My Turn: Should ‘America’ be a synonym for the ‘United States of America’?

RAZVAN SIBII

RAZVAN SIBII

By RAZVAN SIBII

Published: 05-21-2024 5:01 PM

A little more than a year ago, after I published a column about the most toxic myths surrounding the issue of immigration, I received an email from a reader that took me to task about my use of the word “America” to refer to the United States of America. Here’s what she said:

“When we say ‘America’ meaning the USA, we negate the very existence of the many countries in North America, Central America and South America. By the same token, we deny the existence of the people living in those countries. As an immigrant from one of those countries, I am reminded of colonialism, imperialism and expansionism. This is not right!”

I know that a whole lot of people would dismiss this critique as representative of, at best, a sterile “woke” obsession with “correct” language and, at worst, an authoritarian impulse to regulate other people’s speech. But I do not subscribe to those views. As a teacher and a journalist, I am reminded daily that words frame people’s lived experience and imbue them with meaning.

I am not a fan of punishing people for bad words, but I do believe that words, good and bad, can change the world. So, to me, trying to persuade people to use words that you think lend themselves to more productive meanings is a legitimate, worthy endeavor. And I am by no means alone in this: Watch how quickly “anti-woke” conservatives react when someone uses words they don’t like for things they hold sacred, such as faith (“Xmas”?), history (“Indigenous People’s Day”?) and patriotism.

So I took the reader’s critique of my use of “America” seriously. Not only did I not have a problem with the proposition that some words are better than others, but I was also extra-sensitive to the problem of how people enjoying a certain level of power (such as journalists) can wield language as a weapon to denigrate certain communities. My column is dedicated to combating misinformation about immigrants coming to America — the last thing I want is for my language to contribute to their marginalization!

But I just wasn’t convinced by the argument. The USA is the only country with “America” in its name. The national identities of the other countries in “the Americas,” from Canada to Chile, are too strong to fear being assimilated by the U.S. And then there’s the practical matter. “America” is the only proper name in the “United States of America” — I don’t see myself writing “Unitedstateser” instead of “American.”

At the time, I wrote back to my reader and told her as much. But I promised to keep thinking about the issue. And I have. So last month I asked her to meet with me in person for a chat. Nicole Graves, a former teacher of English for speakers of other languages and a Canadian immigrant, agreed.

She told me that, for years, she’s been on a one-person campaign to convince people to be more careful about their use of the word “America.”

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“When we pledge allegiance as a new citizen, we pledge allegiance to ‘the United States of America.’ We don’t pledge allegiance to ‘America,’” she said. “I’ve talked to the judges at citizenship ceremonies. I’ve written to the president and the vice president. Most of the people I talk to one-on-one say they’ve never really thought about that. And some of them say, ‘I’ll be more careful about this from now on.’”

Graves would like to see people call the country “the United States” (with or without “of America”), rather than just “America.” She too, however, is stumped when it comes to an alternative for “American.” And that’s OK. You don’t have to have a solution fully worked out in your mind before you can point out that we have a problem on our hands. In fact, from what I can tell, no alternative has gained any significant traction anywhere — not in the “ivory tower,” and not in radical leftist circles, either.

Names that represent large groups of people are like that: They please some and upset others, they carry lots of complicated history with them, and they mean different things to different people. They can be claimed by those who aren’t allowed to wear them, and they can be rejected by those who are forced to wear them.

“America” is in good company here: Consider the cans of worms opened by such names as “the European Union,” “Columbia,” “Virginia,” “Indiana” — and “Amherst.”

So what should I do?

I went for help to Maria José Botelho, a professor of language, literacy and culture in the UMass Amherst College of Education. She didn’t offer an alternative to “American” either, but she did suggest a three-step course of action that I find to be reasonable:

1. Accept the fact that names like “America” are invariably “containers for power relations and historical moments”; they are not “just names.”

2. “We should be engaged with the ways that we name ourselves, and ask ourselves, ‘Is that how we want to be identified?’ Obviously, we’re not going to find consensus across our very diverse nation, but [we should try].”

3. When using the word “American,” “alert the reader to the historical complexity of this name” in order to “heighten our awareness that that name came in vogue because of our imperialism, our colonizing people beyond our borders.”

I welcome other suggestions at razvansibii@gmail.com.

Razvan Sibii is a senior lecturer of journalism at UMass Amherst. He writes a monthly column on immigration.