We As Americans

“Men may change their clothes, their politics, their wives, their religions, their philosophies: they cannot change their grandfathers …. Jews or Poles or Anglo-Saxons, in order to cease being Jews or Poles or Anglo-Saxons, would have to cease to be.”
~ Horace Kallen

It is important to acknowledge that not everyone reading this guide identifies as American. Some of us are recent immigrants to this country, and may not be citizens; some of us find that our ethnic and racial identities are much more significant in our daily lives than the identity of “American.”

Nevertheless, and especially if you are traveling to a country in the Global South, it is important to explore how you may have been shaped by traditional American values — ones that are often invisible to many of us. Regardless of your own personal relationship to these values, consider that they may be projected onto you by the people you will be meeting.

In 1984, L. Robert Kohls created a list of commonly-held American values that has since become a classic. Created originally to help immigrants to the United States make sense of their new cultural environment, Kohls’ list makes visible some of the cultural lenses through which people raised and living in the U.S. tend to see the world.

We recommend the full original article (PDF) , but if you are very pressed for time, read a shortened version of the Kohls list: “Values in American Culture”.
Open your journal and respond to these questions:

  • Do you identify as American? Why or why not?
  • If you are an immigrant in the United States, how do you relate to this list of values?
  • Are there ways you can identify that your own habits and preferences are shaped by cultural values (rather than simply being “your preferences” as an individual)?
  • Are there elements on the Kohls list that surprised you? Elements with which you
  • Is there a bias of race, class or gender assumptions built into the Kohls list?
  • Are there things missing from this list that you would add?
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