What does it mean to be American? Does it just mean pale, white skin? The hard-clipped edges of words in the English language? Hamburgers and french fries?
Those all are undeniable parts of the American identity. But to those who believe that’s where it ends, I have news for you.
You’re dead wrong.
During this year’s Super Bowl, Coca-Cola released an advertisement featuring the patriotic song “America the Beautiful.”
The song begins with familiar English words, but then smoothly transitions into translations of the song in other languages, including Spanish, Tagalog, Mandarin, Hindi, Hebrew, Keres, Senegalese-French and Arabic.
Unfortunately, I was working the night of the Super Bowl and didn’t see it air, so my first encounter with the advertisement was when I saw the backlash on social media.
Within hours of the Super Bowl, there were compilations of hateful and racist comments popping up on various social media sites. Especially on Twitter.
One user said: “I am no longer drinking Coke because they used terrorists in their commercials. #TeamPepsi”
Another user said: “Big mistake Coca-Cola, big mistake #speakamerican”
In fact, #SpeakAmerican began trending on Twitter.
Maybe these racists who have an issue with the idea of a diverse America would have been better off saying #SpeakEnglish. Because as far as I am aware, American is not a defined language.
I’ve always liked the idea of America being more of a tossed salad than a melting pot. It’s not a country where people effortlessly melt into what is considered the norm.
It’s a country that takes pride and pleasure in the components that make it different. Each lettuce, tomato and olive helps to complete the dish.
America from the very beginning has been defined by a constant flow of people from diverse backgrounds.
Sushi, tacos, yoga and karaoke are not ideas that magically fell out of the sky into waiting hands. They came buried in the minds of immigrants, across oceans and borders. They came riding on the concept that America is a country with open arms, a country willing to accept new things.
My parents immigrated to the U.S. before I was born. I was actually born in Michigan — a fact that sometimes surprises people for some reason.
I grew up in a household that primarily spoke Oriya, an Indian dialect. I ate chicken nuggets for lunch, but curry for dinner. I could go from praying in a Hindu temple to shopping for my prom dress.
I grew up embracing a blend of two cultures — Indian and American — and that doesn’t make me any less American than anyone else in this country. It has made me someone who has seen both sides of the border, cutting between the stereotypical all-American and a foreigner.
If this country is willing to accept superficial things from different cultures, it should be ready to accept the whole culture full-heartedly. This includes customs, tradition and the language that explains the core of its culture. The identities that shadow food and pastimes cannot and should not be forgotten.
So, yes. Speak American. Speak the languages of the many backgrounds that make up what America truly is and embrace them.
Don’t let ignorance and fear of the unknown dictate the way you should treat people from other backgrounds — they’re your neighbors and partners.
Anya Rath is the State News features editor. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.