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Ethnic identity, national identity and the relationship between the two in determining one’s status in society is a recurrent issue in the United States of America, as in many immigrant nations. In the United States, the American identity is not favorably granted to all ethnic groups, with Europeans implicitly granted the identity while other ethnic minorities marginalized in the same. In particular, European Americans are widely conceived as of the American origin than are Asians, Africans, Latinos and even the natives such Indians. This leads to a recurrent debate on the relationship between identity and status in this multi-ethnic society. This paper presents an analysis of the relationship between identity and status by reviewing some of the theoretical underpinnings presented in films and popular American literature. More specifically, the paper examines how the issue of identity and status is discussed in the animated film “Lady and the tramp” and the story of Ragged Dick alongside other literature and theories in this area of discussion. Most importantly, however, is the fact that there is a tendency in the United States to implicitly equate American identity to being White and a robust propensity to deny the same identity to ethnic minorities is what an exclusionary national identity formation is clearly.
The Disjunction between Implicit and Explicit Associations
Identity formation and hence the status of individuals can be expressed implicitly or explicitly. Implicit expression of identity refers to the proclivity to associate one with an identity, whereas explicit expression often represents self-report of what one perceives about his or her identity. In the case of the United States of America, Whites are implicitly associated with the American identity such that it becomes hard to associate some of the symbols and values with other racial minorities. In the story of Ragged Dick,  it is not as if Dick did not know about the “American Dream,” which ought to have made him or his parents work hard to get off the hook of poverty; it is that he never associated with such a value(Horatio Alger 231). Besides, in his neighborhood in the streets of New York, Dick came to be used living the kind of life he lived when the reader first encounters him because of the general perception of those around him. Although his was witty and could have used his intellectual capability to rise to the top, he first experienced a sense of denial that kept him at the low status.
However, it is apparent that while the implicit association with the American identity improves the confidence of Whites to pursue American values to their logical conclusion, an explicit relationship that attempts to defy this status quo is the weapon used by some Americans. In the quest to form an identity and to associate with American values, ethnic minorities can raise their status in the society dominated by Whites (Arnesen 210). More often, however, this attempt to form American identity is shaped by the dominant ethnic group. This is clear again when looking at the life of the 14-year-old boy, Dick. When Dick was put in charge of Mr. Whitney’s nephew, Frank, he got an opportunity to form his future identity (Horatio Alger 263). While taking Frank around the streets of New York, Frank was amazed by Dick’s wit and street smarts. He compared him to a white – Aladdin – and challenged him to get an education. Later, Dick would pursue a better life than he had in his childhood, courtesy of the encouragement he got from Frank, and partly because he wanted to form American identity and thus raise his status in this society.
Other than aspects of identity formation, another common area of discussion among Americans is the social status, in which the rich are construed of having high status and the converse is true for the poor(Devos and Mohamed 745) This is one area of debate that typically goes alongside that on American identity. In the course of their tour of New York streets, Frank and Dick engaged in discussions on contemporary stories relating to celebrities emerging from rags to getting riches. While these discussions were limited to celebrities in this particular story, it is apparent that such stories form part and parcel of forming American identity (Devos and Mohamed 734). Those in rags are least noticeable in the American society. The rich are construed as the real Americans and have influence over affairs of the rest of the population. Since American Dream urges everyone to pursue status, failure to follow on this value invalidates one’s American identity. Irrespective of one’s intellectual capabilities, being poor is enough to deny one the American identity. Marginalized groups are thus less recognized as Americans compared to Whites. This is the kind of struggle that the homeless families undergo in their pursuit for a national identity. It is as if the poor needs a helping hand to rise and be recognized as American. Dick needed a hand to raise his status and be able to share an identity with the rest of those he would later associate with in his adulthood.
Context Sensitivity of Implicit Associations with National Identity
Implicit associations find their roots in people’s experiences, carry within themselves the mark of cultural socialization, and often reflect some cultural realities as far as the social status of a person in a society is concerned. Although it is not easy to draw the interconnection between one’s ethnic identity and the national identity, it is apparent that historical influences and structural and political traits of a nation play a key role in shaping people’s attitude and perception on national identity (Arnesen 377). This means that even in the pluralist American society, it is likely that the social and cultural factors aforementioned are still strong determinants of whether on is included or excluded from national identity. In the animated film, “Lady and the tramp,” the pampered spaniel runs away from home and finds herself in love with the street mongrel (Finnegan 21). These two Disney characters are from completely two different social ends as metaphorically represented by the eating the spaghetti strand from opposite extreme ends. Unfortunately, despite their love, they are destined to meet half-way. The best that can ever happen to them is to associate as friends but preserve their social status as distinct and utterly opposite of each other. Thus, it is clear why the pampered spaniel is referred to as the “lady” and the streetwise mongrel as the “tramp.” The same scenario came up in the story of Ragged Dick in which Dick’s association with Frank and Mr. Whitney was limited to the casual friendship. Regarding status, Dick had to do more to be associated more closely with the White friends.
The most significant playing a role in the difference between Dick and Frank (in Ragged Dick) and between the pampered spaniel and the mongrel (in Lady and the Tramp) is an experience. Having lived in different environments and having interacted across various social classes, the friends understand the extent of their cultural socialization and keep it that way. Neither of the friends meets half-way, and that is what the American society has taught them to do. Even where it may be seen that one has advanced in status and is ideally “American,” questions are bound to be asked especially where that person hails from an ethnic minority. A contemporary example is the 2008 US elections, which saw Mr. Barack Obama’s identity spark discussion in the public arena. Central to this argument was that Mr. Obama wasn’t American. This further goes to tell much about how ethnic origin plays a key role in shaping American identity and why Whites are implicitly associated with the American society, unlike other races.
Implications for the American Society
The discussion on implicit-ethnic association with “American identity” has various implications. To begin with, there is the idea that the perception of who is American falls differently on the majority and minority ethnic groups. The strength of the White effect gives national identity strength to the majority Whites and is exclusionary toward minority groups (Arnesen 349). Thus, white in American is implicitly American while an individual of Asian, African, Hispanic or Indian origin must explicitly express this identity. Pushing further this discussion, it is clear why the mention of “Native Americans” sparks intense discussions on who is American and who is not. Though the Indians were living in North American before Europeans arrived at the Americas, there have been marginalized by the dominant group and made to seem less American than “foreigners”(Arnesen 323).
Another implication of the implicit-ethnic association with the American identity is the fact that this leads to the delineation of opportunities as well as rights for some ethnic groups. In the story of Ragged Dick, the difference between Dick and the likes of Frank is that while Dick was intelligent, he lacked access to resources that would see him raise his status. He took longer to form the “American identity” because of delineation of opportunities that is a contentious issue in the American society (Arnesen 379; Devos and Mohamed 749). In a pluralist society as America, it would be expected that the right to education and decent life is accessible to all, among other opportunities. Apparently, this is not the case, at least when looking as the asymmetry in the strength of American identity, which is imbalanced to the benefit of the majority ethnic group. Eventually, the majority group is perceived to be entitled to more opportunities and rights rarely accessible to the minority groups.
However, the experience of being denied American identity among minority groups is not trivial because these groups are aware that they are likely to be stereotyped as foreigners (Arnesen 402). Thus, the streetwise mongrel finds it a common experience to be treated by the pampered spaniel in a way that implies or assumes he is not American. Dick too is well aware of the same experience and strive to contend to such reactions even as he uses his wit to outperform his perceived “exclusionists.” In summary, American identity is implicitly associated with the majority ethnic group, the Whites, and explicitly contended by minority ethnic groups. The American identity awards one status in the American society, although social status is primarily based on material wealth, which can be amassed by any person who actively pursues the American dream.
Arnesen, Eric. Black Protest and the Great Migration. 1st ed. Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. Print.
Devos, Thierry, and Hafsa Mohamed. “Shades Of American Identity: Implicit Relations between Ethnic and National Identities”. Social and Personality Psychology Compass 8.12 (2014): 739-754. Web.
Finnegan, Delphine. Lady and the Tramp. 1st ed. [United States]: Paw Prints, 2012. Print.
Horatio Alger, Jr. Ragged Dick. 1st ed. Lanham: Danc