May 2, 2013
Hoping to encourage open dialogue on campus, student group La Vanguardia hosted a panel titled “What Does It Mean to Be American?” on April 30. Vice President Gretha Suarez explained that the panel was meant to provide “an opportunity to talk in a manner thats fluid and organic” about topics she fears are often stigmatized and thusly left undiscussed.
La Vanguardia is a newly resurrected group on campus that tries to provide discussions of race, culture and identity for students to engage in safely. While their name implies a Latino or Hispanic focus, their conversations never focus on solely those issues. They want all students to feel welcome.
This discussion in particular wrestled with the idea of what it means to be American from the perspectives of faculty, staff and students who were for the most part internationally born. The panel included Professor of Government Alan Cafruny, Professor of Africana Studies Nigel Westmaas, Professor of Hispanic Studies Joana Sabadell-Nieto, Professor of Chinese Ming-De Xu, Chief Diversity Officer Amit Taneja, Assistant to the Chief Diversity Officer Janet Turvey, Visiting Professor of Arabic and Teaching Fellow Fidaa Abuassi and sophomore Sadiq Abubakar.
Professor Cafruny represented the only American born perspective on the panel, though he declined to declare himself American. Cafruny explained, “I like to think of myself as more internationalist,” highlighting a main theme of the panel: acceptance of diversity, or maybe the lack thereof in the US.
Each panelist introduced themselves and explained their relationship to the topic. Some, like British-born Turvey explained her linguistic challenges adapting to life in a country she thought she shared a language with. She explained that English is not such a common language when accents and terms don’t line up. Other members of the panel discussed broader issues like American ignorance of other cultures.
Professor Ming-De and student Sadiq Abubakar explained that their countries were often misunderstood by Americans. Ming-De explained that he is Taiwanese, but often feels that Americans don’t really understand the different between Taiwan and China, despite their cultural and political uniqueness. Abubakar expressed distress over Americans very limited, backwards impression of Africa saying “the level of ignorance is just overwhelming.”
On the line of clarifying perceptions, Amit Taneja dismissed the idea of America as the “land of milk and honey.” He commented that this prosperous idea of America is “part of a lie” since he feels that in reality The United States is very much the opposite. As someone who’s faced consistent racial profiling and witnessed the inequalities of immigrants, Taneja tried to convey his reality of the United States to the audience.
When the panel took comments from students, a lot of response was from students who faced struggles to reconcile their cultures. Many explained that they came from immigrant families who instilled their native cultures in them, but also tried to foster Americanism in them. The conflicted students explained that they felt torn between where they came from and where they were expected to go. Even Professor Saba-dell-Nieto, who has lived in the United States for nearly 30 years, expressed this fear of identity loss. She shared her worry that when she returns to Spain this June she’ll experience culture shock. She described that “I have been influence for many years by groups who call themselves American.” Even as someone who teaches about its culture, Sabadell-Nieto sometimes feels a disconnect to her own homeland.
Professor Westmass also explained a similar idea of the effect of America on personal culture. Coming from Guyana he lived under British colonial rule for part of his life and also realized that foreigners he “ have literacy of America before you get to America” due to the invasive nature of American culture in international media - even living in a foreign country, culture can be affected by America.
Though a silver lining came out of this dialogue. Visiting Professor Abuassi discussed her fears about coming to America as a Palestinian citizen, fearing discrimination from those who found out. Surprisingly, though, she found Americans “are actually ready to listen.” The tension between the individual Americans who are welcoming of diversity and the overarching societal norm of accepting culture without ever recognizing each unique one shadowed most of the comments shared at the event. Abuassi demonstrates the capability of Americans to accept difference, though only once actively exposed to the narrative.
Vice President Suarez commented after the meeting that she wishes that “these kind of events give a freedom to share your opinion in a very relaxed manner” whether you’re an American or not. With any luck, the wishes of La Vanguardia will be met with the full response of the Hamilton community and the dialogue can continue.