top of page

I Am An American and Speak Only English

I was searching for an airbnb in Southern California.

I read and re-read the words on the host’s page: “I am an American and speak only English.”

What did this mean?

The thumbnail picture: an attractive middle-aged woman with dark eyes and dark brown hair. She is of indeterminate ethnic/racial origin. Latina? Middle Eastern? Italian? South Asian? She is leaning slightly toward a similarly-aged man, their hands touching, the hint of a smile on both their faces.

Lisa (not her real name) says she’s lived in the same home in a very safe neighborhood for over 30 years. I hit cmd+ several times to expand the photo, looking for clues. Google search of last name: Scottish and Irish origin. Yep, the man in the picture looks Irish.

Having no other clues about Lisa, that ubiquitous question comes to mind, “Lisa, what are you? Where are you from?” Yes, I think this, even though it is a question that greatly annoys and sometimes offends those at the receiving end.

It is well documented in social psychology that we have a fundamental need to put people into categories. We process information efficiently and quickly (and unconsciously) as we make sense of the enormous complexity we encounter. We reflexively distinguish members of our in-group (any group we belong to) from members of out-groups. Social categorization takes place everywhere from tribal communities in the developing world to millennials of every color and hue. While all of us are quick to stereotype, researcherers also have found we can be trained to counter our instinctive (often negative) first impressions.

Still . . . I make a snap judgment and decide that Lisa may not see me as a “real American” when I give my name it’s correct Spanish pronunciation. Simply saying my name leads to a variant of “what are you.” I’m asked where I’m from, and the “I’m from here too,” answer, is sometimes met with resistance and incredulity. “No, where are you really from?”

I book Cynthia’s (not real name) lovely pool cottage. I peg her as a white upper-middle class all-American sun-kissed Southern California gal. My host I learn is a Spanish and Catalonian speaking immigrant from Barcelona, who is a warm and kind-hearted special-ed teacher in a low-income community.

Chat with Homeless Elder Turns Ugly

A San Francisco friend recently posted on her Facebook page: “Strange times... Taking refuge from downpour at bus stop w/ a (white) homeless elder. He asked me which bus I was taking. We chatted for a bit and the inevitable question I get when folks hear my accent: He: "Where are you from?" Me: "Originally?" He: "Yeah. From, FROM.” Me: "Brazil." He: "What the fuck are you doing in my country? All you spics do is steal jobs. Go back to your country you f*ing . . ." Wow. Stepped away for my own safety, now wondering how to find compassion for our suffering peoples.”

One of my favorite bumper stickers is, “Don’t believe everything you think.” Certainly applies to me and everyone else. How often have you heard people profess they are color-blind when it comes to race, and that they do not judge or discriminate on this basis? In Trevor Noah’s interview of Tomi Lahren (millennial voice for conservatism) she tells him she does not see color. His insightful questions and comments in that exchange make the interview so well worth watching:

A person’s race and gender are the first categories we take note of. And it is becoming increasingly difficult to ascertain a person’s race or ethnic origin. We are falling in love and having children with people from very different backgrounds than ours. And thus the question: “what are you?” is getting asked more often. Perhaps eventually we’ll be so homogenized, the question won’t be asked. Sometimes I respond by saying: human. There really is only one true race, human.

I spend a lot of my time thinking about identity and the ways in which we feel included or excluded, and for weeks these words: “I’m an American and speak only English,” have been rattling in my head. I now wish I had stayed with Lisa, to have heard her story, to find out who she is. Perhaps those words would have revealed her own vulnerability, her fears of someone too different from her, an insecurity of being judged for not being able to communicate with Americans whose English is halting or accented or with the ever growing European and Asian travelers opting for airbnb stays.

Political Cartoon from mid-1990s

Still the Same People We Were on November 7

The recent election revealed the great political divide, but we are still the same people we were the day before the votes were cast. In our heart of hearts, most people of color knew that many white people in this country have felt that expanded opportunities for us has been gotten at their expense. This is what well-funded and organized conservative leaders have been saying for decades.

Working class and poor whites, particularly in the least prosperous regions of our country, see the loss of their good-enough paying jobs (mostly as a result of market forces beyond their control) and need someone to blame. They also know that many of their better-educated and more prosperous fellow citizens look down upon them. I know that feeling, I grew up with many Anglos treating us, Mexican-Americans whose roots in Texas were sometimes way longer than theirs, as inferior.

Plenty of folks rallied behind Donald Trump because they felt seen and heard, and Trump told them something hopeful: they deserved better lives (which of course they do, as does the homeless elder). And so do the rest of us who were systematically denied those lives for generations.

Trump promised to Make America Great Again. What does this America look like? Is he promising them a shot at the lives portrayed in advertisements and television shows where everyone has beautiful homes and uncomplicated lives in upper middle class families? This post-WW II American Dream did exist for many, but it’s been mostly limited to white people, and I’m guessing that lots of people in depressed areas of the country, never have had a shot at that, and now they can blame specific groups. That's exactly what happens when groups are pitted against each other and identifiable characteristics provide the perfect fodder for sowing hate and division.

As one of those people that many in the Make America Great crowd would happily expel from this country, I know the changes the new Administration will push through are aimed at limiting opportunities for communities that that have been marginalized and scapegoated for centuries. I’ll be part of the massive resistance, but I also am committed to building a more caring and inclusive society, as we are all in the same boat.

I’ll never know what Lisa’s “I’m an American and speak only English,” comment meant. But at my end, I’ll work to keep an open heart and to limit my snap judgments.

426 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page