With the Fourth of July just behind us, it’s worth reflecting on a central question in today’s political debate: What does it mean to be American?
“Real Americans speak English.”
“America is a Christian nation.”
“We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.”
When used to define what it means to be American, statements like these exclude and marginalize immigrants, people of color, people of minority religions and others. Fortunately, most Americans don’t think this way.
Most people define what it means to be American as a set of ideals, not identities. In other words, being an American is about what you believe, not who you are.
A 2016 survey of 8,000 American voters, conducted by the Voter Study Group, asked people how important various factors are to being “truly American.” People across the political spectrum rated ideals and beliefs such as “respecting American political institutions and laws” and “accepting people of diverse backgrounds” as key factors. A much lower percentage of Americans endorsed ethnicity-based criteria such as being of European heritage.
Because most Americans connect American identity to a set of beliefs, you have an opportunity to combat divisiveness, encourage unity, and bring people together by defining “American” in inclusive terms.
In focus groups held across the country, American Aspirations found that Americans representing a wide variety of backgrounds and beliefs associate the word “American” with positive values. When asked to offer three words that describe Americans, people overwhelmingly responded with positive terms such as “hard-working,” “independent,” “loyal,” “resilient” and “caring.”
Describing people as “American” activates these positive associations in the minds of listeners, encouraging empathy and reducing what psychologists call “social distance” between different groups of people. When you remind people that “We’re all American, no matter what we look like or how we worship,” you can combat the in-group vs. out-group tribalism that drives social division and tension in American society today.
A fascinating example of this effect came from separate research on attitudes toward Muslims in America. When non-Muslims were asked for words they associated with the term “Muslim-American,” their responses tended to be neutral or negative, including descriptors such as “foreign” and “strict.” When the term was reversed to “American Muslim,” the same group of people responded with mostly positive ideas, with phrases such as “came to America for a better life” and “contributing to society.”
This insight was put to use in an ad designed to counter anti-Muslim sentiment, which showed Muslim members of the military who had died in Iraq and Afghanistan:
Upon seeing this ad in a focus group, one person said: “This throws the prejudice out the window.”
Combatting anti-Muslim prejudice is just one example of how defining “American” in inclusive terms can bring us together. Qualitative and quantitative American Aspirations research with people across the country unearthed dozens of shared values and goals that represent common ground among Americans of many different backgrounds and beliefs.
In a national survey, more than 2,000 people rated a list of personal goals based on how important each was to their lives. The chart below shows the percentages of Americans who rated each goal as “extremely important” to the way they want to live. You can use these insights to paint a picture of America as a country of diverse people who share a common purpose.
When we define “American” in terms of our shared hopes and values rather than our different identities, we lift up a positive vision of America that can bring people together. Storytelling that shows people from all walks of life living American ideals reminds people of our shared humanity, increasing empathy in the process. It can help heal the rifts in our social fabric by sparking a conversation about what kind of people Americans hope to be—and what kind of country we hope to create.