A Modern-Day Ideal American

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Issue 14, Volume 112

By Riya Sundaram 

Cover Image

For many Americans, achieving the “ideal American” standard is impossible. The ideal is someone who’s white, who has ancestors going back for centuries in this country, and who is the culmination of the patriotic pride that has existed throughout American history. This ideal has always been a part of this country, and it is what the term “Americanization,” the act of making immigrants assimilate, is based on. Today, the image of the “ideal American” is part of so many aspects of our lives, including education, language, and media. To break away from this harmful American standard, we need to make a more conscious effort to properly represent diversity in all areas of our modern society.

Americanization began as a movement at the end of the 19th century in an effort to assimilate immigrants. It spread quickly because it seemed like a progressive movement, yet it echoed racist and xenophobic sentiments. The movement focused mainly on centering education around America. The first targets of this movement were Native Americans. The United States sent Native American children to boarding schools, where they were punished if they spoke their native languages, and taught them how to be properly “American.” This method was used to try to wipe Native American languages out of existence. Americanization also spread to mainstream education. For example, in 1910, Louisiana passed a law requiring Cajun and Creole kids to learn to read and write in English. After that, speaking French was stigmatized in schools.

Eventually, the movement started to dwindle in the 1930s as the American public began to redefine what America was and later adopted the melting pot theory. Americanization became a disregarded term, but its effects still linger in our lives today.

Education has been used as a weapon for hundreds of years, and its ability to erase languages persists. While most immigrants who don’t speak English speak their native languages to their children, many second-generation immigrants don’t, and their kids are even less likely to do so. While part of this pattern may simply result out of convenience, it is also the consequence of pressuring kids to be monolingual in the United States through many techniques, one being the use of English in local government. Around 30 states have local English-only laws, meaning that all government-related actions and documents are only available in English. This statistic follows the English-only movement, which started in the 1980s as a push to make English the official language of the United States. The employment of English in local government situations leads the language to become even more dominant and valuable in everyday lives and professional interactions, which limits the use of other languages.

There are also many myths about bilingualism in the United States, including the notion that bilingual kids will be more confused in school and that learning multiple languages will make it harder for children to speak one. In my family, my father was never taught how to speak our language, Tamil, because my grandparents were worried that it would make school harder for him. Now my brother, my cousins, and I do not speak the language—it’s slowly disappearing from our family the longer we stay in America. The third generation has lost their culture from the belief that the only people who can succeed in America must be properly “American.”

Language is not the only thing that our schools influence. Schools tend to teach to the “ideal American,” whose family has a long history in America. You feel this pressure in history classes when the teacher mentions “our forefathers” or when you spend multiple units on Europe and condense South Asia into one. While teachers do their best to change their lessons, the whole school system creates a sense that you don’t belong in the conversation. To be part of this society, you have to embrace the ideal American and leave behind what makes you “foreign”: your language, your history, and your culture. Any refusal to cooperate leaves you stranded as an outsider in a world made for someone you will never be.

Schools are in charge of raising the next generation. They have the power to create new ideas and push out the poison that Americanization and other movements have left in our education system. This change is one of the first steps to fixing our society’s view of the word “American.” We need to learn how to value languages besides English and to move away from the Eurocentric view that tends to be adopted by schools in the United States. We need to make sure to destigmatize speaking other languages at school, teach history from many different parts of the world, and read literature from a variety of authors with unique stories to tell.

Another foundation of knowledge for children is the media, which also holds onto the image of the “ideal American.” Kids watch television all the time, and while we’ve made progress when it comes to diversifying television shows, the media still does its best to conform actors to the ideal. Despite good intentions, shows that simplify characters can fall into the trap of only including characters with European features. These shows fit into the larger theme in the television industry of ethnic ambiguity, which feels safer than committing to something that could work against the image of the ideal American. Even non-animated content, like advertisements on the subway, does its best to conform to this trend. These portrayals of people of color only reinforce the idea that being more than just “American” is isolating. This message can be improved by hiring more people of color on production teams and creating an animation industry that teaches young kids to celebrate diversity.

Kids need to stop living as strangers in their own country and being constantly pressured that they don’t belong. The Americanization movement may be a thing of the past, but its ghost haunts us in every aspect of our modern lives. By letting go of our society’s connection to the “ideal American,” teaching more diverse history and languages, and representing people of diverse backgrounds as role models for children, we can help release the pressure that’s placed on kids.