Do we have the right to use the word “America” to self-identify?

I recently shared a thought on Facebook which, to my surprise, engendered a good deal of interaction—some of it rather heated: “It is disappointing to hear so many people speak of “America” and “American” when they clearly mean U.S.A. and citizen of the U.S.A.”

The comment was a response to some of the “bashing of the four” which I had read recently suggesting that “if they did not like America they should leave it.”
Until then, I had not actually been willing to buy into the fact that for the U.S.A. to use the word “America” as an “exclusive” label which “belongs to us” was that big a deal. I did realize, of course, that for so many Latinos, it is a hurtful and offensive term. And yet, like many others, I thought that the circumlocutions were too time consuming and burdensome. I guess that I do have to admit that in this thinking it really was “all about me.”

When confronted with the claim that “that is what the dictionary says,” I came to realize that this is a serious problem. It is a problem because the dictionary in question (and I suspect it was written in English and published by a major Northeastern U.S. company) is making an arbitrary decision that this word may be primarily claimed by one country out of all the other countries of the Americas—and I would certainly include the islands of the Caribbean in that mix as well—and that all the other countries will just have to accept the loss of something which equally describes them. That sounds like imperialism to me. In such a case, I am forced to confront the unpleasant truth that something which ought to be an impartial and unbiased source of knowledge (a dictionary) is clearly biased. And to insist on such a claim certainly seems to be a case of “grab and conquer.”

It is also a problem because the mere raising of the issue caused a desire to shut down the discussion by appealing to an “authority.” The dictionary was being used to shut me up and to end the argument.  Roma locuta causa finita. This does not often happen to me. Friends who are Women, who are Black, who are Latino, or who are Indigenous, tell me that this happens to them all the time. It certainly helps me to understand their experience more fully. And that is a good thing, indeed.

One of the blessings of having earned advanced degrees in theology and in history is that the educational formation opened my eyes to the reality of the “biases contained in source materials.” Any author goes to the trouble to write because she has something to say that she thinks is important and well-worth hearing. Her life story, her experience, her “world view” influences her perspective.

Or, perhaps his research is funded by persons who want to have certain information presented in a specific way. In most cases, scholars are able to maintain a certain level of objectivity–or else their peers will call the work into question. However, donors do not always fund research out of a purely altruistic desire to expand the knowledge base. More often than not, there is some other more self-serving reason for wanting a scholarly opinion to be published and circulated. That is just the way things work.

But, make no mistake, even “reputable companies” which publish texts do not always go the additional step to make sure that all opinions are included in the mix. This is truer of reference works that just about anything else I can imagine. There are many marginalized and oppressed groups who find that their story and experience are excluded (intentionally or unintentionally) from these sources. Or if included, it is sometimes not in the best of ways. If they attempt to challenge negative images, stereotypes, or perspectives which only tell part of the story they find themselves attacked because they call the predominant paradigm into question.

As a gay man, for instance, I am going to read anything written about the LGBTQIA experience carefully. If a source does not resonate with my own lived experience, you can be sure that I am going to call it into question. That is a relatively easy thing for an adult man of mature years to do. I have grown accustomed to encountering push back when I raise these issues. But what about LGBTQIA youth who consult these sources, desperately looking for answers, for help, and for hope (as I did back “in the day”). What do they do when they find sources that demonize them or only support and reinforce negative stereotypes, bias, and prejudice?

Even there, I have to admit that the majority of pro LGBTQIA things written are done so from the perspective of the gay male. Lesbians, Bisexuals and Trans persons are rarely given a voice. My own community is as imperialistic and exclusive as any other. This became especially clear to me in the recent commemorations of the fiftieth anniversary of Stonewall. The heroes of that revolt were people of whom the “mainstream” gays of that era were ashamed—“drag queens,” “gender benders,” and persons whom we now know to have been Trans. They were the ones who stood up for our rights when their cis gay Brothers primarily wanted to be assimilated and accepted. And yet, there was little mention of them!

These days I am increasingly troubled by language and rhetoric which is used to justify the mistreatment and exclusion of Blacks, Latinos, Indigenous Peoples, Foreigners–and especially the members of those groups who are women! These attacks use seemingly innocent words but twist them to decide who will be included and who will be excluded. This is vicious, malicious, and cruel.

The most obvious example is to suggest that Latinos on our Southern Border should be prevented from coming to “America.” They left other parts of America which are in chaos, largely as the result of actions by the U.S. government. As Malcolm X suggested, it really does seem that these are our “chickens coming home to roost.” If there is political instability, repressive regimes, violence, and abject poverty in those countries, we have been a huge part of the equation. We seem to be unwilling to admit the role that we have played or to do anything to try to make amends. Even worse, racist and xenophobic language has been used to dehumanize these refugees—and from the highest levels of power in this country! This is accomplished through a sly and cunning distortion and co-opting of words. Language matters!

Why are we so afraid and unwilling to even listen to the experiences of vulnerable minorities? What words do they find troubling? How are those words used to hurt them, to exclude them, or to attempt to “keep them in their place?” It is especially important to consider that words and symbols which to us seem “harmless” have a radically different meaning for them. They invite us to let go of our power and privilege and to understand their lived experience—which will prove to be profoundly different from our own.

I grow weary of being accused of an unrealistic “political correctness.” I would prefer to think that because I care about other people and because I find them to be worthy to be treated with dignity, respect and love, that I make an effort to use language-words—which make that more likely to happen. And, that I make every effort to avoid the use of words and symbols which for others undermine or even render impossible the ability for those goals of inclusion, welcome and respect to take place. Isn’t that what people of faith are supposed to try to do?

I invite you, dear reader to please be willing to listen and to consider what they say before just trying to dismiss them or shut them down.

A final thought, I have not devoted much energy here in speaking of symbols and of their power. I hope to do so soon.

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