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Learning From Years Lived Abroad

American identity and actions are often hidden from Americans themselves.

James Baldwin, after growing up in Harlem, lived abroad for many years, finding it easier to be a black man in Paris, Switzerland, and Turkey. He experienced contrasts in feelings of freedom and safety. His abroad experiences were more egalitarian and inclusive.

Suzy Hansen (2017), a writer inspired by Baldwin, followed his footsteps to Turkey (see prior post). There, she too had her eyes opened, realizing that she had a hidden white identity. She learned from the locals and historical accounts what really happened in the nations of Iran, Greece, Egypt and Turkey—how the U.S. had betrayed its promises. Here are some of her and Baldwin’s insights about the American psyche.

1. The pioneer mindset may be an American orientation, dampening feeling and self-awareness.

Clause Offe, a German political sociologist, suggested that those who settled America had to rapidly reenact the phases of European civilization, from hunter to farming to industrialism. As a part of this rapid shift, a ritualistic form of amnesia was required—Americans needed to forget their history so they could move forward rapidly.

2. Exploitation of others was part of the American pioneering spirit.

According to this interpretation, the settlers who moved westward across the land expected freedom for themselves at the expense of others. They took the lands of others (sanctioned by cultural beliefs that you could own land, unlike the belief of natives, and that you had to manipulate the land in order to be deserving of ownership). Some also adopted slavery as a form of economic wealth generation.

3. The pioneering orientation continued after “the West was won.”

When the western frontier closed, Americans began to look outward to conquer other lands (e.g., the Alaska purchase in 1867). Expansionism was justified with the idea of Manifest Destiny, how God predestined white Protestants to dominate inferior groups (Indians, Mexicans, and Asians). They felt a Christian mandate to make the rest of the world like them.

4. Modernization theory was developed as a cloaked form of colonialism.

In the 1940s, Truman developed the Four Point Program, which he said was “for making the benefits of our scientific advances and industrial progress available for the improvement and growth of underdeveloped areas.” These words turned colonial endeavors into humanitarian missions, “in effect saying to the developing world, ‘We can help you be like us.’ 'Modernization' would end up being the Americans’ cleverest euphemism for empire building after 1950.” (Hansen, p. 126)

5. Modernization was imposed on countries around the world.

“Modernization theory meant imposing the West’s system of governance ('democracy'), its system of economy ('capitalism'), and its lifestyle practices ('freedom') on foreign countries. The Americans decided not to use the word 'Westernization' to describe their theory, so as to appear neutral” (Hansen, p. 126). Capitalism was associated with imperialism; President Eisenhower instead used terms like “freedom,” “free enterprise,” and “the free world.”

6. Modernization required overthrowing democratically elected leaders around the world.

Americans did not want to occupy countries to enforce the new system. Instead, the CIA overthrew democratically elected leaders (e.g., Iran in 1953), replacing them with dictatorships, autocrats who would do the work of modernization for personal benefit. During the Cold War, right-wing dictators learned that they could conjure up a communist menace to get more American aid to stay in power. See the list of governments here that the U.S. has helped to overthrow.

7. Media outlets promoted the idea of “American exceptionalism,” which was accompanied by modernization theory.

Americans were persuaded to go along with the domination of other countries. Like today’s Rupert Murdoch (Fox News), media moguls like Henry Luce (owner of Time, Life, and Fortune magazines) shaped citizens' views for decades, promoting American exceptionalism and justifying American dominance.

8. Inflicting suffering was normalized.

Hansen quotes Anand Gopal’s book, No Good Men Among the Living, where he gives a description of what a group of American soldiers did during a night raid in Afghanistan.

“As the soldiers approached a home, a dog growled and they shot it. A villager ran out, thinking a thief was on the premises, and they shot him too. His younger brother emerged with a gun and fired into the darkness, yelling for his neighbors. The soldiers shot him as well, and the barrage of bullets also hit his mother as she peered out a window. The soldiers then tied the three bodies together, dragged them into a room, and set off explosives. A pair of children stood watching and they would later report the scene. An old man stepped out of the neighboring house holding an oil lamp. He was shot. His son ran out to help, and he, too, was shot” (Gopal, 2014, p. 110.

From a psychological perspective, the killing of innocent civilians—of which there are other, more infamous examples, such as the My Lai massacre—is sociopathic. From an ethical perspective, the military system and the individuals acting in it are demonstrating a narrow sense of justice (for self and ingroup). Their mindset seems to be one of threat, minimizing any sense of care or connection.

9. Many Americans refuse to confront harm that their country has caused.

James Baldwin argued that Americans must maintain a certain innocence about their country. As Hansen writes:

“Because the Americans never looked their tragic history in the face, they could delude themselves into believing that their own comparable superiority might create a better world, a life so ideal that tragedy wouldn’t even exist. It was an American dream that demanded the denial of all those who suffered from its hopeless pursuits, and could only be achieved if Americans stopped feeling” (Hansen, p. 124).

Baldwin in No Name in the Street (p. 85) says:

“All of the Western nations have been caught in a lie, the lie of their pretended humanism: this means that their history has no moral justification, and that the West has no moral authority.”

10. The American psyche explained by Baldwin:

“I have always been struck, in America, by an emotional poverty so bottomless, and a terror of human life, of human touch, so deep, that virtually no American appears able to achieve any viable, organic connection between his public stance and his private life. This is what makes them so baffling, so moving, so exasperating, and so untrustworthy….If Americans were not so terrified of their private selves, they would never have needed to invent and could never have become so dependent what they still call “the Negro problem.” This problem, which they invented in order to safeguard their purity, has made of them criminals and monsters, and it is destroying them; and this not from anything blacks may or may not be doing but because of the role a guilty and constricted white imagination has assigned to the blacks…People pay for what they do, and, still more for what they have allowed themselves to become. And they pay for it very simply: by the lives they lead. The crucial thing, here, is that the sum of these individual abdications menaces life all over the world.” (No Name in the Street, pp. 53-54)

11. America as a dominating force.

The American empire was built on domination, not partnership, ideals (Eisler & Fry, 2019; see here). Explorers and settlers dominated native peoples and natural systems, slave systems fueled economic wealth, landed and monetarily privileged took more than the underprivileged. According to Eisler's theory, domination systems display these types of configuration:

  • Top-down authoritarian control in family and in state
  • Male dominance and the devaluation of tenderness and caring and promotion of fear, coercion, and violence

Partnership systems have different core configurations:

  • More democratic practices in family and in-state organizations
  • Equal valuing of male and female persons and traits
  • Little institutionalized or built-in fear, coercion, and violence

12. Disempowerment spreading at home?

Among the Turks Hansen associated with, the pervasive feeling was one of lack of control. Decisions were made outside their awareness but with deep impacts on their lives. When Turkey was strong-armed into participating in the surplus recycling mechanism—getting U.S. money to buy U.S. products—American products replaced Turkish products in the stores.

Many Americans may have similar feelings today as their small businesses disappear in the face of commercial giants. Decisions are being made outside of local control, leading to the decimation of rural and small-town communities. U.S. families are extremely stressed and ill-being is widespread (American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 2011; National Research Council, 2013).

13. Moving toward partnership lifestyles

Baldwin and others have pointed out how much damage was done in building the U.S. and its empire.

“As early as 1959, [William Appleman] Williams went as far as to say that America needed a kind of truth and reconciliation commission about the history of twentieth-century American foreign policy and the relationship between that foreign policy and the domestic economy, a reckoning with the fact that America’s much vaunted prosperity and peace at home would simply not have been possible without its violence at home—and abroad” (Hansen, p. 113).

If Americans do not learn to truly love themselves, they cannot love or respect others. A partnership system may require it. Hansen notes her own lovelessness:

“Distance, distance, distance was the American way, a frigid, loveless distance, a kind of power and violence that destroyed intimacy in all its other manifestations, that destroyed empathy in all of its imperial citizens, in us, in me” (Hansen, p. 214).

To get out of domination and empire building, which destroys individuality, cultural and biological diversity, each person must learn to self-calm, connect to others and honor difference—this applies not only to individuals and groups but to the structures and institutions of a society, as Baldwin pointed out long ago.

Note: As one reader pointed out, the domination orientation is not just a U.S. problem. See my essay, "Getting Back on Track to Being Human."

Related post:

Identity Changes When You See More Clearly


American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (2011). Stress in America. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Baldwin, J. (1961). Nobody knows my name. New York: Random House.

Baldwin, J. (1972). No Name in the Street. The Dial Press.

Eisler, R., & Fry, D.P. (2019). Nurturing our humanity. New York: Oxford University Press.

Gopal, A. (2014). No good men among the living: America, the Taliban, and the War through Afghan Eyes. New York: Henry Holt.

Hansen, S. (2017). Notes on a foreign country: An American abroad in a post-American world. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Narvaez, D. (2014). Neurobiology and the development of human morality: Evolution, culture and wisdom. New York, NY: W.W. Norton.

National Research Council (2013). U.S. Health in International Perspective: Shorter Lives, Poorer Health. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

Van der Kolk, B. (2014). The body keeps the score. New York: Penguin.

Williams, W. A. (1959). The tragedy of American diplomacy. New York: W.W. Norton.