Academic journal article Journal of Cultural Diversity

Multiethnic Perspectives on Mainstream America

Academic journal article Journal of Cultural Diversity

Multiethnic Perspectives on Mainstream America

Article excerpt

Abstract: The terms mainstream America and mainstream American are often used but infrequently defined. The purpose of this study was to explore definitions of these terms among a multiethnic sample of 158 college students. Two major themes emerged from a qualitative analysis: 1) an exclusionary definition as U.S.-born, dominated by Whites and of Judeo-Christian faith versus the predominant, more inclusive, contemporary definition of sharing American values and practices within a diverse society and 2) a contrast between highly critical comments (weakened family ties, moral decay, racism) and favorable comments (opportunity, helpfidness, openness and inclusiveness). Responses by ethnic group were also reported.

Key Words: Mainstream American, Mainstream America, Multiethnic, African American, Afro-Caribbean, Hispanic American, European American

The most restrictive definition of the term "mainstream American" is well known, referring to the White, Anglo-Saxon (of English descent, not Scots or Irish in the original formulation), Protestants who dominated the social structure of the United States from colonial times (Allen, 1975; Parsons, 1965; Parrillo, 1994; Schermerhom, 1949; 1970). This early conceptualization gradually expanded to include those who came from northwestern Europe and then to anyone of European origin who spoke English (Berry, 1990), except people of color (Parrillo, 1994). Those of Catholic and Jewish faith were gradually included within the definition of mainstream American.

There has been some stability in this definition as well as expansion. George and Louise Spindler and colleagues (1990) note that certain core values and common cultural features have been maintained over the centuries. These include freedom of speech, the rights of the individual, equality of opportunity, achievement through hard work and social mobility. Kottak and Kozaitis (2003) add education, family unity, discipline, hard work, achievement, friendliness, openness, mutual respect, community participation and fair play. These values are primarily individualistic as compared to many traditional cultures that are more collectivistic (Gonzalez, 2007). A further expanded definition of mainstream American would include those who hold these values and adhere to these cultural practices.

From the time of the formation of the United States as a nation, what constitutes mainstream America has been a dynamic concept moving in the direction of increasing inclusiveness. Parsons (1965) described this evolution as a highly complex "process by which previously excluded groups attain full . . . membership," (p. 715). To accomplish this requires:

* Commitment to the values underlying the goal of inclusion

* A clear vision of an inclusive society

* Acting to live these values and achieve this goal

* Making inclusion an expectation if not a requirement, e.g., legislating fair housing practices (Parsons, 1965).

The more recent conceptualizations evidence this expanding inclusiveness. Trueba and colleagues (1990), for example, provide this set of criteria for inclusion in mainstream America:

* Fluent in English

* Internalized traditional American values

* Participates in American society socially, politically and economically

* Incorporates affiliation with mainstream America into his or her personal identity (p. 126).

Most importantly, these latter, more contemporary, definitions cross the racial, religious and country of origin lines of the traditional definition.

George Spindler and colleagues (1990) note that the term mainstream American, although widely used, is also used carelessly. Frequently mainstream America and mainstream American are defined vaguely, partially or not at all. For example, Doran and Littrell (2009) define it as what is "held in common by the majority of Americans" (p. 3). A brief search of library holdings supported their claim. Of a dozen recent monographs with mainstream American or mainstream in their titles, not one defined, clarified or discussed the term itself suggesting that the authors assumed there was a common understanding of what constitutes mainstream American today and agreement regarding who is and is not a part of the mainstream. …

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