Defining culture: Revealing an American perspective
What unifies a nation known for its diversity?
By Rachael Durand
A group of millennial-aged college students sat in a dull blue-lit room surrounded by people they thought were strangers. Their professor had an accent: English with a Spanish twang. She asked the students to introduce themselves as if they were meeting her for the first time.
Students introduced themselves by describing their positions in extracurricular activities, hometowns, family backgrounds, favorite animals and what they liked to do for fun.
The responses turned strangers into neighbors, relatives and classmates; each finding a commonality between them. They were students, journalists, Italians, Americans, animal-lovers, travelers, males, females, humans.
It seemed easy for them to identify with a category to define themselves for an introduction. They defined who they were according to labels, titles and interests. But when asked to define American culture, it was blank stares and gaping mouths.
But it is precisely that attempt at defining their own culture that presents the biggest challenge. It is a challenge not just faced by university students. More than 10 people interviewed struggled to come up with a satisfactory definition of American culture.
Well what does America consist of demographically?
The United States of America. The states. The home of the brave. The red, white, and blue. Whatever you decide to call it, 327.5 million people call it home.
According to the Census Bureau, most people in the United States are classified as white.
However culturally Americans consider the United States a diverse country.
Regardless of race and other demographics, Americans are mothers, fathers, workers, immigrants, activists and humans. But what brings together these individuals and how does this create a common culture?
Our culture is the way we connect, but how is American culture defined?
Let’s break it down piece by piece.
What is culture?
Culture is not clearly defined because it encompasses a wide variety of ideas. There are so many factors that contribute to the definition that the Merriam-Webster dictionary has more than six definitions for the word “culture.” If the authors of the dictionary can’t create one cohesive definition, then can we?
The main definition for culture is, “the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group,” according to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary.
Jason Burke, a 53-year-old Navy veteran and the Director of Veteran and Military Affairs at Quinnipiac University, was one of many who had trouble finding the right words to define culture.
What is an American?
“Depends… North American, Central American, South American?” asked Dr. Jorge Freiman, a 54-year-old Latino anesthesiologist and former captain in the United States Air Force living in Houston, Texas.
Freiman was born and raised in Argentina and moved to the United States in 1971 when he was six years old. He is a father, husband, doctor, veteran and Jewish-American.
Freiman is one of the many immigrants that make up what it supposedly means to be an American.
In the United States, there are roughly 44.5 million immigrants living stateside which equals to about 13.7 percent of all Americans, according to the Migration Policy Institute. One in seven United States residents is foreign-born, according to data provided by the American Community Survey.
But does this data support the notion that the United States is a “melting pot” of immigrants and cultures?
The Melting Pot
The phrase “melting pot” came into popular use in 1908 when a play titled The Melting Pot highlighted the life of a Russian-Jewish immigrant family. The family created an “American Symphony” as they looked to live in a society free from ethnic divisions and hatred in the United States. The play popularized the idea of melting as a metaphor for ethnic assimilation, with the coined phrase “melting pot” representing American culture.
The play popularized the term “melting pot,” but in today’s climate, the “American Symphony” as described in the early 1900s is not harmonic but elusive.
“I would call it a melding pot, because melting implies a homogeneous mix versus melding, [which] is smooshed together, but of varying consistencies,” Freiman said.
How do we define ourselves? Are we a melting pot or a salad?
In 2019 it seems the term “melting pot” needs to be updated as it may not be an accurate representation of Americans or American culture.
Don Sawyer, the chief diversity officer at Quinnipiac University, found it difficult to prioritize how he would define himself in three sentences or less. His response highlighted the categories he identified with the most.
Sawyer is no stranger to the word diversity, and recognizes the importance of preserving individual identities in a “melting pot.”
Americans pride themselves on being diverse with labels, categories and identities. Ultimately it is our differences and prejudices that create inner tension and divisions.
“I don't think there is just one American culture. I think our culture is a collection of various subcultures that can differ drastically,” said Alexis Ali, a 32-year-old working professional woman who is white. “The ‘American’ culture shared by Hawaiian surfers is different than the second generation among immigrant communities in Minneapolis.”
Those categories, or subcultures, have inherent biases based on individual backgrounds and historical contexts. You are white, he is black, she is Jewish, he is Puerto Rican, she is an immigrant, he is a Muslim.
Struggles within American culture?
American culture cannot be defined in one single definition because it is individualized. It is a culmination of socioeconomic factors that work for and against one another. It is groups, labels and boxes, but do they all mix?
“I don’t think [melting pot] is accurate because it's not a complete melting pot, it’s like single pots,” said Roswitha (Rose) Ladue a 61-year-old German immigrant married to an American veteran who has been living and working in the United States for almost 40 years. “We have single pots-- you’re either in this pot or in this pot. We don’t have a whole group that combines everybody, that takes everybody into account. When we talk about including people, it’s certain groups, not all groups.”
“It doesn’t matter when you came to the United States, we are all immigrants, but there are certain things that are presumed because you have a certain history from your ethnicity.”
Although Ladue is an American by the definition of a green card, her integration into American culture could not be described as easy or comfortable. She knew that marrying an American soldier meant facing the assumptions regarding her German heritage.
“It was a clash in some ways because people did not greet me warmly. ‘Oh, you’re from Germany,’ they said. You were either a novelty, or they said, ‘Oh, what did you do when Hitler was in?’ Because they did not know my history,” Ladue said.
From some perspectives, you don’t have to be an immigrant to feel like an outsider. Historically speaking, dating back to the formation of the United States, there has been civil unrest, much of it related to racial and ethnic differences and biases.
Clifford Burnett, a 65-year-old black male from Springfield, Massachusetts, explains that American culture in today’s day and age is reflective of the struggles of the civil rights movement. Despite the progress made over the years, the political climate has rekindled the divisions that many thought were resolved.
“The current political environment has, in my opinion, pushed us back to the 40’s mentality,” Burnett said.
“From my perspective, as soon as Mr. Obama was elected that’s when things started going reverse. I’m hearing words and things I haven’t heard since I was a child. Thought all those attitudes were gone but unfortunately they’re still there.”
Burnett is not the only one who feels the shift in American culture over the past few years.
What unites Americans?
Despite the political climate, gender, class and racial divisions, historical backgrounds and prejudices, there is still a force that unites us as American people.
The greatest adversities and tragedies have proven to be catalysts for unity and change.
For Burke, this can be both positive and negative.
“I think sometimes when you get leadership that may be questionable, that really changes things and gets people actually talking or yelling at each other, then maybe eventually that talking changes things in the future,” he said. “So sometimes something less desirable happens but it turns out to be beneficial in the long run.”
Above all our titles, labels and boxes that create our individuality, the force that unites us is the title of being an American.
What brings Americans together are shared values.
Being an American means having the same basic freedoms. What brings other cultures to America is the potential to enjoy these freedoms.
The idea of the American dream is life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and it is the heartbeat of the American people.
What unites Americans is the power of individuality and the ability to be who you want to be with the freedom to express it.
Being an American means fighting for what you believe in even if you are the only one.
Being an American means creating unity through diversity.
So what is American culture?
American culture cannot be summed up into a single definition because it is individualized.
The titles, categories, and boxes checked are the culminating factors that define our individual cultures. The diversity in America is how we identify ourselves within American culture.
What makes American culture unique is that we all identify as Americans despite our differences and perceptions of what it means to be an American.
“I believe that American culture can not be summed up in just one definition as it depends on each individual's perception on what it means to be American,” said Adam Beyer, a 27-year-old finance and operations associate from South Hadley, Massachusetts. “Individualism is an important part of being American that we are free to choose what to believe in and how to think.”
American culture is a working definition that calls upon all of us to create our interpretation.