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Jack Weinstein

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Years ago, my friend Mike O’Connor told me that what made us a unified American culture is that we “all know who Michael Jordon is, and we have all eaten Big Macs.” The quote stuck with me, especially as I moved to different regions seeking a tenure track position. (Mike, it should not be surprising, ended up getting a Ph.D. in American Studies.) The quote came back to me yet again when I found this video of a woman in a German grocery store coming upon an “America Ethnic Foods” section.

The selections should not be too surprising: there are marshmallows and baking mixes (I used to bring these products as gifts to Austrian friends who had visited America, since they did not exist in their country); Hershey’s chocolate syrup, Campbell’s Soup, Hellman’s Mayonnaise (known as “Best Foods west of the Rockies, by the way), and others. I won’t ruin the whole video.

The video does bring up the question of whether American can be seen as an ethnicity or just a conglomeration of people with differing ethnicities. There are philosophical reasons to suggest the latter. Being an American (citizen) is a purely political distinction. A person who is naturalized is as much of an American the moment they become a citizen as someone whose family came to the new world on the Mayflower. A child of any parents, if born on American soil, is considered an American. So, history, culture, loyalties, political perspective, and other such things are irrelevant to the categorization. Yet, at the same time, we do want to think that there is something akin to American culture. I think we would feel hollow without it. But what would it be? Is it just the standard notion that we are all participating in the great American experiment? Or, perhaps, it is that which we absorb by living within the borders, regardless of which part of the border we live in.

If Mike was right – if this video is right – that American ethnicity is somehow defined by its consumer culture, then we encounter an even deeper connection to capitalism than those who claim that it is just democracy that goes hand-in-hand with free-markets. (I do not claim this postulate is true, by the way, just that some people claim it.) It suggests that capitalism is itself a culture and an ethnicity – a heritage in itself.


I found an interesting definition for “ethnic” on “Relating to a people not Christian or Jewish.” That seems odd to me, although it does recall Fraser Crane, on Cheers, declaring that he wished he had an ethnicity.

Someone on clearly agrees with, and defines ethnicity as “Something white people should never try to relate to.”

Clearly it is a loaded and political term.

4 comments on “Can "American" be an ethnic term?

  1. jaynicks says:

    Is it that by the time something is 'ethnic' it is starting to escape being unacceptably foreign and weird? If so the products in the vid may become larger export items whereas once ethnic American items, now commonly established in Europe and PacRim, are no longer ethnic: turkey, corn and tobacco, not to mention Big Macs(tm).

    Ethnic: anything foreign to a culture for which acceptance has grown beyond experimenters, ex-expatriates and early adopters, and is widening its use enough to be recognizable by a larger audience. If this is OK, then, in Romania, a lot of things may be 'Ethnic American Food' for example.

    If all this is so there are ethnic things but no ethnicity without an observer group who define it. Americans can be viewed as an ethnicity by some Romanians, perhaps, but the defining aspects they use might differ from those achieving consensus by an Oxonian dining club. If ethnicity is the whim of other cultures then we do not have to worry so much about the happenstance link between consumerism and democracy. Anyway the first recent democracy was Iceland (ca 911 CE) and it had no relation to consumerism or capitalism that I can think of. (Oh, bother. I have to look up that date or someone will correct me. OK, W'pedia,: Alþingi [All-thing],930 CE, c.f. The Saga of Burnt Njal).

    Besides, 'Capitalism' in the hands of a plague species like homo sapiens is self terminating, at best a short term heritage; and anyway it is strongly associated with corruption in pursuit of privilege (whilst eating the planet down to the rocks).

    Please ponder two items. One is my favorite Steve Martin film quote, “Waiter! There are snails in my escargots!” The other is a likable film, “Grüß Gott, ich komm von drüben”

  2. Either my initial observation has been easily and trivially refuted, or you're not much of an American: Jordan's name is misspelled!

    And I am writing a book on the conflicts between democracy and capitalism in U.S. intellectual history: one of the points in the introduction is that–tensions be damned–neither one can be jettisoned because they are both essential to American self-definition.


  3. Bostonian says:

    Larry Byrd was a better player.

    Anyway, I am curious, is 'American self-definition' normative à la “We Hold these truths to be self evident…” or as in fundamentalist close mindedness, ignorance and bigotry which seems to be on the rise as people search for simple reasons for their distress and confusions.

    Note: I did NOT mention Fox News.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Ethnicity is a social construct. People have many different layers of identity, and in today's world of aeroplanes, European Unions and massive multicultural immigration, ethncitiy is only going to get more complicated and people are going to have more layers of identity.

    Ethnicity is defined as a group of people with a common identity defining them and setting them apart from other groups.

    This includes many things. A common territory, a common ancestry, a common language, a common religion, a common culture.

    Despite all the modern multiculturalism, the dominant culture of America is European and Christian. So for some people, “American” might really mean something.

    BUT what about African-Americans? Are they Americans in the same way that European-Americans are Americans? Of course they are legally American, but are they ethnically the same? Of course not? They are a distinct group. People recognise black and white Americans as belonging to distinct groups.

    And what about Native Americans? Are they Americans? Yes they are, but they're clearly a different ethnicity. A Sioux Indian whose people have been there for 20,000 years is not the same as an English-American whose people have been there for 300 years.

    I would say “American” is a flimsy political construct rather than a genuine “ethnicity”. However, hyphenated Americans do constitute ethnicities. European-American, African-American, Native-American, Asian-American.

    It's all layers. Generally there is no distinction between English-Americans, Scottish-Americans, Welsh-Americans, Irish-Americans, German-Americans etc.

    And African-Americans make no distinction between Tunisian-Americans and Ghanan-Americans and Togalese-Americans and Kenyan-Americans. Generally African-Americans don't even know which specific country their ancestors came from.

    When the Irish started flooding in in the 19th century, the Irish were seen as being a distinct group, separate to the English & Scottish Americans. Yet nowdays, Irish people are just white.

    In conclusion, can “American” be an ethnic term? Sort of & Sometimes.

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