How many times you have answered the following questionnaire while completing a regular survey in your lifetime without even thinking much about it?  I recently came across the following comment while working with a survey related to student learning:

I am an American, Goddammit!

It was a response for an ordinary survey question:

Are you a:

  • a) Caucasian
  • b) African American
  • c) Native American
  • d) Hispanic/Latino
  • e) Asian/Pacific islander
  • f) Others

I was not prepared for the answer. I didn’t know how to react. It made me ponder.

Is it a long-waited, much desired response in today’s world where one’s identity is not confined in one’s race, ethnicity or the like? Or is it a dangerous over generalization that fails to protect one’s individuality?

I started imagining everyone around me responding the same way. I myself come from a very diverse background – my nationality is Indian, by ethnicity I am a Bengali, by caste I am a Hindu Brahmin, by appearance I am an average looking wheatish Bengali girl.

How do I introduce myself? As a Bengali, as a Brahmin, or simply as an Indian?

One of my cousins was born and brought up in the Middle East, went to an international school there, later married to a guy who was born and brought up in Canada with an Indian origin.

My brother-in-law’s parents are from UP. Their mother language was different; my cousin and her husband didn’t care – both of them spoke English. Now their child will be an American as they are in the USA now.

How to introduce him/ her? By look — as an Asian-Indian? By ethnicity — a minority? How confusing! What will be his/ her reaction?

I am an American, Goddammit!

In reality, the idea of identifying oneself just by nationality is pretty amazing but probably a bit utopian. It’s almost impossible for me to identify myself as an Indian without connecting to my ethnicity, because as a concept the word “Indian” is nothing but a concoction of various cultural mix.

I am fond of my own cuisine, which is far from any regular Indian dish that is served in any international eatery. I am proud of my literature which is just another Indian language that has nothing to do with rest of the Non Bengali population.

In fact, while looking back, I think I never felt motivated enough to learn, read and enjoy other literature in any other Indian language except Hindi.

Did my preference for my own food, literature and culture make me territorial? I am not sure.

I can speak, read and write two other Indian languages than my own. I don’t like any other food except what I am familiar with, I enjoy the literature in my own language other than English, I mostly listen to Indian classical/semi-classical and modern songs which are not sung in Bengali.

I am a keen fan of Hollywood movies, seldom watch Bollywood and Bengali mainstream cinema. I am not religious, so my interest for our biggest festival is limited within the special editions of our popular Bengali magazines (published in the festival time) which I still relish.

Some people were a little apprehensive about my affinity towards other cultures; my relatives accused me of being swayed by the glitz and glamour of global consumerism. Some of my friends called me snob.

The most fascinating part is — that didn’t make me any less “Indian” than others. Or, should I call myself a perfect example of “GAC” — a Globally Adapted Citizen and wait till the term is incorporated in all the popular dictionaries?


  1. I find this article to be very interesting. I myself address myself as African American, but I often find that hard to do on a survey because I am more than one of those choices you listed above. In my opinion, when they ask questions like that on surveys we should be allowed to pick more than one, not the thing we are closest or most of. As for the “I am an American, Goddammit!” response that could be a range of things, the person could actually have genuinely meant the comment or was just trying to be silly.

  2. This is a fascinating article, Katha. How do we choose to self-identify — and how do we want to categorize others?

    This topic came up in our ASL class last night. We were learning how to describe people and clothing and body type and part of that is describing skin color. Our NYC ASL classes always have a wide mix of cultures and Races and skin color is important in Deaf culture when it comes to confirming identification of a person.

    A decade ago, I’d say 100% of our “dark-skinned” students with an African background would identify their skin color as “Black.” Today, that has pretty much changed to “Brown.” They describe their hair color as “black” but their skin — no matter what tone or shade, is “brown.” That is a a fascinating change in a modern culture where the memes and the indices of belonging are always in flux. Keep up, or get stuck in the past!

    It makes me wonder if “Black” is now more a unifying political/social meme than a Racial preference and, in class, when we expand the skin definitions from “White, Black, Brown, Tan, etc.” to include “dark-skinned” and “light-skinned” the students almost always prefer those last two terms for self-description than using anything else — which is also revelatory in many ways.

    It’s funny that the Caucasians in class always identify as “White” — even though none of us are really, actually, the color “white” — and not one of them self-described as “light-skinned.”

    I think this all sort of creates confusion between common Racial categorizations and personal viewpoints of the self in the world.

    As well, last night, one student, an older Asian woman, described her skin color as “yellow” — to me that is an outdated stereotypical label — and I was surprised that was her preferred identity. You can see the sticky slope in which we tread because for anyone else to identify her as “yellow-skinned” without her prior approval, means you’re likely treading into dangerous, and outdated, social mores — but for her to label herself “yellow” — then that “color” became the safe, and de facto, standard for her, and us.

    1. Hi David,

      Thanks for the fantastic story.

      I do wonder, what makes one feel more accepted – a single point identity or an elaborated one? Nationality, religion, or color?

      1. I think the trend today is toward a more elaborate belonging — and I think that’s a good thing. Instead of just one skin or Racial or political identity, people are starting to join each other in positive, cross-boundary, labels and that enhances the majority in all of us.

        In a previous ASL class, I had one, traditional, Eastern-Shore “lily White” person — like me! — say she was “Black” in skin color. The majorly minority class laughed and applauded, and while that human, political, emotional “sharing” was admirable, it did not work in context because if someone were describing her in ASL to another person who did not know her, “Black” is absolutely the wrong skin color. Kind intention; totally wrong execution.

        1. Hi David,

          Here in India, when we meet a fellow an Indian, our first question to the other person is – “where are you from?” Based on his/ her answer, we know whether s/he is a South Indian, North Indian or someone else. And, that’s natural for us. But even in India, we write our nationality as Indian. Would I be happy if I see an option in a survey form to say I am a Bengali, Hindu, Brahmin etc.? Some people might, I won’t. I prefer my life to be less complicated…. 🙂

          1. Excellent lesson, Katha, thank you for teaching us!

            I, too, prefer a national connection instead of an regional or State label.

            I think Texas is the State with the largest ego. “I’m not from America. I’m not from the South. I’m from TEXAS!” SMILE!

          2. We have 28 states, and 22 official languages here in India. I am not even considering the other local languages and dialects. Then comes religion, caste, etc. Talk about diversity….. 🙂 but I am still more Indian than anything else. We do have “people from TEXAS” here though!! 😀

  3. I can’t help but think that the person leaving that comment was angry at their choice of ethnicity not being included, or more precisely — they felt that as an American, nothing else mattered.

    Working in my department, we receive CVs which has an optional personal section including ethnicity. People put some very silly stuff on there. One woman put “spinstress” for marital status.

    1. I think you are all missing the likely reason for this person’s response: anger, ignorance, and misguided pride. We needn’t tiptoe around a possible conflict with the racial identities listed and supposing this person’s sensitivities aren’t being considered is a waste of time. You are being too generous!

      This person was plainly angry – but, the “I’m American…” statement reveals they take issue with even having to indicate who they are. They’re probably irritated by the “other” people who are students on campus, they are likely suffering from something more pernicious like xenophobia or even reverse racism.

  4. Interesting observations Katha and commentators. I cannot answer why that person answered the way they did – I do know from social sites like facebook that there is a lot of anger in the USA about recorded messages at the main agencies which request you to press button one for English , button two for spanish etc etc etc .

    All I can say is that having once been British first and English second I am very proud now to classify myself as European – I would LOVE it if I could take it a stage further and classify myself as a World Citizen or even a child of the universe !

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