How American is “American”?

Before we start, I have a little… activity. Close your eyes. Well, maybe not; I need you to keep reading. Anyway. In your mind’s eye, picture a Chinese person. Just focus on the face- skin, hair, nose, lips, eyes, etc. I just want the first face you thought of; it’s really important it’s your “gut reaction.” Now picture an African….. A Mexican….. An Arab….. A French person. Last one: picture an American. Remember that last image. Don’t think about it or alter it, just file it away for me; we’ll come back to it.

In 1999, Jim Sidanius and Felicia Pratto wrote that “despite tremendous effort… discrimination, oppression, brutality, and tyranny remain all too common features of the human condition. Far from having escaped the grip of human ugliness in the civil rights revolutions of the 1960’s, we seem only to have increased the level of chaos, confusion, and inter-group truculence…”

Based upon this perspective, the two developed their “Social Dominance Theory” (SDT), which attempted to outline the group hierarchies in societies. In 2006, they elaborated:

Social Dominance Theory argues that societies producing stable economic surplus contain three qualitatively-distinct systems of group-based hierarchies: (1) an age system, in which adults have disproportionate social power over children; (2) a gender system, in which men have disproportionate social, political, and military power compared to women; and (3) an arbitrary-set system, in which groups constructed on ‘arbitrary’ bases… not linked to the human life-cycle have differential access to things of positive and negative social value. Arbitrary-set groups may be defined by social distinctions… such as… nationality, ‘race,’ ethnicity, class, estate, descent, religion, or clan.

Regardless of the polemical nature of the first two systems, the main focus of the SDT (and subsequent psychological/sociological studies) was the idea that even in “civilized” societies, human nature still prevented true egalitarianism, creating unfair advantages for particular socioeconomic, religious, and racial groups.

Thierry Devos and Mahzarin R. Banaji furthered it, striving to analyze American society through the lens of SDT. Before we discuss their results, I want you to recall your “American,” but please don’t change your gut reaction. According to their study, if you are African-American, you pictured either a white or black man. However, if you are of any other ethnicity- especially white or Asian American- you pictured a white male. “In Western cultures, White racial identity and male gender are treated as cultural expectations.”

Their studies also found that some racial groups are perceived as “more” American than others- implicitly at least. They therefore dubbed their study the “American=White Effect.”

White Americans always perceived themselves as more American than [minorities]. African Americans equate themselves to White Americans and see themselves as more American than Asian Americans. Asian Americans perceive themselves as less American than the dominant groups and as American as African Americans… However, [Asian Americans were] rated as respecting a core value of American society, namely treating people of all races and background equally, to a greater extent than White Americans. African Americans were characterized as being more egalitarian, but as having weaker emotional bonds to the nation than White Americans.

Such is the paradox of American society. We perceive some people as more obedient to the American ideals, yet still regard them as less American. And to add to all that complexity, we don’t even realize it. The aforementioned results are for our subconscious only—our “implicit prejudices.” These are prejudices that we carry around unknowingly, sometimes unwantedly.

Harvard’s Implicit Association Test confirms the White=American study, using simple tests to determine how difficult it is for test-takers to complete certain tasks based upon their implicit race or gender biases. In Devos and Banaji’s studies, the subjects thought in an extremely egalitarian fashion, believing that all people should be treated equally regardless of their race, but as the aforementioned results show, their implicit associations were not in accordance.

Implicit prejudices are separate from overt prejudices. We are consciously aware of overt prejudices–that would be the KKK terrorizing black people for their supposed inferiority, or radical Islamists crashing planes into the World Trade Center. Implicit prejudices, however, made people blindly accept Jim Crow Laws and made people cower at the sight of a brown-skinned person at the supermarket post-9/11. Implicit prejudices are generally born of the society in which they exist, a cross-product of culture and personal values; culture in that we tend to absorb the dispositions of those around us, and personal values in that those who consider themselves egalitarians are more likely to work towards more egalitarian dispositions, both consciously and subconsciously, thereby eradicating overt and implicit prejudices.

These prejudice are so ingrained in our cultures, they invade our semantics. An American “defaults” to a white, middle-class, heterosexual male who is neither young nor old; those who depart from this characterization are linguistically marked. Consider how older white men are not categorized simply as “men” or “Whites”, but referred to as “elderly”; white women are not explicitly noted as being white, but are referred to as “women”; African American men are not likely to be referenced to as “men,” but rather as “Blacks.” We—all of us—categorize people based upon their dissimilarity from the stereotypical “American.”

To some level, I think we are all aware of this dilemma. We look back at American history and we see the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, Internment Camps, and the War on Terror, AKA White Men Fighting Over Freedom, Let’s Free the Blacks, Let’s Round Up and Persecute Japanese Americans, and Let’s Fear and Discriminate Against Brown-Skinned Americans. No wonder African-Americans see themselves as more American than Asian Americans.

But wait, didn’t we try to solve that problem with Affirmative Action? Sure, tried. Lyndon B. Johnson said in 1965 that affirmative action was the next step of the Civil Rights battle.

You do not wipe away the scars of centuries [and] take a man who for years has been hobbled by chains, liberate him, [and] bring him to the starting line of a race, saying, ‘you are free to compete with all the others,’ and still justly believe you have been completely fair… We seek not just freedom but opportunity…—not just equality as a right and a theory, but equality as a fact and as a result.

We’ve come a long way since 1965, though, and have essentially the same affirmative action. We are still telling minorities, including Afrian-Americans and Asian-Americans, that first and foremost they are black and Asian American—that they are less capable of accomplishing the same things as whites without assistance. We are still telling black people and Asian-Americans that they can do whatever they want, but for the rest of their lives, they will constantly ask themselves if they got where they are because they’re not white or because they have that capacity? For the rest of their lives—or at least affirmative action’s—their every accomplishment will be overshadowed by their “minoritiness.”

At the same time, we are telling white people that they must work doubly hard to compete with minorities of the same or lesser capabilities because they have less melanin than the others. A new saying claims “the new racism is to deny that racism exists.” Think Fisher v. University of Texas; we are not “levelling the playing field,” we are creating a separate playing field for different minorities altogether. According to a recent Harvard study, self-described whites people now believe that they have “replaced Blacks” and have become the primary victims of racial discrimination. Are we attempting to integrate minorities so much that we are in fact neglecting the majority?

Look, honestly, I’m finding it harder and harder to navigate the web of ethnicity and racial bias that pervades our nation’s politics. Who deserves our sympathy, our help, our judgment? Does anyone? Does Affirmative Action need to be abolished or just updated? Is it perpetuating the idea that some races are less capable or less competent? How then do we make all Americans equally “American”? Do we?

These questions don’t stop at the public level. I can’t console myself with the idea that I’m not like that. Rather, I will forever look over my own shoulder, wondering which of my accomplishments were of my own doing and which of my skin’s. Every memory of my pride will always be tainted by harrowing little thoughts questioning the origin of the achievement. When college admission decisions are handed down, I will have to live with the doubts that my heritage may very well have played as equal a part as my hard work.

There is one thing I am certain of, however: I refuse to believe this is “just human nature” and there is nothing we can do to fix the mixed-up, racial state of our nation. There is always something we can do, and you can be sure that I’m not giving up that easily. Are you?