• Steve Berlack

The Dashed Identity Syndrome

At the time I attended Phillips Academy (Andover), there were students on

campus from all fifty states and twenty eight foreign countries. At the City

College of New York, I was just as likely to hear Spanish or Mandarin as I

was to hear English on the yard. As a member of the U.S. Army, I engaged

in daily work and play with people of every color, hue, gender, orientation,

and linguistic/cultural background. As I engaged them throughout my

life, I always did so as the African-American, Puerto Rican male from the

South Bronx whose family roots ranged from Native America to France

to Prussia and beyond.


As I continued to learn and grow from such an enriching circle of friends

and family, I noticed that we all identified ourselves based on our roots

beyond America. For instance, everyone would identify themselves as

Italian-American, or African-American or Chinese-American. Given that I

grew up this way, I found this to be quite normal. So much so that I never

really considered what the “American” in all of those dashed identities

meant.


However, something really interesting happened to me when I traveled

outside of the United States. While I was in Geneva, if someone asked

me what my nationality was, I would proudly identify myself without

hesitation: “I’m American.” It struck me like lightening the first time I

said it. I felt no need to put a dash in my identity. No pressure. No need

to explain. “American” said it all.


So what is it about being home that makes us all feel such pressure to dash

our identities when we engage with one another? What makes us focus

so much on the “Italian” or the “African” that the “American” loses its

meaning? More importantly, we’ve become so divided in this country that

the “American” has even lost its bonding affect among us.


Today, all it takes is a cursory glance along the racial and class divides of

this nation to conclude that we are as fractured a culture as we’ve been

since the Civil War.


What happened to the Americans that toiled together tirelessly in the

rubble of the World Trade Center and Pentagon in the weeks after 9/11?

From all accounts, none of them cared about the cultural roots or identity

dashes of the people digging in rubble next to them. They were Americans.

And that was all that needed to be said.


Yet today, we find ourselves turning on the news to find one crowd yelling

“We are the 99%!” on one end of the divide, while on the other the crowds

are yelling “We want our country back!” I don’t know about you, but for

me this all begs two questions: Just who are "we?" And how do we give

meaning to the “American” in “ -American?”


What’s your answer?