The balloons have long fallen at both the Republican and Democratic conventions, and Labor Day has marked the official start to America’s "political season." It’s now even more clear that this election may, once and for all, decide how we define what it means to be "American." In fact, 2016 may be the election that finally forces us to confront our own national identity--both truth and myth.
In 2008, Republican VP nominee Sarah Palin suggested the notion that "the best of America is in these small towns that we get to visit, and in these wonderful little pockets of what I call the real America, being here with all of you hardworking, very patriotic, um, very, um, pro-America areas of this great nation." The coded insinuation is that the rural, often less diverse communities throughout our land are more "American" than our multicultural urban centers. And, while many would plant the roots of this sentiment within the GOP to Palin’s speech, I’d argue it’s far more complex, far less partisan, and spans generations.
American immigrants from centuries past were seen as far less racially monolithic than we have falsely constructed their ancestry to be today. Throughout the years, through a complex set of policies and cultural interactions, skin tone took over--making the German, Irish, English, French, Russian immigrants who once viewed one another as culturally distinct began viewing themselves as simply "white." And, "white" became a structurally privileged American race.
Implicitly, we made Uncle Sam, The Marlboro Man, Captain America, and even the storied immigrant Superman into the embodiment of what it looks like to be a "real" American: white. But, that cultural identity has never been truly reflective of our people. The great majority of the "real America" are immigrants, whose ancestors may have arrived here many generations ago, but were newcomers to this land nonetheless--and it was our native brothers and sisters who welcomed these newcomers and whose descendants comprise a minority we don’t often include in our everyday narratives about what it means to be American. We haven’t told their stories, nor of those others of vastly different cultures who also arrived here on new shores and helped shaped our country’s growth immensely. In short, we haven’t told America’s whole story.
In this election, there are those who wish to hearken back to a time when America was defined as a majority-white-superior nation, protected by two massive oceans and benign free-market characteristics. The challenge is, that country was invented as a myth--it never actually existed.