Who is a "Real" American?

July 24, 2019
Thang Do, PIVOT Board Member

In recent days, President Donald Trump has been criticized harshly for several of his tweets. The criticism came of course from the opposing Democratic Party, but even in the President’s own Republican Party, several prominent figures also voiced their objection. Leaders of many countries attacked the racism implied in his Twitter messages. 

Those who defend the President argue that his statements did not contain any names, or ethnicity or skin color, and therefore they are not racist. They also claim that the opposition criticizes indiscriminately anything the President says; that the President is not skilled with his words but he tells the truth, and that they support the content of his statements, verbatim as follows:

“So interesting to see “Progressive” Democrat Congresswomen, who originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe, the worst, most corrupt and inept anywhere in the world (if they even have a functioning government at all), now loudly and viciously telling the people of the United States, the greatest and most powerful Nation on earth, how our government is to be run. Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came. Then come back and show us how it is done. These places need your help badly, you can’t leave fast enough. I’m sure that Nancy Pelosi would be very happy to quickly work out free travel arrangements!”

While it’s true that the President did not mention anyone by name, anyone who follows the news even minimally understands that he is referring to the “foursome” Congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib và Ayanna S. Pressley, of which only Omar was born outside the United States and came to this country at 10 years old. Ocasio-Cortez and Tlaib, although their parents came from abroad, were born in this country. Pressley’s family, as African Americans, has lived here for many generations. Different in origin, but this foursome share three key characteristics: they are women, they are people of color, and they have strongly condemned President’s Trump’s policies.

To understand if the above tweet is racist, let’s view the issue in reverse.

Would anyone realistically tell Donald Trump that if he didn’t like America (he has incessantly criticized US policies and conditions during the terms of his predecessors), he should go home? Or for that matter, would anyone make the same statement to any white person?

The simple answer is no. This question is not posed to them, because whites are automatically viewed as “real” Americans. How can you tell a “real” American to return to their country; what country could they possibly return to?

But many persons of color, including myself, have had this phrase thrown at them: “You don’t like it here, so you should go home”. Underneath that statement is the insinuation: people of color are not “real” Americans. People of color are only admitted as immigrants to the US; if you can admit someone, you can also kick them out.

What is a “real” American?

Unlike many countries in the world, the United States has never been a homogeneous society. Even from the time English pilgrims first came ashore in the New World to escape from religious persecution, there had already been many native Indians living here. People smugglers then brought captive Africans to serve as slaves for white people. Millions of people of all skin colors from Europe and Asia later came in successive waves of immigration.

Each wave of immigration has faced discrimination because they brought with them cultures, tongues and religions that were foreign to those who had come before. Even those from Europe, such as Italy, Portugal, Poland and other Eastern European countries were considered “not sufficiently American” during the first years they were here. When finally accepted as Americans, they turned around and discriminated the newly arriving groups. Immigrants from Asia have been victims of discriminatory policies such as the Chinese Exclusion Act, or the Japanese American internment camps.

Who is ultimately the “real” American?

The United States was founded based on a set of principles, and not based on any ethnicity or religion. In fact, the Declaration of Independence contains the phrase “All men are created equal”, without mentioning any skin color or any other nationalistic traits. At the same time, the US Constitution contains democratic values, freedom and equality, and the duty of each American is to be loyal to the Constitution rather to any individual or institution.

In short, the definition of what constitutes an American does not at all depend on the color of skin, ethnicity or religion. Anyone who lives legally in the US, believes in and defends the Constitution, is as American as anyone else.

Therefore, I, an Asian immigrant, am a real American. Perhaps I don’t look like many other Americans, perhaps my culture is not quite mainstream, perhaps even I speak English with an imperfect accent. But I am no less American than anyone else, and I am no more American than those who come after me.

So when a person of color is told “go back to your country”, that statement implies that a white person is more American than a person of color. That is racism, valuing people based on the color of their skin or ethnicity.

Please don’t anyone tell me to return to my country. I am a perfectly real American, no more and no less that any other Americans.

Photo by Fabian Fauth on Unsplash