When One Isn’t Enough: Duality of Identity in Modern America

"My understanding of “Americanness,” in its most essential form, is intimately rooted in the American spirit, which is borne out of a shared perception of equal opportunity and also doubles as a symbolic refuge for a range of cultures and peoples."

Born and raised in Southern California, I was exposed to an array of diverse cultures early in my childhood. During that period, one in which I believe I was particularly susceptible to and influenced by my surroundings, a lot of my friends were primarily people of color (POC). At the time, as with most innocent children who lacked an understanding of race in America, I did not think much of it. I simply went to school and hung out with my friends. In the years following, my group of friends gradually transitioned from one heavy with Black- and Hispanic-Americans into one heavy with Asian-Americans. However, there is something I have wondered to myself, especially recently, that touches on the seemingly amorphous nature of contemporary American identity and its implications.

My understanding of “Americanness,” in its most essential form, is intimately rooted in the American spirit, which is borne out of a shared perception of equal opportunity and also doubles as a symbolic refuge for a range of cultures and peoples. At its core, it is a beacon, signifying that individuals from anywhere can come to America to chase the “American Dream” and to just be. Naturally, when entering a cosmopolitan society such as the United States, people must adapt, to an extent, in order to assimilate and become socialized with American values and ideals. Depending upon one’s immediate surroundings, adaptation can manifest in a multitude of ways. Speech, behaviors, preferences, and even attitudes and values can all be subject to the social pressure to transition from an out-group to an in-group. In my case, growing up primarily with non-Asian POC during my childhood, I instinctively internalized attributes that normally would not be characterized as Asian. Over time, they fused and eventually emerged as idiosyncrasies. Yet curious stares and imprudent questions suggest there is an enduring incongruency between my personality and the perceptions that result from whatever colored lens some typically view Asian-Americans with.

“It also seems as if there is a prevailing habit of defining one’s American identity by adding White-, Black-, Hispanic-, or Asian- to it. In some cases, the prefix is all that is expressed and the American part seems to disappear altogether.”

There have been countless occasions when I have been told I have traits normally attributed to other types of Americans. Normally centered around preferences, interests, and mannerisms, these traits never generated much thought until I began to read and learn more about the historical role that race played and continues to play in America. Curiously, these innocent probes into the cultural intersectionality of my identity have gradually led me to question and also think more about my American nationality with greater depth. This heightened clarity, however subtle, has regrettably driven me to realize the mere existence of these interactions, in which people casually—knowingly or not—seek to confirm their preconceptions, lends credence to the unfortunate reality that a singular American identity continues to escape modern American society. It also seems as if there is a prevailing habit of defining one’s American identity by adding White-, Black-, Hispanic-, or Asian- to it. In some cases, the prefix is all that is expressed and the American part seems to disappear altogether. It is as if being “American” is incomplete and to accommodate this yearning, there is a need to preface it by adding a modifying attachment. This is the source of my intrigue. Why is being American not enough? What are the consequences of this in our daily lives? As I’ve wrestled with this, I’ve come to align more with what Theodore Roosevelt reasoned and opined in a 1915 New York Times article, in which he declared this fundamentally flawed tradition as one that inherently sabotages the pursuit of a uniform American identity. Painting Americans with a German or an African brush, among countless others, only serves to isolate and pigeon-hole Americans and deny them, and collectively us, of a distinctive “one-ness”.

To me, I see it as a comparable construct, or even a derivative, of the sensation of double-consciousness, though markedly different in its roots in the 19th and 20th century African-American experience. Introducing the term first in an Atlantic Monthly article in 1897 and later again in his 1903 publication, The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. Du Bois referenced “a peculiar sensation…this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others” . He then elaborated on how this second-sight revealed and shed light on the apparent disconnect between one’s two selves. In Du Bois’ instance, it was a realization that his American self struggled with his coexisting Black self. Du Bois further defined the ultimate goal of this “twoness” as the reconciliation and hopeful merging of these two discrete identities into a “better and truer self”, without sacrificing either ingredient. In the context of my life as an Asian-American, I interpret this “otherness” as a direct result of how I experienced America growing up, with my group of friends consisting primarily by POC, and how it has, over the years, resulted in the incorporation of some of those disparate characteristics into my identity. While I do think it is unfortunate my personality is often perceived as atypical because it may clash with predefined stereotypes, I also think the developing awareness and exploration of my identity in America has allowed me to become more confident and comfortable in my own skin. To be frank, I doubt I have achieved this unity between my selves. But I am hopeful that the more thought and conversations I nurture my curiosity with, the closer I will come to it and to me, that progress is critical. I source an immense amount of pride in, and am supremely grateful for, being an American but I also am equally prideful and grateful for my ethnic heritage. I can only maintain hope that we as a nation are also able to recognize the same thing among others.

FOOTNOTES

[1] Roosevelt, Theodore. Roosevelt Bars the Hyphenated. New York Times, 1915.

[2] Du Bois, W.E.B.. Of Our Spiritual Strivings. The Souls of Black Folk, 1903.

CONTINUE THE CONVERSATION

Alex is one part Southern CA and one part all of the cities he has been fortunate enough to have visited and lived in. He is as likely to be found listening to Nas, Elton John, and Sam Cooke as he is likely to be found playing basketball, attending a Ducks game, hiking Crater Lake, or reading about neuroplasticity. Long-term, his focus is two-fold: to challenge every corner of his comfort zone and to evolve into leadership so he can help to empower his 7.5 billion brothers and sisters. Oh, and he loves a good conversation.

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