called White. It is a fact that political suffrage and the tradition of this nation have been held in the hands of those whom we anachronistically call White. Specifically, these United States are English in origin, with rather English laws and liberties, but have taken in Scots, Huguenots, Dutchmen, Germans, and more. It is no problem to me that Carolina Huguenots became Episcopalians and sometimes Presbyterians. In many ways, they have assimilated to Anglo-Saxon culture, and this is normal. Likewise, especially with two world wars, the Germans in these States – and German descent is statistically more frequent here than English – have chosen to identify more strongly with America, and so they have mostly taken to English rather than German even at home.

Darrin Moore thinks, indeed, that America is united by English. By this, I trust, he means not that everyone who speaks little or no English is not American (or how else would an infant be American?), nor that languages other than English are un-American, but rather that one cannot understand these United States apart from the English language. Indeed, the United States are not a mere idea but a living reality, and it is not by simply pledging loyalty to an abstraction but by partaking of its cultural bonds that we participate in what we call America. For our republic qua republic speaks English, and the political customs of these States as a whole are English. To an extent, insofar as English culture is rooted in Western European Christendom, we are also rooted in Europe and cannot be understood apart from its cultural heritage; but our fundamentally English origins are a fact that no one can negate without tearing at the fabric of what we are. Other cultures there are, but we are not ourselves without this foundation.

There are, of course, old cultures here, the cultures of peoples who lived here before the United States existed. Their languages belong here. Yet Native Americans participate in American life not by speaking Navajo or Cherokee or Choctaw (important as these languages are to their communities) but by speaking English. Though the edges may not be rigidly defined, it is essential that the English language, and the history it conveys, be at the centre of the United States.

And some states, given their heritage from before they even joined the Union, have reason to maintain second-tier official languages. In Louisiana, whose very civil law is based largely on French and Spanish law, this language might be French; in Hawai‘i, once an independent kingdom, and even now retaining Hawai‘ian terms in its property law, this language is clearly Hawai‘ian. For these states, it is more than reasonable to have more than one official language; yet English is indispensable.

But we need not only a common language but a common culture to bind us. In Commonwealth realms, the peoples are united by (among other things) devotion to the Queen, their reigning sovereign; in the United States, we have no such cultural and political institution. Instead, with no personal loyalty, we are bound all the more to a cultural loyalty, a loyalty to the organic state before its bureaucratic institutions. Our fœderal structure also entails patriotic loyalties to both our respective states and the United States. Our states and our local cultures may be as different as England, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales, but in common we Americans must hold to a uniting force as strong as that by which a British or Canadian man declares himself a loyal subject of the Queen. The politicians and bureaucrats may wish this force to be their own coercive arm, but at the end of the day this cannot be so, for such a state is not a republic. It may be WASPish of me to say this, but we need Anglo-Saxon culture.

This is not to say that other cultures have no place. Native American nations within the United States have treaties with the fœderal government, and no doubt the treaties make sense to them in their own way, within their 0wn traditions. But the way in which the treaties make sense to the United States as a whole is in the American tradition of common law, as interpreted by the Supreme Court of the United States. This is how other cultures on American soil are to fit with the common American culture: they should remain and enrich American culture, and not simply be washed away as if they were impurities, but they should do this as secondary to the privileged place of the common culture.

To most people, the privileging of the common culture comes intuitively as common sense. Besides submitting to a common law, most Americans, wherever we come from, wear Western clothes. Wearing a tie to a job interview, or at a big event, is simply sensible. Despite my fondness for traditional Han Chinese clothing, I would think men’s hanfu (漢服) outlandish to wear in most contexts that were not specifically Chinese. For women this tendency seems weaker: in the States it is not hard to find an Indian woman wearing a sari or a Chinese woman wearing a cheongsam. The asymmetry between the sexes is perhaps natural, since it has fallen largely to men to tend to public affairs of the state, and women have often not had the same duties. Nevertheless, it is generally true that Americans will generally conform to American dress.

There are many more parts of culture, which I have no space to address. But I hope I have contributed something useful to the understanding of what place a common American culture has in relation to other cultures in the United States. For convenience one might call this White (as opposed to, say, German) culture, though for the sake of unity we might try to find a better name. Much work remains to be done in defining and describing general American culture, and it is necessary for us to identify the wisest course and take it.

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One response to “What Are We, America?

  1. “These men don’t take no for an answer, they build these big businesses, these empires, but really it’s all based on failure, insecurity, and an identity modeled on some abstract ideal of white power. I’ve always said this is a show about becoming white. That’s the definition of success in America—becoming a WASP. A WASP male.”
    — Matthew Weiner, The Art of Screenwriting No. 4, The Paris Review

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