The American Sense of Belonging
The sense of belonging can be equated to being part of a community, both in terms of relationships as well as territory. A sense of community comes about due to feelings of similarity, and an acknowledgement of the existence of interdependence, as well as demonstrated willingness to maintain interdependence. The members of the community therefore have a sense that they belong and matter to each other, as well as to the group, with the community sharing the belief that their commitment to being together will result in their needs being met. Indeed the founding fathers were quite idealistic and envisaged a community, which though capitalistic, would ensure equality and a sharing of values and beliefs (Liu 34). However, perhaps due to the diversity of cultures and ethnicities that inhabits and exists in the United States of America, the sense of belonging, as well as sense of community has not only evolved over the years, but has always been blurred and unclear. What it means to belong in America, has changed over the years, and has not until perhaps recently encompassed all the communities and ethnicities.
A number of issues have at different times in the history of America, served to influence the meaning of what it is to belong in America. If one reads about occurrences since the declaration of independence, what it means to belong. Events such as the clamor for, as well as the eventual abolition of slavery, the passage of laws allowing for universal suffrage, as well as the levels of activism in the 1960s, and feministic movements that have taken root since the 1970s and 1980s (Stephanie 87). These occurrences have at their particular times influenced and led to a modification of what it means to belong. In contemporary society, issues have changed, and as such, what it means to belong, has also changed. Issues related to gender, race and class, have significantly changed what it means to belong, efforts to deal with racial, gender and class inequalities have meant that what it means to belong remains a work in progress, and perhaps one can even argue that it continues to be shaped by external forces, particularly the media. In most cases, individuals have become marginalized based on their race, gender and class, with the requirements for one to be a member of the community and belong, being based on the dominant culture.
The most emotive and controversial cause of discrimination, as it is amongst the biggest cause of differences amongst citizens of the United States. Racial discrimination dates back to as early as the 1700s following colonization by England, after which most of the American Indians lost their lands. During that time, what it meant to belong, was solely pegged on the color of an individual’s skin. Soon after, the practice of slavery further complicated the equation, as it further introduced a different race, hence further diversity to the collection of Americans, complicating the definition of belonging. However, the dominant group at the time, mostly made up of whites continued to control power, and hold majority, and were the dominant group and culture. Belonging at the time therefore, meant being a member of the white community and was therefore, by default.
In contemporary society, race continues to be one of the central tenets of what it means to belong in the United States. However, due to past experiences, such as discrimination against African Americans, Asian Americans and Hispanics amongst other ethnic groups, society and the government has attempted to rectify past mistakes and prevent any further discrimination by becoming stricter on matters regarding racial discrimination. This has according to Pascoe (318), affected racial relations negatively, as it has led to a society that has a narrow definition of race to simply an individual’s biological make up (skin color) hence leading to a dulled sense of sensitivity when it comes to racism. In fact, instead of eliminating racism, it has led to a society that is actually clueless about the racism that continues to plague it. Due to the encouragement to completely disregard color and ethnicity, the current American society is so afraid of expressing itself, to the extent that the ideal American is one who does not acknowledge his or her skin color. Belonging when it comes to race, means not acknowledging one’s skin color at all as a basis of being American. Most groups in contemporary American society actually believe that expressing their culture or acknowledging their beliefs and practices makes them less American. This has not only led to a blurred sense of Americanism, but has also opened loopholes that are exploited by the media to perpetuate falsehoods and stereotypes about certain communities, painting them as less American than others(Schmidt 583). These stereotypes are essentially a form of racism that create illusions regarding what it means to be African American, Asian American, Hispanic American or even Caucasian American, illusions that are actually believed and upheld by the very groups in question if only to gain a sense of belonging.
In terms of gender, the definition of a traditional American woman is significantly changing, and with it, the meaning of belonging. Women have always been encouraged to play second fiddle to their male counterparts in the traditional American society. Right from the smallest unit within family, society provides certain gender concepts that target most women’s inherent need to fit in to oppress the female gender and ensure it continues to fulfill its traditional duties. As suggested by Simone de Beauvoir; gender is both socially constructed and hierarchical. As such, women are expected to remain submissive, with the typical picture of an American woman, being that of a family woman from the suburbs (Meyerowitz 325). In order to enjoy the sense of belonging as well as of community, one must therefore pursue this ideal picture that is continually engrained into every young girls mind as they grow up. The importance of settling down and becoming someone’s wife is constantly highlighted as the ultimate achievement. The image of the ideal woman, as well as views regarding gender roles are however changing, in part due to the feministic movement that has swept across the United States of America. In fact, more and more women are becoming economically and financially empowered. The image of the ideal woman is slowly shifting towards a career woman who is financially empowered and a family woman at the same time. This shift has also affected what it means to belong in America, as can be seen by the higher number of women in what were previously considered male careers such as the armed forces and sports. Rather than belong through fulfilling traditional gender roles, women are now increasingly being judged by their ability to balance career and family effectively.
Class is in my opinion, both a determinant of what it means to belong, as well as one of the greatest indicators of the injustices that have over the years been suffered by Americans. Most of the injustices that have occurred to minorities have continued to manifest in terms of class differences which continue to plague society. These class differences have made generating a sense of community or a sense of belonging even harder. As is the case in most societies, the uppermost class is mostly made up of the political elite, which through a corrupt media continue to dictate what it means to belong. Society has created a sort of hierarchical structure, where the citizens belonging to the upper class are actually considered to have a greater sense of entitlement compared to those from simple lower classes of society. If anything, those from the lower classes are constantly unable to meet the set standards of belonging. For instance, the ideal American family is considered as one that is capable of paying its bills and owning a house, preconditions most family’s that fall within the lower classes, mostly composed of the minority groups are actually incapable of meeting the basic standards for them to belong. Further, unlike a typical community, the manner with which most class structures are set up, does not fit in with the mantra of benefitting all members of the group. If anything, most of the class structures usually serve to perpetuate the cycle, such that the rich become richer and the poor become even poorer. The commercialization of potential equalizers such as education within the capitalistic society, has only served to worsen the situation and complicate what it means to belong.
The question of what it means to belong is not only complicated by events on the basis of race, gender, and class, but also by the complicated nature of each aspect individually, as well as collectively. This is in the sense that in addition to groups such as the African Americans having problems that hamper their women’s efforts to belong, these individual groups also struggle with questions of race, class and gender identity amongst themselves. Laila Haidarali’s work regarding African Americaan females and their struggles serves to reinforce the point that belonging occurs at a number of levels, with each level having its own definitions and constructs of what it means to belong (Haidarali 538). At times these subcultures actually conflict with what it means to belong in the “American” sense. This conflict is further compounded by a reckless media and a government that encourages society to suppress their subcultures and subscribe to non existent national values, further empowering the media and media stereotypes. Furthermore, this vacuum, has enabled the widespread proliferation of the mass culture, as most Americans in an attempt to belong, have actually adopted the mass culture as peddled by the media. Cultures regarding nutrition, lifestyle, fashion, language and even faith to an extent have been adulterated by the media and unquestioningly adopted by a passive audience so desperate for approval and belonging that it is willing to do anything. Essentially, this has led to a society in which what it means to belong is now tied to what the media depict, as opposed to traditional values and beliefs as passed down through the generations.
Stephanie Camp. The Pleasures of Resistance. Page 87.
Liu page 34.
Pascoe, Peggy. Miscegenation Law, Court Cases and Ideologies of Race. Page 318
Meyerowitz, Joanne. Sexual Geography and Gender Economy. Page 325
Schmidt, Alicia. Migrant Melancholia. Page 583
Haidarali, Laila. Polishing Brown Diamonds. Page 538.