US Universalism

Purtek recently pointed me to this article by Chally on Feministe in which she talks about a tendency people from the US have to universalize their experience of life on Earth. The comment thread started off on a concern troll note and pretty much went downhill from there until it was closed down. I just wanted to say:

Thank you, Chally. You’re right.

I’m aware that as someone born in the US who’s never lived elsewhere, I have this problem. I do work on it. I learn when facts cross my path, and I take heed of what people tell me, and I hunt down the stuff I realize I need more info on. But the key word is realize: there’s so much stuff I don’t realize I don’t know. My privilege makes me look like a fool, and I hate that.

  • I was taught in public school – taught, not told in passing – that the U.S. was the most bestest country evah and everyone from other countries wishes they could live here. I felt so sorry for the rest of the world until someone straightened me out on that.
  • While U.S. culture is hard to avoid in most of the world, we USians have to go out of our way to, say, see a British TV show. I’m not making excuses, but if the US hands you 30 new TV shows every fall on a platter and you don’t even know what stations, if any, are running anything British, where would you even get the idea to go looking for their stuff?
  • Race terminology. I feel so ignorant on this (check out the thread where I discover that white doesn’t equal “Caucasian” – yet again, the US government has lied to me). The African Americans I know prefer the term “African American” over “black.” But of course, it’s a not-unproblematic term: some black Americans identify as Caribbean in origin. And then there’s “Native American”. Russell Means and others have argued a preference for “Indian.” I like the Canadian term “First Nations.” But again, I’m a white woman, so it shouldn’t be up to me. And I haven’t found a better term for “everyone who’s not white” than “people who aren’t white” or “non-white people” and those both sound negative (like white is something they’re missing) whereas “people of color” sounds more positive. I actually hadn’t realized until I read Chally’s post that “people of color” could evoke a sense of unity among ethnic groups that do not particularly view themselves as allies to one another. But now that I think about it: duh! It’s a very binary view of humanity, that either you’re white, or you’re Other. Of course, I’m usually talking critically about people who actually do see the world that way, or at least behave like they do. Still. The terms are a mess, and it’s all compounded by the connotations certain terms have inherited from bigoted usage.
  • Race history. I realize no two countries have an identical race politics history, so when I talk about race, I do intend for people from outside the US to be able to understand. The problem is, it’s so familiar to me I can’t recall when I didn’t understand at least the nuances and feelings of race politics in my country, because that’s how you start picking it up in childhood. I don’t think this is a US-specific problem, actually – it would be a challenge to come to understand race politics in any country you’ve never lived in. The problem is more when we assume your race politics issues are the same ones we have. I try to remember not to do that, but I probably do assume a number of things that aren’t in order.

I never thought Chally was saying we suck – even the people who actually do this stuff are, for the most part, just lacking awareness, and I strongly suspect she assumes that.

Nothing I’ve said here is intended as an excuse – not at all. If your government’s making it comfortable for you to be ignorant, it’s up to you to overcome that as best you can (and it’s not like we have no resources for this – hello, internet!). We need to work on that, and that means the USian commenters who deflected Chally’s thread from good, valid points about a problem with US culture to the unlikely possibility that Chally actually thinks all USians are just exactly like this were beating a straw man because they wilted at the thought that what she was saying was absolutely true. Which it was.

Comments

  1. says

    Excellent post. One minor point, though – the linked post by Chally is at Feministe, not Feministing.

    I didn’t check out the comments on that post, anyway, because I knew it would get nasty. Sigh. If nobody’s coined the term “USian privilege” yet, consider it coined, and let’s start talking about it. Because the way USians tend to act when called on the whole American Exceptionalism thing is very much like how white people, or straight people, or men, or whoever, tend to act when called on those various forms of privilege. Defensiveness, “We’re not all like that!”, etc. This is a form of privilege that definitely does exist, and needs to be subject to the same kinds of deconstruction and examination as all the rest.

  2. says

    It’s funny that the term “USian” appeared several times in this post because I’ve always felt, as a Canadian, that it definitely exemplifies the kind of US universalism you’re talking about here, i.e. the idea that everyone in the western hemisphere definitely wants in on being called American so it’s gracious to share the name by adopting USian as a specific term for people from the U.S. It’s just odd to me, especially since I have only ever seen American bloggers use it even though apparently it makes Canadians and Mexicans feel left out. When I see “USian” somewhere it immediately gets my back up, which seems to be the exact opposite of this attempt at inclusivity.

    This was sort of a sidebar to this posts’s point at large that I do agree with (in general, for most well-off western nations). :)

  3. says

    @Elizabeth: That link doesn’t support your claims–as I’m reading it, Justine Larbalestier is saying she gets in trouble with her Canadian and Mexican friends when she says “American” instead of “USian” (or anything else they recommend using). Ms Larbalestier is also Australian, not Amer… usi… yank… whatever. ;)

    My politically radical Kiwi flatmate and his friends also type “USian” all the time, usually because they’re being critical and not wanting to tar all the Americas with the same brush. Based on that, I’m really having a hard time seeing it as some attempt at sharing the honor, like you say.

  4. says

    Thnaks for this post, Jennifer. I went and read what Chally wrote and felt liberated to see someone putting into words what I have felt over and over. And no, it is absolutely NOT all USians, and it’s subconscious for many and I truly do not mean to point a blamey finger at anyone. It’s incredibly difficult to shrug off the cultural assumptions that are ground into you from birth and I commend anyone even making an attempt to do so.

    Amusingly, my most recent encounter of USian privilege was a US-based TV blog going, “Hooray, a Torchwood non-UK version – at last we won’t have to deal with all that unbalanced and confusing set-in-Europe business!”

  5. says

    Excellent post. One minor point, though – the linked post by Chally is at Feministe, not Feministing.

    I said Feministe: “Purtek recently pointed me to this article by Chally on Feministe…”

    Elizabeth, I used the term because Chally did in her post, and she is not from the United States. I’ve been taught “Americans” means everyone in N.A. and S.A., which means when one uses “Americans” to mean only people from the US, one is erasing a whole lot of countries. I believe NOT erasing Canadians, Mexicans and everyone else is the goal of using the term USian.

    Justine Larbalestier is saying she gets in trouble with her Canadian and Mexican friends when she says “American” instead of “USian” (or anything else they recommend using).

    Yeah, that’s my understanding, too.

    “Hooray, a Torchwood non-UK version – at last we won’t have to deal with all that unbalanced and confusing set-in-Europe business!”

    LOL, what???

  6. says

    This is an interesting article (both the one Jennifer wrote, as well as what she linked to). As an American citizen living in a foreign country, I have to say I struggle with exactly what Chally’s describing every single day. I frequently remind myself that India’s ways, are not the USA’s ways. Admittedly, this is hard when I read stuff in the newspaper such as how it took 26 years to convict the Union Carbide people for the Bopal Gas Tragedy (the world’s worst industrial “accident”) or the “Save the Girl Child Campaign” that’s currently highlighted in the papers. Or any article that concerns the (mis)treatment of women–which are usually small and hidden within the pages of the newspaper. Conversely, the ONE article about a man’s mistreatment at the hands of his wife (long story short, she kept him locked up in a room with little food and water and zero access to a bathroom after he experienced a debilitating accident that cut his cricket career short) made front page news. For two weeks straight.

    It’s really hard to not apply what Chally calls USian sensibilities to situations here. I like to think I’m pretty open minded, I’m pretty liberal, and I’m pretty accepting of other cultures. More often than not, I find myself defending the very things I despise about India to people who have never been here and have a high-school textbook impression that India is all about widow burning and Indiana and the Temple of Doom.

    That’s not meant to defend any Usian actions on my part or other US citizens. In fact, I completely agree with Chally. It’s been ten years since I was last here, and India’s changed DRAMATICALLY, and not necessarily for the better. I see it’s youth absorbing all the worst parts of American culture, I see Indian culture as a whole starting to emulate American culture in an effort to “fit in” on a global scale. But what’s also interesting, is how India rails against the USA. We are not loved here. At all. Which is ironic, in a sense, as so much of our culture is now present here.

    It’s a thin line to walk, I think, and fraught with a lot of pitfalls. I agree completely with Jennifer when she says its about educating. Or, perhaps, RE-educating. I also think experiencing is part of that. I know, personally, that experiencing India has taught me a lot more than any TV show, magazine, travel guide, or history class could EVERY have taught me. I know, I know. Not everyone is privileged (in every sense of that word) to travel abroad to a foreign country. But… still. And here’s the thing, I wonder if this can’t be accomplished WITHIN the USA. The USA is such a culturally diverse country… and we IGNORE that. Which is incredibly pathetic and sad.

  7. says

    Thanks for the articles, Jennifer. I sometimes wonder how many people from the US realize this, for example when I hear about British programmes being dubbed in American accents for broadcast in the US. (The BBC Life series that was narrated by Oprah Winfrey – it was originally David Attenborough.)

    Tina – Thank you for your comment, too. It’s always interesting to see how foreigners respond to India and life in India. However, I do feel strongly about your defending the most obvious faults in our culture, for no reason other than that it’s a foreign culture. I don’t know why westerners in general do that these days – they encourage (not just tolerate) cultures in which women are oppressed and dependents have little or no rights and in which injustice is common. It’s a new development, because whatever other faults the British administration in India had, it wasn’t afraid to try to abolish cruel practices like child marriage or sati. The attitude they take now is just wrong. It is not intolerant or hateful to point out injustices and negativities of a culture – it’s often what the victims of that culture need from western civilization. It makes me sad that a case like Riqfa Bary’s could have happened in a western country, when things like that go unnoticed in a country like India or Pakistan. How are they any different then? Shouldn’t people like her be more protected in a country that claims to value the so-called western ideals? Shouldn’t they recognise and provide help to the victims of a misogynistic, patriarchal culture that’s so extreme that it results in forced marriages, and sometimes honour killings – at least in their own countries?
    I have (female) cousins in the US who aren’t “allowed” to cut or dye their hair because their father doesn’t like short or coloured hair on women. It baffles me. I don’t know how they prevent that from happening! Do they hit them? Do they follow them around so they can’t go to hair salons? Aren’t they allowed to go out alone? I don’t know. I do know that the reason they aren’t allowed to do these things is because it ‘isn’t in their culture’.
    This is why I feel that the west needs to start re-educating itself, and fast, if all its people are to take advantage of the many freedoms of the society that they’ve been born into (or not, as the case may be).

  8. says

    Your post complements Chally’s beautifully :) Kudos to both of you!

    Chally made great points about the way and why some USAians are not liked in the rest of the world. But we who agree with her words can certainly do with (and have a moral obligation to) some background on what lies beneath that behaviour.

    re. USian: I really prefer USAian, I find it more euphonic. But nitpicking aside I’m glad to see people using alternatives to “American” which, when used to name people from the US, is leaving out some 600 million non-US Americans – like yours truly.

  9. says

    The USA is such a culturally diverse country… and we IGNORE that. Which is incredibly pathetic and sad.

    YES. I actually edited out a bit when I was talking about British TV, in which I talked about how we can’t understand the accent. But we can’t understand certain US accents, either (Ozarks, New Jersey, even Bronx) because our media is so homogenized. I rarely hear a realistic southern accent even when a TV show is set in the south. There’s a lot of ridiculous going on with our culture and propaganda.

    However, I do feel strongly about your defending the most obvious faults in our culture, for no reason other than that it’s a foreign culture.

    This is something I really struggle with, and I’m glad you’ve made the point so we can discuss it. Whenever USians criticize something happening in another country, people instantly come back with something wrong that’s happening in ours, to silence us. This knee-jerk reaction comes from the fact that a LOT of US people who criticize other countries think the US is beyond criticism. But for that minority of us who do NOT mean to imply the US is *better* than the country we’re criticizing, the assumption is still made that we’re implying US superiority. So how do we make those criticisms without that context getting applied?

    Take my recent article on “White Mexicans” in which I pointed out that it trivialized the troubles that drive Mexican people to work in the US for less than minimum wage. I felt I had to treat *so carefully* and avoid blaming anyone for those problems, because while I’ve been given to understand previous Mexican governments created most of the current problems, I wasn’t sure I could phrase that in a way that didn’t suggest I think Mexicans don’t know how to run a government as well as USians or something. Because look at the deep shit WE are in right now because we’ve made many choices the average 5 year old would have recognized as foolish.

  10. M.C. says

    I really have a problem with you guys/gals using the term “USian privilege”. That implies that all USians have highter living standards, when in fact your country has slums. You won’t find a slum in countries like Switzerland or Austria.

    And the US are a very religious country. They have states in which the schools aren’t even allowed to teach the children biology, Darwin’s evolution, and how to use birth control when having sex. You won’t find such things in for example Germany or Sweden.

    Now I won’t even go into how the US have no social system, have no Court Of Human Rights but have death penalty. All of those things scare me away from the US and I’m quite happy to be a citizen of the EU.

  11. sbg says

    Note: I edited the Feministing to Feministe and then completely spaced and forgot to mention it. Sorry!

    As for me, I try really hard and am aware that How It Is Here Is Not Universal, but I’m also aware the majority of people in the States are, uhm, exactly as Chally noted. I hate that it is true, but it is enough of a loud majority that this is how we are viewed as a nation. FCOL, my first trip to Europe when I was 23 was with two women who, “Didn’t go all the way over there to look at a bunch of old buildings.” (It was after that statement was issued when I felt and never lost a sense of total embarrassment to be with them.)

    And don’t get me started about movies that make me cringe. Independence Day anyone? Transformers? About a billionty other ones where “the world” equals the United States.

  12. says

    That implies that all USians have highter living standards, when in fact your country has slums.

    While privilege can be synonymous with “benefits”, which seems to be how you took it, that’s not what it means in this context, actually. Privilege, in the context of bigotry discussions, is about how human society arbitrarily positions some people above others. For example, white people can be destitute and suffer horribly, but they still have what privileges accompany whiteness.

    Because of the US’s dominance in world politics and media, the US worldview gets privileged above everyone else’s. We US people benefit from that privilege in the sense that we (often) feel entitled to hold an ignorant, insular point of worldview without questioning it. “USian privilege” is not intended to imply anything beyond that. We definitely do not enjoy a higher living standard – I would classify our living standard as lower than that of ANY country benefiting from some form of socialized healthcare.

    The whole point of privilege discussion is to hang a lantern on the fact that these positionings ARE arbitrary and the recipients of them are NOT in any way superior – just treated as if they are, which is grossly unfair and unwise.

    Oh, thanks SBG for the edit! Sorry about the confusion, everyone. :)

  13. Devonian says

    I really hate that “USian” thing. First of all, iirc the USA is the only country in the Americas that actually HAS “America” in its name (but NOT the only “United States”). Second, it sounds really stupid and awkward, to the point that it’s probably intended as such.

    Don’t most people from the other countries in the Americas call themselves by the names of their home countries anyway? Where’s this big push to strip the USA of the “American” part of its name coming from?

  14. Charles RB says

    “Independence Day anyone?”

    I haven’t seen the film in years but I still remember the bit where the Whole of the Rest of Earth appears to have been doing nothing until the Americans come up with the solution.

    Amusingly, there was a BBC Radio 1 tie-in about Britain’s involvement in ID4 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Independence_Day_UK – the RAF succesfully evac the Royal Family, and then the surviving European & Middle Eastern forces regroup in the Baqaa Valley, with an airmen grumping “when this is all over and we’ve defeated these monsters, the Yanks’ll take the credit for it, you wait and see”.

  15. Brand Robins says

    Like Tina, I’m a USian who has lived in other countries, sometimes for years at a time, and I still struggle with the idea of the US as normal.

    I’ve spent years of time in Canada, Brazil, and India, and been to a lot of other countries as well. I have friends and family outside the US. I studied Indian history and dharmic religions in college, alongside “culture studies” (which even in a high end liberal California school mostly meant “studying the US”).

    But still, when I’m writing, I often have to check myself from making the chores of daily life the daily motions of a USian (and specifically a Californian) by default. Characters I create often still start off as USian, and only become non-USian when I apply myself consciously to it.

    Which of course leads right into whole other messes. Start to try and fix one problem, you run into five others.

    I’m lucky enough I’ve got the rest of my life to fix them, one after another. I’m just sorry to everyone I’m accidentally a jerk to in the mean time.

  16. says

    Whenever USians criticize something happening in another country, people instantly come back with something wrong that’s happening in ours, to silence us. This knee-jerk reaction comes from the fact that a LOT of US people who criticize other countries think the US is beyond criticism.

    I’ve certainly seen this happening, and I’ve almost always thought of the person as arrogant and irritating. But they were. Rather than being specific and criticizing an idea or a practice, they tend to take the ‘I’m from the US so I must be right’ stance. For instance, I had this relative from the US criticize the kind of (computer) mice we used! They were apparently outdated and ‘redundant’. She was from the US, so she must be right.
    Also, just to be clear – this is an immigrant we’re talking about, not someone who was born there, so they really were being a jerk. I don’t know how much difference that makes though, because her daughter would complain about getting tanned when we went sightseeing at an old fort.

    I have a Latin-American aunt who doesn’t act that way – even though she tends to put her foot in her mouth sometimes, with “Oh you have ATMs here!” or “You speak such good English!” Those quirks are excusable and pretty amusing. But now that I think about it, I’ve never heard her criticizing anything in foreign culture either – she keeps a polite distance from it all, maybe because she feels she doesn’t know much about it.

    I do think that American media in general is very controlled, with what seems to be some sort of PC-police attacking everyone all the time. It’s something the individuals need to overcome, in my opinion. They say the measure of the freedom allowed to a people is revealed by the freedom given to the dissenting opinion. Something like that; I don’t remember the original quote.

  17. says

    Okay, I’m about a hair away from simply deleting every comment that talks about the term “USian” or wrings its hands about my free speech.

    Because Chally’s thread was derailed by “But we’re not all like that” strawman whiners, and this one’s in danger of being derailed for similarly daft reasons. I will address these concerns once more, and that’s the end of the subject.

    I live in a world superpower that could nuke any other country into oblivion, that regularly tells the UN “fuck off” and goes and does whatever it likes to whomever it wants, and you’re worried about my free speech?

    When I speak publicly, I have the force and strength of an imperialistic world superpower behind me. Any ignorant words I speak carry a weight they shouldn’t, because you guys all KNOW that lots of people from the USA are also that ignorant, or more so – and some of them are running the damn country. I mean, for fuck’s sake, we just seriously considered electing as VP a person who thinks “Africa” is a country. And you’re worried about my free speech?

    I admit I still don’t understand Elizabeth’s reasoning in why USian is offensive, because it’s the opposite of what I have heard from so many Canadians, hispanics and Latinos, but okay. Perhaps there just isn’t a term that will please everyone. But no matter what I call myself, no matter who I allow to “censor” me, no matter what I submit myself to, my country can still nuke any other country into oblivion.

    One last thing: if people telling me not to say American are censoring my free speech, what are you folks telling me NOT to use USian doing, but censoring my free speech? I can’t win, huh? Except: my country can still nuke any other country into oblivion.

    That scares me so much more than the possibility my speech is being curtailed.

  18. photondancer says

    Thanks to Nuria for introducing me to USAain, which I intend to adopt henceforth. I have seen USian once or twice but something about it grated on me. I needed a term to replace ‘american’ because that’s ambiguous, although I have tried to use it only when whatever I’m writing about applies to any of the american nations (but often mostly to USA or Canada, I have to admit).
    Jennifer, my condolences for the flak you’re attracting on this post. You’ve expressed clearly a point of view I hinted at in my posts on Memin Pinguin. Considering how many times I find myself being directed to Feministe, I think I need to add it to my reading list.

    The attitude they take now is just wrong. It is not intolerant or hateful to point out injustices and negativities of a culture – it’s often what the victims of that culture need from western civilization.

    Somebody, thanks for writing this. I feel the same way but it’s rare to see it in writing or hear it spoken. Westerners (another ambiguous term) are nervous of being accused of being superior or colonialist but some practices do need to be condemned. And then there’s the other extreme (popular with New Age practitioners) where something is considered good solely because it came from a non-Western culture.

  19. Brand Robins says

    Being a USian activist in a developing nation is a tricky, morally complex thing.

    On the one hand, you often have situations that are inhuman beyond endurance and as a creature of conscience have an imperative to act.

    On the other hand, if you have enough knowledge of history and culture, you often have a multitude of examples of places where folks acting on moral imperatives have cause problems worse than those they were trying to fix.

    So in each individual situation you find yourself striving to find the best path, the balanced path, between a lot of people who are screaming absolutisms without any context, sense, or understanding.

    When I was in India, I got involved with several women’s and dalit right’s groups. I put money and speech behind them, because I could not stand to face the situation I saw every day without doing something about it. I did this despite knowing the downsides that came from, say, British laws imposed across the sub-continent, or being fully aware that the money and voice I put into the situation was out of scale due to my privilege. (And also knowing that it could also cause more backlash. After all, its a pretty easy rhetorical tactic for any local group to say that any group with significant non-Indian funding is just a colonialist imposition.)

    It was often especially tricky when I’d talk about the issue with local activists. Many of them, especially those on the other sides, would go to issues of Hindu history and religious ethics. And many of them I found to be flat wrong. Not wrong in the sense of “I’m not Hindu and think Hinduism is wrong” as much as “I know a fair bit about Hinduism, and what you’re saying Hinduism says isn’t what it has said historically.”

    Who am I to tell a Hindu what Hinduism is? And yet, when I see a religion being used to dehumanize (especially when said religion has a rich humanist history), who am I to not speak out against it?

    Luckily, in almost all of these situations, I didn’t have to make those decisions alone. Nor did I have to make them absolutely, unilaterally, or without context and flexibility. Always and always there were local activists who knew ever so much more than I, who had seen so much more, who had context and insight and who were willing to speak with me about it.

    And for me, that’s almost always the key to staying active while checking the worst of my USian privilege — staying engaged in active, ongoing, sensitive dialog with as many involved parties as possible. Any time I start figuring I know best, without checking a lot of facts and a lot of voices, I have to start figuring I’m going wrong.

  20. says

    I admit I still don’t understand Elizabeth’s reasoning in why USian is offensive, because it’s the opposite of what I have heard from so many Canadians, hispanics and Latinos, but okay.

    I’m just relating my (non-universal) experience as a non-USian resident of North America. Since you don’t want this post to get derailed about the term USian, I’ll leave it at that.

  21. Somebody says

    Thank you for that, Brand Robins. I wish more people (from the US, since we’re on the subject, but not exclusively) understood those things. Many people are so caught up with identity – both theirs and others’ – that they become unsure where to put a stop to the madness.

  22. says

    On the one hand, you often have situations that are inhuman beyond endurance and as a creature of conscience have an imperative to act.

    On the other hand, if you have enough knowledge of history and culture, you often have a multitude of examples of places where folks acting on moral imperatives have cause problems worse than those they were trying to fix.

    And let’s not forget that a lot of these situations are happening in the USA. When I was a kid, I was surrounded by overtly racist and misogynistic attitudes, because that was how white men (and therefore, boys mimicking them) talked in the region of the US where I lived. I felt completely entitled to speak out against this because I was white like them, and I was from the US like them.

    Then I moved to L.A., and everyone knows the sometimes-more-subtle racism and sexism I found in film. But I also encountered a lot of Mexican-American men who talked *just like* the white men in the Southeast. For a long time, I didn’t feel entitled to speak out against their racism or sexism, but then I decided, the hell with it: I spoke out against white US-born people the same way, didn’t I? I have no problem saying it’s a really sick culture that drowns baby girls to the point where China now has 120 men to every 100 women and the crime rates you’d expect with such an imbalance, and such favored, privileged little boys growing up? Maybe I have no business speaking against other cultures or races, as a white women from the US, but I think I do have a right to speak up for women and girls and… like you said, it’s a balancing act.

    I’m just relating my (non-universal) experience as a non-USian resident of North America. Since you don’t want this post to get derailed about the term USian, I’ll leave it at that.

    And I respect that you feel that way – it’s not important that I understand it perfectly. The problem is, you’re the only person I’ve heard express that particular problem with that term, and I’ve heard loads of people complain about the limited use of “Americans” to mean “People from the USA.” There seems to be no term that will please everyone, and that’s not a problem I can solve alone, so I guess I have to go with the majority and say I regret that it offends you, but I don’t see a better solution.

    great post, why is it not in ‘what privilege?’?

    Just because that site is lucky to get two comments to a post, and I wanted to get a real dialog going on this subject. :)

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