What does it mean to be an American?
Unlike most other nations on Earth, the American nation is not strictly defined in terms of race or ethnicity or ancestry or religion. Being an American is not "simply" defined by anything it seems.
Certainly skin color is no definer; there are Americans of every color.
Religion does not help us as there are Americans of many religious beliefs.
There is no "American" racial homogeneity that defines us the way ethnicity defines Russian, Chinese, French, German, Italian, Japanese or Indian. If someone tells you that they are Russian are they referring to their ethnicity or their nationality or both? If someone tells you that they are American they are certainly not describing an ethnic group but are they soling defining their citizenship?
Language? That doesn't seem to help us either. There are Americans who speak many languages, Americans for whom English is a second language and Americans who speak very little, if any, English at all.
If a Caucasian child is born to Caucasian parents while living in Korea that child is decidedly not Korean ethnically but an Asian baby born of Korean parents who live in the US is a Korean-American. And, if I am born in Korea of Korean/American parents I have "dual citizenship" and upon reaching majority I can choose to be a citizen of Korea or the United States or both. So, it seems that place of birth does not help us either.
So if even being born on US soil does not even convey "Americanism" then what does?
If I'm born on U.S. soil under U.S. law that automatically makes me a citizen because all of the citizens of the U.S. who have proceeded me decided that to be born on U.S. soil conveys U.S. citizenship. But does that define what it is to be an American? Is that all it takes?
If a child is born on U.S. soil of Korean parents then upon reaching majority that child has the right to become a Korean citizen, a U.S. citizen, or both! I even knew a man who was born in the U.S. of Caucasian parents who moved to Korea, renounced his U.S. citizenship and took Korean citizenship. He was as Caucasian as it gets and no Korean ever thought him Korean even though he had a Korean name and a Korean passport. And there were many who called him "un-American" for renouncing his U.S. citizenship. And yet, he was always considered an American by all who knew him. His name was Ken and he was born somewhere in the U.S. Midwest.
It is said that being an American means sharing a commitment to a set of values and ideals*. But clearly, someone can believe in American ideals without being American.
To be or to become an American, a person did not have to be any particular national, linguistic, religious, or ethnic background. All he had to do was to commit himself to the political ideology centered on the abstract ideals of liberty, equality, and republicanism. Thus the universalist ideological character of American nationality meant that it was open to anyone who willed to become an American.**
Our Declaration of Independence says that " all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."
So, does being American mean that an American must subscribe to the idea that our rights are unalienable, that we believe in a creator and that our purpose on earth is the pursuit of happiness? No, clearly we have the unalienable right to believe that our rights are alienable and we certainly have the right to choose to be miserable. So even those stirring words from one of our most important founding documents, the Declaration of Independence, doesn't seem to help us much either.
The inescapable conclusion seems to be that one chooses to be an American by adhering to the principals laid out in our Constitution and Bill of Rights. By choosing to become part of the body politic and by agreeing to live in solidarity with the rest of the polity.
So if a person born on American soil of Caucasian parents believes that Blacks are inferior and who refuse to serve "Mexicans", are they a "good American", a bad "American" or not American at all?
What do you think? What does it mean to be an American?
** Philip Gleason, "American Identity and Americanization,"