Our VoiceCulture

Americans = Anglos: The Depth of Perception

Rev. David L. Ostendorf • Dec 11, 2008

Months had passed since I had been in town to meet with workers over steaming plates of good food at the local restaurant run by a family from Mexico. It was good to see everyone again and to get caught up. Gentle handshakes were exchanged with those long-pained from packinghouse jobs, and conversation took off quickly. My colleague who organizes in the area guided our conversation and translated for us as we talked about a wide range of issues and concerns.

Some time into the conversation I asked how many Anglos worked at the plant these days. The translation of my question caught my attention: “Cuanos Americanos trabajan en la planta ahora?” “How many Americans work at the plant now?” The workers’ response likewise focused on the number of “Americans,” not “Anglos,” even as the question itself was rephrased: “Cuantos blancos trabajan en la plant ahora?”—how many whites work at the plant?

It was a telling and disconcerting translation and response, reflecting the depth of perception that has taken root not only among immigrants, but also among those long residing in this country: Americans are Anglos.

My colleagues and I talked about this several weeks later, all of us still taken aback by the depth and breadth of this cultural perception of nationality and race. We still haven’t shaken the experience, though we are all more finely attuned to hearing it played out in our daily work, and responding to it accordingly.

We ought not to have been surprised—the Americans = Anglos perception has had a long shelf life. In 1753 Benjamin Franklin wrote despairingly of German settlers who came in droves, did not learn English, had a continual need of interpreters, and threatened to “soon so outnumber us, that all the advantages we have will not in My Opinion be able to preserve our language, and even our Government will become precarious.” While he allowed that Germans “have their Virtues” and “contribute greatly to the improvement of a Country,” he prayed “to preserve to Great Britain the Laws, Manners, Liberties, and Religion” of the emerging nation.

Germans and others of once-despised European descent did, of course, make it to the social, cultural, economic, political, and racial whiteness and dominance of the early Anglos, making it difficult for many over the past several centuries to differentiate them. In short, all those of pan-European descent became “Anglos.” Even the Irish made it, as Noel Ingatiev’s How the Irish Became White reveals, a volume whose title alone is worth the purchase. The step from Anglos = Americans was, thereby, a short one, to this day sinking deep roots into the minds of all who call the western hemisphere home.

It is to our detriment that we live precariously with this perception, expressed by hard-working immigrants just weeks ago in response to a passing question about the makeup of the workforce in their plant, that Anglos/whites = Americans. All “others” need not apply. As one of my friends would say rightly and with great indignation, “that’s really messed up.” Messed up it is. And untangling that mess is the task that lies before us as diverse peoples of a nation seeking democracy.

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