a burgundy zine

Essay: I Am American by PA Purnell

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By: PA Purnell

A framed photograph of an eagle in front of an American flag

Source: Framed Patriotic Eagle | Penelope Peru Photography P³

In the spirit of The Burgundy Zine’s theme of culture for the fifth issue, the following is an essay written by PA Purnell about ethnicity, nationality, and identity.

I have never been able to wrap my mind around the social constructs of race and gender.

I get that people are from different places; is that not nationality? I get that people have different skin tones; is that not just skin pigmentation? I understand that people from specific areas are more prone to genetic disorders than others; is that not a predisposition based on genetic irregularities that were passed down over generations? I understand that there are two different sexes; is that not just anatomy?

What I do not understand is the point of race or gender. Why does humanity divide itself based upon such constructs when we are all human?

I can still recall the time when I first realized my confusion with exactly what my identity was. I was walking down the boardwalk one night, the lights from the pier’s carnival attractions clashing with the flashing beacons of the casinos. I was perfectly content tipping the vender who just sold me the sinfully delicious battered and deep fried Oreo cookies topped in a mountain of powdered sugar. A small smile rested on my lips as I took a bite of the delectable lead bomb, powdered sugar exploding over my filled chipmunk cheeks and sprinkling down onto my shirt.

That’s when I heard someone call out. I looked up to see three women with their arms linked around each other. One was giggling, another looked absolutely mortified, and the third women was looking at me.

I was shocked to find that she was looking at me. People rarely talk to me on the street so I could not help the flabbergasted, “Me?” That escape my cookie filled mouth. She chuckled a bit as she bobbed her head up and down, “Yes you,” she replied. Her mortified friend shook her head beside her.

“What’s up?” I responded, choking down the deep-fried bite of heaven that had been filling my mouth.

“We were wondering, what are you?” the women spoke again, with a roar of laughter following shortly after from her friends. I could not exactly tell if their laughter was directed at me and my flustered yet confused face, or if it was directed at their friend, as if they could not believe she actually asked me what I was.

I hesitated before I could answer her, completely thrown off by the question. What did she mean, ‘What are you?’

I’m human, obviously. Sure, I had a pretty bad case of resting bitch face, but I could have sworn that I was smiling into my fried confections just a moment ago.

Then I realized they were probably jabbing at how beastly I looked tearing into my dessert ball, covered in powder from my cheeks all the way down to my chest like a rabies infected dog.

“Oh, you mean this?” I replied with a mild smirk, making no move to clean myself. “Don’t worry, you still have a solid few minutes of me in my human form before the moon comes out and I finish my transformation in to full on, rabid, werewolf.”

Humans are truly is incredible. Constantly growing and advancing, able to survive in a vast array of environments with a wide range of cultures and people. The idea of nationality is something that I can readily accept. One of the great things about humanity is the way that we were able to maintain a sense of order to various degrees by dividing up governing amongst various countries, and geographically grouping those governing countries into continents.

Each country, as many as there may be, helps us know where something is coming from; be it goods or people. It allows our species to communicate origins by stating the country they are from and even broaden it by using a country as a nationality to generalize a person’s origin even further; a necessary construct, in my opinion, based off of the vast amount of countries there are. In my mind, a nationality, is where a human originated.

While nationality is a construct I can understand with extreme clarity, ethnicity is a concept I struggle with slightly more. Does ethnicity not derive itself from nationality? It strives to make itself more specific by including things like ancestry, religion, language, culture, and things of that nature.

However, are those not all integral parts of nationality? While ethnicity limits itself to just one of those factors, nationality can broadly cover all of them. Granted, it may leave the specific details that ethnicity carries to be a bit of a mystery; but is that not part of the wonders of being human, to be so much more than one thing? Why do people so commonly refer to ethnicity? What does ethnicity matter when so commonly it is used to try and relate details similar to that of nationality?

The three women had burst into a fit of laughter at my response. I could not help but smile with them until they spoke again. This time it was the one with the formally mortified expression who spoke between her screeches of laughter, “No, no, what nationality are you? What is your ethnicity?”

I can accept the vagueness that nationality can present, as one nationality can be a host to many ethnicities. However, my confusion with ethnicity only begins to worsen when race is then involved.

Ethnicity is used to group people on a more specific level then nationality can, it does so based on shared cultures, languages, traits, and things of that sort. Race seems to be a similar construct, except race focuses on biological appearance. It would not be out of reason to assume race is a part of ethnicity, as ethnicities can share race as a cultural trait. However ethnicities can contain multiple races, so can people really use ethnicity, or even nationality for that matter, to assume race?

On the other hand, people of different ethnicities can have the same racial appearance, because it is based on a person’s appearance, which is ultimately determined by genetics. People of the same ethnicity can be of different races even if they have similar physical and biological structures, including pigmentation, which is most commonly associated with race. How can two humans be of different races when they share the same racial traits?

Racial traits generally originated form isolated geographical areas. For example, specific genetic traits could be more common amongst a single nationality because that was the geographical area in which the trait originated. The trait then spread as humans did, which allowed other humans to be at risk to develop a trait if they mated with someone who also was exposed to the trait at some point long their genealogical tree and continued to pass it down. This interbreeding enables people of different ethnicities and races to receive a trait found most commonly in a different nationality because somewhere in their DNA they have the same genetics frequently found in a nationality.

That being said, what was I supposed to say to the three women? What did they want to know? I honestly had no idea how to reply. I would always be a wonderful collage of cultures that’s built the beautifully unique strand of my DNA that constructs me. My own individual person, who is a little bit of everything.

I’m not just one nationality, I’m more than a singular ethnicity, I’m more than just the pigmentation that my genetics resulted in. I am a bit of everything, that has come together to create something absolutely one of a kind. Thus, I simply replied, “I’m American.”

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