Black or African American? Latino or Hispanic? Native American or American Indian? Debates break out all the time about the best terms to use for certain ethnic groups, but many in the U.S. haven’t the faintest idea about the controversy that’s long surrounded the term “American.” Because the term applies to any resident of North or South America, including countless indigenous peoples and people of color, some argue that it’s imperialist and racist for “American” to be used exclusively to describe nationals of the U.S.
Just last week, I saw a reader comment on a website objecting to the term. And in recent years, I’ve generally heard more outcry about the use of “American.” In 2008, for instance, activist Elizabeth Martinez wrote a piece in Z Magazine called “Don’t Call This Country ‘America.’” According to Martinez:
It is Manifest Destiny that calls this nation ‘America,’ thus denying any serious existence to over 550 million human beings who stretch across 7,785,000 square miles. For Latinos/as here and abroad, calling this country ‘America’ is offensive. Perhaps unintentional, but offensive. We should all ask ourselves: do we really want to approve that racist, imperialist worldview by using the empire’s name for itself?
To be honest, this isn’t an issue I’ve given enough thought to, despite the fact that when I studied abroad in England as a college student, I rarely referred to my country of birth as “America.” Instead, I called it “the States,” as all of my British classmates did. I understood that calling myself “American” could be confusing considering that the rest of the world views Canadians, Mexicans, Brazilians, etc. as Americans in addition to people from the United States. So, the issue isn’t that U.S. nationals should completely stop referring to themselves as “Americans.” Even Martinez agrees that they are correct to do so. The issue is that we need to recognize that residents of the other countries in this hemisphere are Americans as well, which may be impossible in a country where the term “all-American” is most often used to describe people with Nordic or Germanic features, and immigrants of color are told “you’re not a real American,’” as Martinez points out.
What U.S. nationals should call themselves and their country hasn’t garnered nearly as much attention as the debate over the politically correct names to call ethnic minorities in the States, but discussion over the term “American” is hardly new. In July 1915, the New York Times published a letter to the editor from one Christine Ladd Franklin of Columbia University in which she called it “illogical and impertinent for the inhabitants of the United States of America to seize upon the name ‘Americans’ for themselves.” So, what alternatives exist? In Spanish-speaking countries, the word “estadounidense,” which roughly translates to “United Statesian,” is used to describe people from the U.S. Franklin, however, argued that the term “would not be a very aesthetic designation.”
Still, United Statesian appears to be the most popular alternative to American out there, arguably because of that term’s popularity in Latin America. But it’s not just Latinos who advocate its use. In 1986, Rachel Weller of Urbana, Ill., wrote in to the Times to proclaim herself a proud United Statesian. “It should be our greatest source of pride that we are a ‘United States’—a union embracing an enormous wealth of human diversity with immense geographic dimensions,” she explained of her embrace of the term.
I realize that it’s extremely unrealistic to expect people in the U.S. to abandon the terms “America” and “American” as they’re currently used. If they didn’t make this move a century ago, it’s highly doubtful that they will do so today. And I’m not going to front: I’ve no plans to permanently delete these terms from my lexicon either. But when I write, I will make a conscious decision to use the term United States more.
Even in progressive circles, there’s a surprising amount of resistance to dropping the “American” identifier. Since “United Statesian” doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue and referring to “people from the United States” all the time sounds a bit clunky, that makes sense. But it’s not too much to ask people to broaden their definitions of these terms to include the other nations that make up the Americas. During an age in which just 30 percent of U.S. nationals have passports, it’s more important than ever for them to realize that they’re not the center of the universe, let alone of the Western Hemisphere.