What does it mean to be an American? Not in the legal sense, but in the way we perceive the concept of “Americanness.”
Does our perception include the indigenous Native Americans who roamed this land for 12,000 years? Does it include people of African descent who sacrificed blood, sweat and tears to build this nation?
What religious groups can our minds accept as Americans? Hindus? Jews? Muslims? What about atheists? Can we consider gay people true Americans? What about undocumented immigrants who love and contribute to our nation?
We cannot ignore the subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle messages we hear about what it means to be an American. One particular narrative seems to recur in books, movies, ads, and other places of influence: that only people of Western European descent with a Christian background (though denomination has mattered in the past and still does at times today), can claim ownership of this nation.
No other time is this so evident as election season, war, and national holidays. With the 2016 election around the corner, we will surely see more hate speech from candidates who seek exposure and airtime by playing off the fears of people in order to convince them that they will be the candidate to solve their “American” problem.
I am a child of immigrant parents. I came to America when I was two years old, which technically makes me an immigrant as well. I became a naturalized citizen sometime before my preteen years.
Growing up, I struggled with my identity because of the mixed messages society gave me about what it meant to be an American, even though this was the only country I’ve ever known.
I cannot tell you the exact moment that I embraced my identity as an American Muslim, but it did not happen overnight. The process was both conscious and unconscious. I did not change my faith, opinions or morals before claiming my rediscovered identity. I was always an American. I just needed to acknowledge and claim it.
Our greatness as Americans depends on the way we deal with our differences. Our nation’s unique character comes from its ability to be inclusive towards all the different people who share this country. Diversity motivates our nation. It promotes freedom of thought. We can all be true to ourselves as long as we respect the right of others to do the same.
No one needs approval from any particular person, group, or paper to take their rightful place in this nation, whether people like it or not. Your claim is your power.
Some seek to hijack our nation under the guise of saving American ideals by promoting exclusivism, the exact opposite of what our nation stands for. Their techniques include labeling people un-American, lazy, job stealers, terrorists, immoral or illegal. The list goes on. Call me a dreamer, but I cannot help but wonder what would happen if these minorities got together and stood up for each other. If you haven’t guessed, they would no longer be the minority.
Assimilation should never be our goal. It never ought to be. We are a nation of immigrants, whether we like it or not. The quintessential American motto is “E Pluribus Unum”-out of many, one.
You can find this motto on all of our coins and dollar bills. Our pride should stem from this. Our shared pluralistic ideals should be summed up in our ability to allow different Americans to coexist peacefully without infringing on the rights of any.
That is the American way.
Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in AtlantaMuslim.com. The views of the author are solely her own.