I'm a typical white American girl who, typically, is descended from a mix of Western European immigrants and feisty all-American pioneers.
I went to mostly white Arizona schools, a mostly white private college in Minnesota, and, as an adult in Chicago, worked primarily on the mostly white North Shore. So I don't know much about being a minority. Sure, there have been a few occasions here and there--mostly when attending multi-ethnic churches or working at places like McDonalds--when I've been a racial minority or had a different background from my peers, but I never knew what it was like to be marked by any distinguishing socioeconomic characteristic.
Until, of course, I moved to England. After a year being introduced as "Steph The American"; of smiling through endless, familiar conversations with new acquaintances about the differences between America and Britain; and of having all of my silly actions and comments explained away by friends with the slightly infuriating blanket comment, "Well, she's American, you know," I now have a tiny glimpse into life as a member of a minority group.
Please don't send the race police after me. I'm not complaining, and I know my experiences haven't exactly been a hardship. In fact, I enjoy most of them because I like connecting with people for whatever reason (even if I sometimes get tired of having the same conversation over and over and over again).
However, I now have a small understanding of what it is like to go through life with a marker, one that carries all sorts of associations and baggage over which I have no control. Is this what it's like to be black, I wonder? Or in a wheelchair? Or obese? Deaf? It is true that, despite their best intentions, many people will see the characteristic first, and this impression will inevitably color their perception of the person who bears it.
I was at a barbecue in May when I met a friend's fiance. My friends Laura and Tim, who were on the Discipleship Year program with me, were sitting across from us, and as Carl asked the familiar questions about America, I happily discoursed about the differences in our speech, language and culture. Then Tim turned to Laura and I heard him say,
"Is it wrong that I'm getting tired of hearing Steph talk about this?" he asked. "I've heard her have this conversation four or five times this year."
Laura just patted him on the shoulder.
"If you think you're tired of it, just think how Stephanie feels," she said. "She must have it all of the time, even when we're not around."
"Amen!" I said, and we all laughed.
The worst that's happened to me is that I've once in awhile been frustrated or slightly insulted by the way people here make blanket assumptions about the United States and then ask me to defend my country. For an extreme example I need look no further than one day a few weeks ago. I was chatting to a politically liberal friend from Continental Europe and said I was really looking forward to visiting the States next month.
"I won't go there until George Bush is out of power and has finished destroying the country," he responded.
I was nearly speechless, and actually quite furious. I turned to my friend, spluttering.
"You have absolutely no idea what you're talking about!" I exclaimed. "That is completely unfair and a hugely sweeping statement. America is a massive land and there is so much more to the people and the places than one administration in a tiny little corner of the country, especially one that, whatever its faults, receives very biased press in Europe."
I was so upset that I walked off, because I felt that words were simply inadequate to truly describe the complex political situation in the United States. I feel the same helplessness when well-meaning friends ask stereotypical questions about Americans such as, "Why are all Americans are fat?", "Why do all Americans carry guns?" or "Why aren't all Americans as funny as the ones on 'Friends?'"
Admittedly, sometimes my friends are just trying to wind me up and some of them just want to understand, but I wish I had the ability to really tell them what my country is like. All I can generally say is, "No stereotype really works in America, because it is just so big. For every example you give I can find counter-examples supporting three or four different sides of argument."
Don't worry--I don't stay up at night fretting about being The American. In fact, if the truth must be told, I'm sometimes like the extra attention. It can be fun to be singled out that way. Sometimes.
Of course, nobody really wants to pick a fight or insult me. Stereotypes exist for a reason--all of us like to define a people or culture that we may more easily understand it, and stereotypes are often the only way to do that. And, of course, we Americans have plenty of stereotypes about the British.
And so, most of these conversation are borne out of a mutual desire for understanding and friendship between our two nations. Remember the European friend who so angered me that day a few weeks ago? After I stormed away, he came to find me a half hour later.
"I'm really sorry, Steph," he said. "I shouldn't have said that. It was a really rude comment, and I'd have been just as angry as you if I heard that about my own country."
I forgave him immediately, of course, and we headed off to lunch together.
I may not always enjoy being the minority, but really, it ain't so bad.