What Does It Mean to “Be American”

We asked 20 people on what it means to be an American in this day and age.

Ray Zinn

Ray Zinn

Inventor | CEO, Micrel Semiconductor | Author, Tough Things First

Never giving up

American pioneers met tremendous obstacles as they crossed the plains and mountains of the West; they had no roads, they had few trails, and they had only crude equipment to bring their entire families over rough terrain.

Entrepreneurs are the modern equivalent of those pioneers. Like those intrepid adventurers, entrepreneurs are seeking a better life. Americans don’t quit when there are obstacles or challenges. Same with every true entrepreneur, we simply don’t give up, don’t quit, ever.

When I wanted to start my own company, I stayed true to myself; I didn’t take VC money which was unheard of in Silicon Valley. I mortgaged my house and took out a bank loan in pursuit of the American dream even though the bank required me to make the company profitable from day one.

With true American grit, hard work, and the spirit of an entrepreneur, I led Micrel for 37 long years, all but one were profitable.

Hard work, belief in yourself, never, ever giving up, that is the essence of being an American. 

Dr. Farouk Shami

Dr. Farouk Shami

Founder & Chairman, Farouk Systems, Inc.

Living your life by example

To answer the question,  I feel one must have gratitude for what America offers and appreciate being an American! My story and that of my family is deep-seated in values, respect and a love for freedom. Plus, our love for America.

As the Founder and Chairman of a global hair care company located in Houston, TX I envisioned the red, white and blue of an American Dream from an early age. Born in the Middle East and the son of a Sheikh and Chief of the olive farmers in Palestine, I was born in mid-October 1942.

I entered the world during a paradox: a year of struggle and challenge but also a season of love and peace. As a child, I grew up exposed to the trials and tribulations of war.

It was during hard times that my father would share his stories of coming to America in 1920 and how it was the land of peace, liberty, and freedom. He would also talk about the education offered in America to be whatever you wanted to be as well as the opportunities to live the American dream.

I often dreamt of leaving Palestine and coming to America one day and I did. On April 1, 1965, with only $71.00 in my pocket, I landed in America.

In 1966, I obtained my cosmetology license and began working in a salon. After some health issues and allergy to ammonia, I used the knowledge of creating colors from my mother to create the first ammonia-free hair color. I went on to create additional professional hair care products and styling tools.

The hairdressing profession calls me “The CHI Man” while I will consider myself “American by Choice” which is the title of my book that shares my life story.

Each day is a blessing and I thank God for what I have been able to achieve and give back to the people of this country. I serve on the board of many organizations including the NDUF (National Defense University Foundation) as the Foundation’s Special Representative and Adviser for International Affairs. I am also humbled to be a frequent speaker on leadership at Harvard University.

Being American today means living your life by example. Showing others how we must work together, rich or poor, whatever your race, Republican or Democrat, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist or Christian.

Related: 5 Ways to Inspire the People Around You

We must all strive to leave the world a better place than we found it. As Americans, we are individuals who come from different cultures, religions and economic backgrounds– but our future is made together, made in the USA.

My dreams, my goals and the opportunities I was gifted with are my testaments of what it means to be American today. God bless America.

Andrew Selepak, Ph.D.

Andrew Selepak

Media Professor, University of Florida

Having the right and freedom to choose

There isn’t one America anymore, and there never was one America or one type of American.

In a country of nearly 330-million people, there isn’t one thread that binds us all. We celebrate different holidays, vote for different political parties, worship different Gods if any, eat different foods, and don’t even agree on what to do during the National Anthem. There isn’t a common culture or national identity.

And unlike during the Cold War, we can’t even agree on a common enemy. Is it Russia? China? Ourselves? There isn’t even a consensus on America’s physical borders and whether we should have them or have open borders.

And some Americans aren’t even aware that the US territories are part of the United States and those that live there are American citizens.

But this is exactly what makes Americans American. We can disagree. We can enjoy different things. We can argue amongst ourselves. We can be vegans and meat eaters. Pro-life and Pro-Choice. Yankees fans and Dodgers fans. Republicans and Democrats.

America is the land of individualism even if that individualism is to choose to be part of the collective. The one thing that makes Americans American isn’t a culture, a religion, a political ideology, or even the Super Bowl, it is our Constitution that grants us the rights of Freedom of Speech and Freedom of Assembly, it is our institutions that were designed to allow us the freedom to choose even when we disagree and even when we decide we were wrong, and then allows the people to change those institutions.

What does it mean to be an American? It means having the right and freedom to choose what that means.

Pastor Mat Murphy

Pastor Mat Murphy

Garvinwood General Baptist Church

An individual flavor in a complex mixed treat

I write this article in an international airport. I write this article embracing the naive, perhaps slightly narcissistic, assumption that “American” means the United State of American, and we forget the relationship with Canadians, Mexicans, and other Latinos in Central America who all have lives and humanity in other American areas.

I write this article while observing international people in America, remembering my time serving and enjoying six different countries. I write this article while remembering working with members of the Sioux tribe in Mission, SD, mentoring college athletes from all over the world in my dorm during undergrad, and hosting high school and college students into the diverse inner-city of Nashville, TN.

I write this article while holding tight to my formal academic education that taught me about the roots of “American” history digging deep into religious structures.

My mind is currently like a multi-ingredient intellectual Blizzard, with all of the ingredients passionately fighting to get me to notice their individuality. The primary ingredient of Sioux and other Native Americans get transformed by all of the little pieces of European immigrants from the past several centuries. Those new pieces, once so potent, now dwindling in influence as chunks from Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East begin to change the structure of this ever-changing Blizzard.

Like The Campfire, The Brownie Dough, Royal Oreo, and so many other delicious Blizzards should we also have a catchy name for the cultural Blizzard that describes what it means to be an American?

Should centuries of negative and positive innovations, battles, relationships, and heartaches experience the summation by two to three words?

A mixed treat by the name People of Passionate Purpose highlights the people who led innovation and revolution but overlooks individuals who have, for years, been taught of their inability to succeed, embracing an apathetic lifestyle.

A mixed treat by the name Compassionate Christian Comrades embraces a traditional reality that doesn’t exist and may have never actually existed in Americans as a populous.

The traditional one-sighted, sometimes legalistic, perspective forgets that the forefathers of this great land paved a place of religious freedom, entirely. In this analogy of a mixed treat, this is where lactose intolerant comes into the equation.

Sometimes embracing what we thought was the foundation of our country makes others sick because of either transformation or misinterpretation over the years.

Honor, pride, trust, passion, innovation, craftiness, loyalty, and many other traits (negative and positive) are just a few of the chunks that dive through the filter of event and time orientation, shame and honor cultures, efficiency and hospitality focus, and many other unique principles that allow elements to get blurred into one great mixture.

When enjoyed appropriately, the mixture tastes so pleasant. The problem is though, we treat this mixture as the main course instead of the dessert. The main course is that of humanity.

We must embrace humans as humans before we enjoy the treat of individuality. Eating any dessert in place of the main course does not lead to pleasant bedtime.

What does it mean to be American: It means you are an individual flavor in a complex mixed treat.

One question is, will those observing the treat known as American culture taste your flavor? The other question is, will you focus too much on the treat and forget that the real importance is humanity?

Melisa Celikel

Melisa Celikel

NLP-Certified Business Organization Consultant | CEO, Let’s Get You Organized!

Breaking the limiting beliefs

Growing up with an immigrant father who came from poverty but worked his way up to a Ph.D. and a ticket to America, I was taught to go to school, get good grades, graduate college, and get a corporate job. This was my dad’s “American Dream” for me.

After 15 years of being a rat in the race of corporate Sales & Recruiting, I burnt out and launched my own professional home organization company. I netted a profit in the first year of my business that allowed me to cover all my basic expenses with zero debt. Dad is slowly coming around, although he still has no idea what I actually do!

Breaking the limiting beliefs and anchors of our family are key to making it in entrepreneurship, especially as a first-generation American.

When I stopped caring what people think, my business soared. I transformed the lives and businesses of 250 clients in 2018 and I plan to double that in 2019! This is my American Dream!

Vladimir Gendelman

Vladimir Gendelman

Founder & CEO, Company Folders

Free to believe in whatever you choose

Living in the Soviet Union, I viewed America as being the land of freedom and opportunity. Ultimately, to be American means to be free with your religious beliefs, to be free to your ideological beliefs, and to be able to identify opportunities and act on them regardless of your background.

Even though I wasn’t born here, I consider myself to be American because I am free to believe in whatever I choose and when a business opportunity presented itself, I took it and have a prosperous business.

Jimmy McMillan

Jimmy McMillan

Owner, Heart Life Insurance & HiBMI.com

To be an American is to be a trailblazer

Your path is not set. Your fate is never sealed. Your die is not cast. You can settle an entire continent, win a few world wars, cure polio and put a man on the moon if you put your mind to it. There is no “manifest destiny” for an American. We get to manifest that destiny ourselves.

As an American, the opportunity for something truly spectacular is all around if we choose to make it happen. I take great pride and comfort in these thoughts.

Trish Lake

Trisha Lake

Owner & CEO, TLC Cleaning LLC

Today Americans are overworked, overtired, overstressed and constantly on the run

With the average American working 45+ hours per week we are starting to leave out time for family and friends. My company constantly sees the stressed-out parents begging us to help take some weight off their shoulders. It has become a way of our society to always be on the move.

More Selfies, more kids activities, more work hustle. The end result is becoming the “American Dream“. My company is successful because Americans are overstressed.

Jason Patel


Founder, Transizion

A responsibility to uphold the institutions that made this country

Being an American means that we all have a responsibility to uphold the institutions that made this country and give back to the community.

Americans of past and present understand that the investments and contributions we make will not necessarily be enjoyed by us but rather our children and grandchildren.

This means cleaning up our parks, doing ethical business, looking out for our neighbors, and ensuring the poor and young have the opportunities to get ahead. If you’re willing to work, an American is willing to help you.

Americans look out for the long-term interest for the country and each other. That’s how we build things that last. Our country is built upon a stone foundation of tradition, not of avarice or material gain.

Barbara Allen

Barbara Allen

Author | Speaker | Co-Founder, American Snippets

To be an American means something different to everyone

To me, it means I am blessed. It means we are all blessed. This country, however imperfect, is packed with more beauty, extraordinary people, and opportunities than we are lead to believe.

To be an American means I have a responsibility to value and take advantage of these things. Too many people have given and continue to give too much for us to allow ourselves to be undone by anger and divisiveness.

People like my husband, who died in Iraq, gave their own lives so that we may live fully and freely, and to help others do the same.

It breaks my heart to see politics being used as a weapon of divisiveness. I believe we as people are better than what we are allowing ourselves to become.

To be an American means we should be unapologetically patriotic before we are political because when we approach our challenges as one united entity we have more power to overcome them for the greater good. It means the service and sacrifice of so many are not forgotten.

Linda Ruescher

Linda Ruescher

Award-Winning Health Educator | Speaker | Author | Musician

We are suffering from a dumbing down of America

As an American in 2019, I am more fearful and saddened that I have been at many times since the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement. Hatred and xenophobia continue to grow spawning violence.

The middle class continues to shrink. We have children in poverty and some people unwilling to acknowledge their suffering much less spend tax dollars to alleviate their hunger and need for medical care. The list goes on and on.

Even worse is rampant ignorance, from the top down about how government works and why we need to preserve the constitutional separation of powers and rule of law. We are suffering from a dumbing down of America.

A poorly educated and ill-informed electorate is a danger to our very way of life. Cutting funds for education, poor teacher pay, and for-profit charter schools have diluted our educational standards.

The source of these and so many other problems, that as a collective society, we have lost our humanity. Yes, there are many who care. There are many who do not care, operating from a mentality that, “I have mine. Get your own.

Shel Horowitz

Shel Horowitz

Activist | Transformative Biz Profitability Expert | Author, Guerrilla Marketing to Heal the World

Traditions of questioning the present

A patriot honors our long American traditions of questioning the present, seeing how we can make people’s lives better, and taking steps to bring it about–and putting the good of the whole ahead of individual financial success.

Thus, activists involved in such causes as climate change/environment, peace, immigration reform, pluralism, democracy, or gun safety are usually patriots.

Here’s how I do my patriotic work, along with being out in the streets and going to meetings:

As a profitability consultant for green and social entrepreneurship businesses, I show businesses how they can go beyond mere “sustainability” (keeping things the same) to “regenerativity” (making things better).

I work with them to develop and market profitable products and services that turn hunger and poverty into sufficiency, war into peace, and catastrophic climate change into planetary balance.

Sam Maizlech

Sam Maizlech

Firearms Expert, Gunivore

Don’t take your rights for granted

Being an American can be boiled down to appreciating your unique, unalienable rights.

While Americans are guaranteed certain basic rights, not every country is so benevolent and free. In fact, many countries restrict freedom of speech and religion, do not allow citizens to own guns, don’t guarantee due process, and expropriate private property without proper compensation.

Nevertheless, many Americans take these freedoms for granted and have sought to have them limited out of a false belief that it will enhance the quality of life for all Americans. John Adams famously said that “Rights cannot be repealed or restrained by human laws; Rights are derived from the Great Legislator of the Universe.

The United States was founded on the principle that there are certain rights which are simply above the government. The great founding fathers believed that government should be limited as much as possible since it inevitably leads to the suppression of the rights of the citizens.

This axiom is still clearly relevant in a world in which “free countries” will jail and fine citizens for violating “speech laws”, pursuing better healthcare, and defending their property.

The fact of the matter is that Americans are by far the freest people in the world. Therefore, it follows that being an American means knowing those freedoms, appreciating them, not taking them for granted and absolutely never forsaking them.

Winston Wang

Journalist | Managing Director, The Bipartisan Press

The most unique things about Americans is patriotism

Through American history, probably one of the most unique things about Americans is patriotism – not ditching your country even when it’s at your own loss.

Whether it was during the Revolutionary War, when the US almost lost to England but miraculously pulled off a win, or something else, Americans have always stood by their country.

That’s why, in my opinion, being American is standing by your own country. Even though some people might not agree with what our current president is doing in office, they need to realize that it’s not permanent. We need to look at America overall, not just the current circumstances. What makes America so unique is that everyone has a different mindset – and therefore we have a lot of innovation.

However, no matter what happens, I feel that it is important to remain patriotic to your own country, even through hard times. It will only benefit us in the future.

Nancy Schimmel

Nancy Schimmel

Songwriter, Sister’s Choice

Being good citizens of our city, county, and state

Being an American in 2019 means appreciating the amazing natural wonders of our country, from the waterfalls of Yosemite to the butterflies in our front yards. It means cherishing our fellow Americans, from the kids playing hopscotch on the sidewalk, to our favorite team playing in the finals, to Yo-Yo Ma playing cello at our southern border.

It means appreciating all our history: not just memorializing presidents and generals but putting Harriet Tubman on a twenty-dollar bill and protecting the Native American sacred spaces threatened by logging and fuel extraction.

Being an American in 2019 means going beyond the fifty states and recognizing that Puerto Ricans are Americans too, and deserve our full-out support when they are hit by a hurricane.

It also means looking beyond our states and territories and realizing that what happens in Africa and Asia affects the daily life of Americans and vice versa and that our unsustainable energy production and farming methods affect everyone in the world through climate change.

It means focusing on our locality within America because many of the changes we need to make are more effective on the local than the national level: solar panels on the rooftops of our public schools, support for public transportation so that people can afford to get to work without producing so much pollution.

Some of what it means to be an American is what it has always meant: helping neighbors, welcoming newcomers, voting. But being good citizens of America means being good citizens of our city, county, and state as well, so voting means voting all the way down the ballot. And let us remember that being citizens of the United States we are, by treaty and in our own best interests, citizens of our world.

Jennifer Billman

Director of Public Relations, Contender VC LLC

Living in a free country

For me being an American means living in a free country where I can freely express my religion, sexuality & share my opinion and thoughts without fearing incarceration or even death.

My mother was raised in East Germany, an oppressed country. She was expelled from school after wearing a Coca-Cola shirt her grandmother from West Germany mailed her. Here in America, I can send my kids to school without fearing incarceration because my daughter is wearing a shirt that hasn’t been approved by the government.

Natasha Nuñez

Natasha Nuñez

Life Blogger, The Artisan Life

Having a multicultural, multi-ethnic family

To me, a major part of being American today is having a multicultural, multi-ethnic family and including holidays and celebrations from these varied heritages in our own family traditions.

I am thankful to have a diverse extended family that speaks a variety of languages, holds varied religious beliefs, and that upholds specific cultural traditions while accepting other’s beliefs and traditions.

For example, my sister’s wedding will be conducted by an Episcopalian priest, but will also include portions in French, Japanese, and Hebrew with readings from the Bible and the Torah.

I know this type of freedom and acceptance isn’t available everywhere in the world today, which is why it’s something I cherish about being American.

Trent Hankinson

Manager & Frontman, Aqua Seca Band

Being an American just might be the most unique experience in the world

Pretty much nowhere else in the world can you be accepted so graciously and so quickly. For example, in Japan, it is very hard to become a citizen. In fact, it is so uncommon that rarely anybody goes through with it.

But in America, all you have to do is remember a few facts, believe in democracy and follow some laws, bam! You are an American! It is so wonderful.

My family came here from southern Germany about 100 years ago. My great, great grandfather did not like the direction Germany was heading in 1910, so he got the family together and boarded a ship to New York.

109 years later, I sit here in LA and think about how different my life would be had I stayed in Germany. Would I work as hard as I do now? Would I be able to enjoy democracy as I do here? Would I be able to have as much convenience as I do?

Chances are that life would be much different if we had stayed in Germany. I have traveled back to Germany many times in my life and found that life is nice, but I always enjoy returning to the US.

A place where 24-hour Walmarts are the norm and businesses don’t close from 1 pm to 5 pm for some strange reason (Spain/most of rural Europe).

Being an American is not all about convenience though, it is about doing what you want to do. Being able to wake up every day and decide what it is you want to have an impact on. What it is you want to make shine. For me, that is music, and playing it to as many people as possible. But to you, it may be different.

Maybe you enjoy volunteering, or working with your hands, or designing a new component for an airplane, whatever it might be. Being an American means being an entrepreneur. It means setting out in life with your own plans, your own Manifest Destiny.

And only in America will nobody try to stop you.

Kirsten Trammell

Kirsten Trammell

Founder, Trammell Publishing

To have respect and honor for your land and those that live on it with you

Being an American no longer has one cookie-cutter definition. I am a walking example of this, a Third-Culture-Kid, having been born with an American passport but in Germany. The first 12 years of childhood were spent traveling around the world, picking up new cultures and worldviews along the way.

I have been, and always will be an American, only with a little flair. I think most Americans have that these days, a little flair. A little of something that makes us different makes us free, makes us American, in our own way.

To be an American means to have respect and honor for your land and those that live on it with you.

It means, having the freedom of expression, beliefs, and emotion. It means living the life you want to live, every day regardless of your race, religion, or gender. It is a beautiful blend of individual flair coming together to make one colorful flag of red, white, and blue.

Frequently Asked Questions

How has the American identity changed over time?

American identity has evolved, reflecting societal, political, and cultural changes.

For example, waves of immigration have made American identity increasingly diverse and inclusive, while civil rights and social justice movements have challenged traditional notions of what it means to be part of the American community.

Globalization has also blurred the boundaries of national identity, with many people with a sense of identity that transcends national borders. As the country continues to evolve and change, the definition of American identity will likely continue to change as well.

How can we work toward a shared understanding of what it means to be “American”?

While there may never be a single, definitive answer to the question of what it means to “be American,” there are many ways we can work toward a shared understanding:

Dialog: Encouraging open, honest, and respectful dialog among diverse groups can help build greater understanding and empathy.

Education: By teaching the history and values of the United States comprehensively and inclusively, we can help create a more informed and engaged citizenry.

Diversity and inclusion: Embracing diversity and inclusion can help create a more equitable society where everyone feels valued and respected.

Civic engagement: Encouraging individuals to participate in civic life through activities such as voting, volunteering, and advocacy can help foster a sense of shared purpose and responsibility.

Can someone become an “American” if they were not born in the United States?

Yes, someone can become an American even if they were not born in the United States. This can be done through naturalization, where people who meet certain requirements can become citizens of the United States.

However, assimilating into American culture and identifying as an American can be complex and difficult, especially for people from very different cultural and linguistic backgrounds.

The decision to adopt an American identity is a personal one and may depend on several factors, including family background, personal experiences, and political beliefs.

What are the challenges associated with defining American identity?

Defining American identity can be challenging because it is shaped by various social, political, and cultural factors that vary greatly depending on an individual’s background and experiences.

For example, diversity can make it difficult to identify a single set of cultural values and traditions that make up American identity, while political beliefs can be a dividing factor when it comes to defining American identity.

In addition, the country’s complex and contested history can make it difficult to come to a shared understanding of what it means to be part of the American community.

Defining American identity is likely to be an ongoing conversation that reflects the diverse perspectives and experiences of the people who call the United States home.

Why is it important to consider America’s history, with its successes and failures, when defining what it means to be American?

It is vital to consider America’s history, with its successes and failures, when defining what it means to be American because history provides a context for understanding the values, traditions, and experiences that define American identity.

The United States has a complex and diverse history with many moments of triumph and achievement but also moments of struggle and injustice.

By acknowledging and engaging with this history, we can better understand the challenges and opportunities that define American society and culture.

What role do the media and pop culture play in shaping American identity?

Media and pop culture play an important role in shaping American identity because they help create and reinforce cultural norms and values. Examples include:

Television: television shows and news programs can help shape American society and cultural perceptions by highlighting specific issues and perspectives while downplaying or ignoring others.

Film: films are a powerful way to tell stories about American history, culture, and identity, and they can influence how people around the world view the United States.

Music: music is a powerful means of expressing cultural values and experiences, and American musical genres such as jazz, blues, rock, roll, and hip-hop have a significant impact on global culture.

Social media: social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram have opened up new opportunities for people to connect and express their identities and can be a powerful tool in shaping perceptions of American identity.

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