Monsters   /   Spring 2020   /    Essays

Unbecoming American

I lived in a world where we could all be American. But that may no longer be the case.

Johann N. Neem

An American flag installation at the Immigration Museum, Ellis Island, New York; Kris Legg/Alamy Stock Photo.

I arrived—as we all do—in the midst of history. I was not yet three, and my parents had migrated to San Francisco from Mumbai to start a new life. They had been sponsored by my dad’s sister, whose husband, an engineer, had come over to work for Bechtel. We were, in other words, part of the first wave of immigrants to crash into a changing America in the wake of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. Our arrival—among those of the numbers of Africans, Asians, and Latin Americans who came to the country—was largely unexpected. It was not what most Americans had anticipated when the law was passed during the civil rights era. But it was what brought me here, to a new country.

Mine was an American childhood. We were middle class and lived on a cul-de-sac whose residents were diverse in many of the usual American ways. There were Japanese-Americans and Catholics and Protestants. There were people without college degrees, and others with graduate degrees. There were Republicans and Democrats. There were immigrants from Germany, and of course we were from India. But most of us kids went to public school together, and our parents would take turns carpooling us. Gathering on the court, we rode bikes, played football on our muddy lawn (I was never much good at sports), and pretended to be motorcycle officers Ponch and Jon from the TV series CHiPs. Together, we made up games and celebrated birthdays. We grew up knowing about our differences but caring about what we shared. What bound us together was America, although I’m not sure I would have been able to say that. Perhaps I didn’t have to.

I imagined that I could become anybody. I had no awareness then that this belief was the result of more than two centuries of activism on the part of African Americans, feminists, and their allies to earn equality within the American nation-state. It was California. The American Dream was alive. Of course, that dream had been deferred for so many Americans for too long. But after 1965, it was hoped, those obstacles would be behind us. Immigrants would be welcome. African Americans would be equal. And despite the thus-far unsuccessful effort to enact the Equal Rights Amendment, I grew up in a world that took for granted that women too could be whomever they wanted to be.

There was a kind of amnesia. Maybe that’s not the right word. We were new. So maybe it was that I just didn’t know the history, and my parents had experienced a different history. Whatever it was, America was, for us, a blank slate. But it was not fully blank. It had rituals and traditions for us to learn, such as giving gifts and spending time with family and friends on Christmas or having barbecues on the Fourth of July. We gathered with neighbors to hunt Easter eggs. It had norms, like saying “thank you” for any kind of service, a sign of the respect each American owed fellow Americans for their contributions to society. It had a creed, too—that the United States promised all people a better, freer, more prosperous life.

No doubt, my parents sometimes faced challenges and encountered prejudice. For all that I shared with my neighbors and schoolmates, my family was also Indian American. I grew up surrounded by family friends who were immigrants like us. That was fine too. In America, my Indianness was part of a pluralistic civil society and market in which ethnic and religious groups could sustain their beliefs and folkways. Growing up, I experienced no tension between going to Berkeley for masala dosas in restaurants full of immigrants (and a few hippies), and learning in school about my Pilgrim forebears. Nor was I told that my recent arrival in America exempted me from responsibility for the evils of slavery and racism. As part of the imagined community of the nation, I understood that the past was also a shared burden.

Most of us have multiple communities to which we belong—and which make claims on us—and it is the relations between these sources of our identity that make us who we are. It is the tensions between some of these obligations, furthermore, that enable invaluable self-criticism. As the political theorist Michael Walzer has written, a self whose identity is made up of only one source is shallow and totalizing.11xMichael Walzer, Thick and Thin: Moral Argument at Home and Abroad (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1994). What makes our differences—our pluralism—sustainable is that one of the communities that define us—America—is shared by most of us. We are many, but also one. This was the ideal of the so-called hyphenated American. All Americans, native born or immigrant, had their particular ethnic and religious identities, but we shared a common American-ness.

As a child, I thought that to be American was to believe in individuality, to support pluralism and equality, and also to celebrate common holidays and eat common foods, such as the oozy grilled cheeses and bean burritos that the school cafeteria dished up for us, or the sloppy joes and tacos that my mom learned to cook (even though my favorite food remained dahl and rice). On Halloween, it meant carving jack-o-lanterns and, in the evening, heading out with friends for trick-or-treating. On Thanksgiving, it meant gathering with other immigrant family and friends to eat turkey and express gratitude. Being American meant that during the Christmas season, we kids would live in anticipation, poring through the toy section of the Sears catalog. On the Fourth of July, we’d watch fireworks. At school, we said the Pledge of Allegiance.

A Shared Culture Requires Something

I lived in a world where we could all be American, not because of our cultural differences but because of what we could share. This shared culture—this sense of being a people—is a precondition to sustaining the universal ideals of American democracy. We like to pretend that principles are enough, but abstract ideas are thin gruel for flesh-and-blood human beings. We are not disembodied reasoners. We belong to groups. We have emotions. Culture connects us to our country and to one another. But that culture depends on shared rituals and experiences. Today, we are so afraid of offense that we risk privatizing the very culture we once could share together.

My childhood memories of a diverse neighborhood and public school where we could all be Americans reflect good fortune. There are many Americans who experience discrimination and prejudice in their daily lives. And despite public schools’ mission to bring together a variety of Americans, not all public schools were as diverse as mine. This is even more true today. As whiter and wealthier Americans moved away from more heterogenous districts, public schools have become less diverse than they were in the 1980s. Today, white students are the least likely to be exposed to students from other ethnic and racial backgrounds.22xJohann N. Neem and Tony Tian-Ren Lin, “The New Tax Law Poses a Hidden Threat to American Democracy,” Washington Post, January 8, 2018, Many Americans have been and continue to be denied access to full membership in our national community. Hate and prejudice are real problems that Americans must confront and challenge. Since the American Revolution, activists have struggled to overcome exclusion; we are still struggling today. But there is a meaningful distinction between seeking access to the common life of the nation and deciding that that common life is itself the problem. A shared culture requires something. It cannot simply be an absence.

Shared holidays are essential parts of culture. They mark time and endow it with meaning. That is why the so-called “war over Christmas,” while overblown, is not silly. It reflects what happens when rituals with collective meaning become contested and diminished. Just like so much that once could be shared but now must belong to a “group,” Christmas has become something that divides rather than unites. If everything and everyone belongs to a subgroup, there can be no group, and with no group there can be no Americans.

“A Composite Nationality”

No holiday is outside of history. Our Christmas celebrations have changed over time and have incorporated practices and traditions from pre-Christian times (the Puritans sought to get rid of Christmas because they considered it pagan) as well as those brought here by migrants. We have long shared what Frederick Douglass called in 1869 a “composite nationality.” The practice of decorating Christmas trees may have been brought to our shores by German immigrants, and some of America’s most popular Christmas songs were written by Jewish Americans.

During my childhood in one of America’s most diverse states, Christmas brought together peoples of all faiths and colors. But not anymore. Some on the right, including President Donald Trump, want to “take back” Christmas, as if you can take back a holiday that is premised on an unconditional gift of love. On the other hand, in my child’s public elementary school today, Christmas and other once-shared holidays are treated as belonging to a culture rather than our culture. Last year, when I ran into my son’s coach at the mall, he stumbled awkwardly after asking me if I was Christmas shopping, as if he’d committed an offense against my brown skin. In fact, I was Christmas shopping and I was as miserable as he seemed to be about finding myself at the mall. Why would he think I would feel more welcome by being excluded from American traditions? There is a big difference between asking non-Christians to pray and inviting them, as fellow Americans, to sing carols, eat cookies, and share good cheer. The inability of well-meaning progressives to understand that difference may result in an America with many small tents next to a larger but less inclusive one.

In calling for a composite nationality, Douglass asserted that America’s strength lay in its capacity to welcome newcomers and make them Americans. Speaking at a time of growing hostility to Chinese immigration, he proclaimed that in America, immigrants added their talents, ideas, and energy, but in turn they were incorporated into the nation:

We shall mould them all, each after his kind, into Americans; Indian and Celt, negro and Saxon, Latin and Teuton, Mongolian and Caucasian, Jew and Gentile, all shall here bow to the same law, speak the same language, support the same government, enjoy the same liberty, vibrate with the same national enthusiasm, and seek the same national ends.33xFrederick Douglass “Our Composite Nationality” in The Speeches of Frederick Douglass, ed. John R. McKivigan, Julie Husband, and Heather L. Kaufman (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2018), 302–03.

This was proof, Douglass argued, that being American was not limited by race or background. Instead, Americans understood that “man is man the world over.”

This has long been an American ideal, if not always American practice. In January 1989, a day before he left the White House, Ronald Reagan echoed Douglass. “A man wrote me,” President Reagan remarked, “and said: ‘You can go to live in France, but you cannot become a Frenchman. You can go to live in Germany or Turkey or Japan, but you cannot become a German, a Turk, or a Japanese. But anyone, from any corner of the Earth, can come to live in America and become an American.’” Like Douglass, Reagan believed that any person could become American. The president concluded, “If we ever closed the door to new Americans, our leadership in the world would soon be lost.”44xRonald Reagan, “Remarks at the Presentation Ceremony for the Presidential Medal of Freedom,” January 19, 1989, Reagan Library,

The ideals expressed by Douglass and Reagan were already being eroded by the time my family arrived in America in 1976. Changes in society and law during the 1960s and 1970s were transforming the way Americans, white or not, Christian or not, understood the American story. In particular, the 1970s saw a fundamental reassessment of the American ideal of incorporation. It was not just that not everyone could become American, but now, some advocates for minorities argued, not everyone should become American. In 1962 and 1963, the Supreme Court had determined that state-sponsored prayer and Bible reading in public schools were unconstitutional. For Catholics, Jews, and other religious (and nonreligious) minorities, long marginalized or targeted by the Protestant majority, this had been a welcome change. My own schooling was secular; learning about our common culture, many parts of which have roots in Protestantism, did not come with an expectation to follow a particular faith. But for some other Americans who remembered otherwise, secularized public schools threatened their understanding of Christianity’s place in American culture. Many of these people mobilized under the banner of the Moral Majority, and also supported Reagan. The Vietnam War having ended, the culture wars became the primary conflict dividing Americans.

An American Education

Did I even know the culture wars were raging when I was a kid in the 1980s? I certainly recall long debates over whether Van Halen was better with David or Sammy. And one could not live in the Bay Area and be unaware of the movement for gay rights. In school, however, the culture wars seemed far away, though I know now, as a historian, that they weren’t. Teachers were in many ways on the frontlines of the conflict, and the school curriculum was ground zero. But I don’t recall it much. Instead, I recall a life of relative security, with a good dose of Cold War anxiety mixed in. I was lucky to be growing up at a particular moment in California history.

One of my earliest experiences with the politics of the curriculum came in eleventh-grade honors English. Our teacher Mrs. Butler introduced us to Maxine Hong Kingston’s Woman Warrior, a story that forced us to grapple with ethnicity, gender, and the complicated ways in which immigrants experience America. Mrs. Butler’s decision was a radical act by an active intellect. For us, reading Woman Warrior was part of a broader collective experience, along with our reading of The Great Gatsby, The Awakening, and other books. Through literature, the American experience was brought to us. By reading together, we learned to be interpreters of and contributors to a shared cultural inheritance.

As an immigrant, I had little idea of how to get into college, other than by earning good grades. But I managed to get accepted to Brown University. I arrived on the campus eager, excited, naive, and unprepared. It was a whole new world—the East Coast, the Ivy League, and families who for generations had attended a small number of elite institutions. I was invited to participate in something that Brown then called the Third World Transition Program. Before other new students arrived for freshman orientation, people like me, with brown skin, could come to get trained and empowered.

I didn’t go. It made no sense to me. I was brown, yes. But I was a middle-class American kid. Empowered for what? How was I Third World? I was a patriotic American who was loyal to the free world. But many students did go, many now my friends. Some were truly from disadvantaged backgrounds. But some were from South Asian American families that also had migrated after 1965. Their parents were professionals. They had money. They had status. From my perspective, they were rich and elite.

This was my first real introduction to the idea that I was supposed to belong to a culture other than my own, other than the shared culture that made us all American. To the idea that, despite being allowed to migrate to the United States, to attend public schools, and to be accepted to an Ivy League institution, I was a victim of white power. That I should believe not in pluralism but in multiculturalism.

By now it was the 1990s. Things were changing. I cast my first vote for president, although I honestly cannot remember whether I voted for George H.W. Bush or Bill Clinton. I know that the pressure on campus to vote for Clinton was real, but I had always thought of myself as a Republican. Now that I was at Brown, I learned that I had much to learn. It was a great education, and I had great professors. But there was a tension, and I was slowly learning about it, feeling my way through it, trying to understand it. Today, I know, it was the tension caused by the culture wars, which in the academy meant whether one embraced critical theory as a tool to challenge cultural hegemony.

I loved critical theory. I went through the college library and the bookstores on Thayer Street in Providence trying to figure out what it meant. Some of the most formative books for me were ones I read at Brown—those by Cornel West and bell hooks, for example. When bell hooks came to campus, the auditorium was filled and buzzing. By that point in her career, she was talking about love, and we wanted more radicalism. (She was radical, but we were too radical to appreciate it.) But there was another side. As the culture wars raged, and as I read critical theory, I remained the immigrant I had always been. I cared about my homeland—not India, but America. I wanted to learn more.

I took courses in American history, American drama, and African American literature. I read Robert Putnam’s “bowling alone” article just as I was starting to find my way through the thicket of readings that define the life of a humanities major. Americans were bowling more than ever, but less often in leagues with other citizens, and more often with friends or family.55xRobert D. Putnam, “Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital,” Journal of Democracy 6, no. 1 (1995): 65–78. This was a symptom of declining civic health, Putnam suggested. We Americans were retreating into our private lives and away from public engagements and responsibilities. Other scholars also argued that Americans were fragmenting into groups. I knew it from my experience on campus. There was an active South Asian Student Association, again composed of many students from backgrounds much wealthier than my family’s. I was not involved, because I did not feel the need to be. But I was aware that there was an immigrant consciousness that they knew and that I did not. To me, however, it seemed like separatism. Why did I need a special group?

I tried to figure out how we Americans could cultivate civic character in a society that was divided into so many oppressed groups. But where to look for a guide? My girlfriend (now my partner) gave me a copy of Thomas Jefferson’s writings that I still use regularly. But could Jefferson the slaveholding southern planter—whose words inspired, whose vision shaped a nation—be a symbol of America? But if he could not—if he were not able to speak to me and would not have wanted to—how could early American history be mine? I was asking myself this question around the time the Atlantic Monthly published its now famous cover of Thomas Jefferson falling off his pedestal, announcing Conor Cruise O’Brien’s takedown of the Sage of Monticello.66xThe cover fronted the October 1996 issue. The article was titled “Thomas Jefferson: Radical and Racist.”

After college, I worked in Washington, DC, before enrolling at the University of Virginia to pursue a PhD in history. The culture wars continued during my graduate school years. As new people from new backgrounds entered the academy in the 1970s, historians were writing books about working Americans, about women, about African Americans, about all kinds of people. There was an exciting energy to this work. It was not just about recovery; it was—and is—a matter of both truth and justice to tell all Americans’ stories, and to learn from these stories to build a better America today.

As I studied American history, I came to appreciate the struggles so many Americans had undertaken, often in the face of brutal violence, to create the California my parents and I had entered in 1976. As a professor, I want my students to know of these struggles, of the wrenching realities of slavery and Jim Crow, of the violence unleashed against labor unions, of why a human being could be beaten and left tied to a fence to die for being gay. These stories have to be told if we are to confront the truth about our past, which continues to shape the way many Americans experience the present.

But some felt threatened by these new stories. They worried that they represented the end of America because they dethroned many idols. Jefferson did look different from the perspective of an enslaved person or a Native American than he did from that of a white farmer in western New York State or Virginia. The culture wars reflected Americans’ disagreements over which perspectives mattered most, and how to fit them together into a coherent story about ourselves as a people.

The Idea of Whiteness

It was when some scholars on the academic left decided that the primary story to tell about America—indeed its constitutive feature—was “whiteness” that I first started feeling myself unbecoming American. Certainly, thinking about how and why white Americans failed to confront racism is essential to overcoming America’s racist history. James Baldwin, in his 1963 The Fire Next Time, had written about how white people have a hard time recognizing their role in oppression because of what he called their “innocence.” For white Americans, grappling with the hard truths of American history required confronting cherished and comforting myths. The emergence of whiteness studies sought to expose the sources of white “innocence” by denaturalizing the world that white Americans inhabited.

The study of whiteness has shed important insights. Nell Painter’s brilliant The History of White People does for whiteness what historians have long done for blackness. Painter traces the confusing and contradictory ways in which various thinkers since ancient times have carved up the peoples of Europe and the world. She reminds us that whiteness is a relatively new category; that for most of European history, Europeans did not consider all of themselves to be of the same “race”; and that over the course of American history, the number of people considered to be white consistently grew.77xNell Painter, The History of White People (New York, NY: W.W. Norton, 2011). Painter’s story teaches us that culture, not biology, determines who belongs. Any effort to find a biological basis for belonging to the white race ultimately failed.

Instead of being neutral, whiteness scholars argue, white is a color; things that had once been seen as unquestioned, especially by white people, were really the presence of whiteness. But this risked undermining Painter’s core insight into the artificiality of the white race. Even if much of the scholarship sought to understand how whiteness was constructed, it also risked conflating culture with color. As the historian Peter Kolchin observed in a review essay for the Journal of American History, “there is a thin line between saying that whiteness is evil and saying that whites are evil.”88xPeter Kolchin, “Whiteness Studies: The New History of Race in America,” Journal of American History 89, no. 1 (June 2002): 168.

The problem is that whiteness reifies race and racializes American culture.99xFor an important critique of the racialization of culture, see Walter Benn Michaels, Our America: Nativism, Modernism, Pluralism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1997). This is not to suggest that racism is not real. As Painter points out in The History of White People, black Americans in the United States are consistently categorized as distinct. African Americans continue to have less access to society’s resources and are less likely to intermarry than Americans from other backgrounds. Black bodies in America remain subject to unjustified violence, surveillance, and suspicion. White skin is still an asset in America.1010xIn addition to Painter, see Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York, NY: New Press, 2012); Richard Alba and Nancy Foner, Strangers No More: Immigration and the Challenges of Integration in North America and Western Europe (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015), esp. chs. 5, 9. There is still much work to be done to build a just society.

Yet there remains a difference between seeking to overcome racism and proclaiming much of American culture and history to be “white.” The former seeks to increase access to the nation, including its distribution of material resources; the latter presumes that the nation itself belongs to a particular skin color. Many of the things that I took for granted growing up were now relabeled as white, not American.

Certainly, many of our holidays and norms as well as our political ideals and institutions can be traced to Britain and, more broadly, Europe. Every nation has an ethnic core.1111xAnthony D. Smith, National Identity (Reno, NV: University of Nevada Press, 1993). That does not make America a carbon copy of England or Europe—the United States has a culture of its own, shaped by its democratic principles, economic conditions, immigration, and circumstances. Despite a history of racism, there is nothing about our cultural or political inheritance that requires that it be bounded by race or color. African Americans have contributed to American culture since the beginning, and Americans have incorporated practices, folkways, ideas, and foods from every continent but Antarctica.1212xIt should be noted that the same argument could be made for many other nations. Even if nations have ethnic cores that distinguish them from each other, they can all point to ways in which global influences shaped their culture. Thus, the argument I am making for America and Americans would be equally true for other nations if, for some reasons, Americans started emigrating in large numbers. Even many of the ideas that we today consider European are rooted in North Africa and the Middle East.1313xKwame Anthony Appiah, “There Is No Such Thing as Western Civilisation,” The Guardian, November 9, 2016, See also Danielle S. Allen’s discussion of how the Declaration of Independence, drafted largely by a white slaveholder, can become the property of all Americans, in Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality (New York, NY: Liveright, 2015).

America can belong to all Americans, and all Americans can belong to America. But when scholars condemn our culture for its whiteness, then that world can no longer be shared with people like me, with brown skin, who had once shared it. It is and was for white people, even if nonwhite people had become part of it. Racism presumes that certain people are inferior as a result of their biology or skin color. Overcoming racism requires recognizing the capacity of all people to share in the nation’s common life. But there can be no common life of the nation when, from the perspective of scholars of whiteness, that common life is the property of white people.

As the left was challenging the American ideal of incorporation, President Richard Nixon inaugurated the “southern strategy,” appealing to white Americans’ racial prejudices to bring Republicans to power. Reagan may have believed in the American Dream, but in a 1980 campaign speech, he also defended states’ rights at the Neshoba Country Fair near Philadelphia, Mississippi, where three civil rights activists had been murdered. Defending states’ rights in that place and time also meant questioning federal civil rights policy. The Republicans’ strategy successfully recruited southern white voters, but it unleashed a hatefulness that they could not contain.

Many have rightly condemned Republicans’ race-baiting. The left is deeply and justifiably committed to fighting for those Americans who have been marginalized.1414xAs Francis Fukuyama admits, although both the right and the left engage in identity politics and feel alienated, the left “would argue that the right’s assertions of identity are illegitimate and cannot be placed on the same moral plane as those of minorities, women, and other marginalized groups, since they reflect the perspective of a historically privileged community. This is clearly true. Conservatives greatly exaggerate the extent to which minority groups receive advantages, just as they exaggerate the extent to which political correctness muzzles free speech. The reality for many marginalized groups remains unchanged: African Americans continue to be subjected to police violence; women are still assaulted and harassed.” Fukuyama, “Against Identity Politics: The New Tribalism and the Crisis of Democracy,” Foreign Affairs (September–October 2018), However, the left has also engaged in the classic partisan effort to divide Americans along racial, ethnic, and religious lines. Barack Obama, while a candidate for the nation’s highest office in 2008, obtusely characterized embittered rural white Americans as “cling[ing] to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them,” and Hillary Clinton went a step further when she labeled millions of Donald Trump’s supporters “deplorables.” To be white and Christian was to be on the losing side of demography and morality, many Democrats as much as proclaimed. In turn, many white people felt that the country was no longer theirs; they were now the enemy.

Losing My Country

As a professor on campus today, it is difficult for me to talk about what ought to be shared, so focused are we on our differences. But are we building a bigger tent? I have no doubt that my colleagues believe so and act out of love and a deep commitment to social justice. I hope they assume the same of me. Although we talk about diversity all the time on our campus, the most diverse space I have experienced in my college town may have been the meeting place of my son’s Cub Scout troop, where I interacted with community members of different faiths, economic backgrounds, politics, and colors. There is a disconnect between how we talk about diversity and, sometimes, how it is lived.

As some progressives turned whiteness into their “other,” a growing number of white Americans reclaimed their now visible whiteness for themselves. Mike Kelly, a white Republican congressman from western Pennsylvania, thus proclaimed himself “a person of color.”1515xRebecca Morin, “GOP Congressman on Trump Tweets,” USA Today, July 17, 2019, Fearing their own displacement, many white Americans wanted, in the words of Donald Trump’s campaign slogan, to “Make America Great Again.” The America they loved had changed in ways they did not appreciate. Certainly, some of these changes were mandated by justice. After real struggle, black people, immigrants, gay people, and women had made great strides toward full equality before the law, and rightfully so; the need for a common culture cannot evade the dictates of justice. But many of these changes were also part of a much longer story that historians are only now starting to understand. The immigration reforms of 1965 transformed America just as arguments for assimilation were being undermined by the left. Instead of becoming American, people were being urged to remain different. Assimilation was turned into a bad word. And as the culture wars raged, many white—and even black—Americans worried that new arrivals would not want to share in American traditions and rituals.

We need to talk about immigration policy honestly and openly. Immigrants create jobs; they also compete for them against Americans of all colors. Immigrants create wealth; they also use public services.1616xGeorge J. Borjas, We Wanted Workers: Unraveling the Immigration Narrative (New York, NY: W.W. Norton, 2016), esp. ch. 9, “The Fiscal Impact.” Immigrants ensure cultural vitality; they can also place strains on cultural unity. Immigration reinforces connections between us and the peoples of the world. We are a nation of immigrants—and we must remain so. We have a moral responsibility to those in need of asylum and refuge. But we should also have an immigration policy that accounts for some of the challenges that immigration brings. Many Americans experiencing cultural or economic loss, and sometimes both, felt that their concerns were ignored—indeed, were deemed racist—by Democrats during the 2016 presidential campaign. No wonder so many voted for Trump, who gave voice to their legitimate, as well as their illegitimate, concerns.

By the time I had become a professor, many professors had written off America as too corrupt to salvage.1717xJohann N. Neem, “Why We Should Teach National History in a Global Age,” Chronicle of Higher Education, July 31, 2011,; Jill Lepore, “A New Americanism: Why a Nation Needs a National Story,” Foreign Affairs (March/April 2019),; Todd Gitlin, The Intellectuals and the Flag (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2006). The Cold War had ended, leaving no enemy to unite us as a people. We’d have to do it ourselves, but that was hard when we were told that we could not and even should not be one people. Yet progressive policies depend on solidarity, and solidarity is threatened by difference. Historian Jefferson Cowie argues that the New Deal was a “great exception,” made possible not just because of the economic crises of the Great Depression but also because of low rates of immigration. In other words, so many Americans came together to support public policies promoting greater equality because they could focus on what they shared as Americans rather than be divided by their real and imagined differences. Yet as Cowie emphasizes, the coherence of the New Deal political coalition depended on limiting African Americans’ access to its benefits. As happened so often in our history, as immigrants joined the cultural nation, African Americans continued to struggle for equality.1818xJefferson Cowie, The Great Exception: The New Deal and the Limits of American Politics (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017); see also Daniel T. Rodgers, “Contesting Inequality” Raritan 33, no. 4 (Spring 2014): 19–33.

And so in Charlottesville recently and elsewhere, white people make themselves visible. Embracing their skin color, they conflate a shared culture with their bodies, just as scholars of whiteness have done. Their white skin was theirs. Their culture was theirs. Their nation was theirs. All of those people—Africans, Asians, Latin Americans—who had come since 1965, legally and illegally, were the problem. “They” had not become American. “They” threatened jobs. “They” had made a shared culture a fragmented one.

If America is whiteness, then President Trump is, as Ta-Nehisi Coates put it, America’s first white president.1919xTa-Nehisi Coates, “The First White President,” The Atlantic, October 2017, He’s the first white president because previous white presidents lived in a world where being white was the precondition for their success. For Trump, and for too many of his voters, it is the essential and explicit part. His rhetoric has empowered white nationalists, and the result has been increasing violence in America’s public places and the erosion of democratic norms. But before whiteness and before our first white president, some of the rest of us were Americans too. We did not have white skin. We were not Americans just because we were here or because we possessed innate human dignity. We were Americans because we participated in American culture. Our pigmentation did not prevent us from such participation in the way it had until civil rights activists, at great risk to their bodies, fought for an America in which the color of one’s skin should not determine one’s status. The American Dream was, is, and will be the result of such struggles for inclusion.

In a diverse society, we will always be different. And we should be. A shared culture is not a totalizing one; indeed, it makes real pluralism possible by giving us something larger to share regardless of our many differences. Or so I believed. But when that shared world was redefined as white—and when white people, threatened by its loss, reclaimed it—I found myself an exile. A person losing his country.

I felt myself unbecoming in more than one sense. On college campuses, including the one where I now teach, the left imposes new boundaries on thought and speech in its effort to challenge historical boundaries, while, in politics, the right embraces boundaries that we had hoped never to see again. It is unbecoming, it seems, to ask for the kind of America that left and right once aspired to—where new immigrants are assimilated, where they become, to recall the words of the French observer of American ways Crèvecoeur, a new people in a new land. When I talk these days, I find that I risk offending—that my ideas are indeed unbecoming.

I am outside two worlds—both defined by race. On the left, race seems to be everywhere, as something to celebrate but also to divide. On the right, whiteness represents a reracialized vision of America that denies black voters access to the polls, engages in race-baiting that targets immigrants of color, and insults people of non-Christian faiths. It authorizes a president who suggests that we should deal with the problem of illegal border crossings by shooting migrants in the legs.2020xMichael D. Shear and Julie Hirschfeld Davis, “Shoot Migrants’ Legs, Build Alligator Moat: Behind Trump’s Ideas for Border,” New York Times, October 1, 2019, I see myself distorted through both sets of eyes. But neither defines me. I don’t want to be white. I am proud of my Indian heritage. I am an American.

This sense of who I am makes immigrants like me carriers of an American Dream that is being lost. I still believe in the Dream. Most white Americans are not white nationalists, and, because I work on a college campus, I hope that I exaggerate the divisive features of multiculturalism and whiteness studies. Having grown up in the San Francisco Bay Area at a particular moment in its history, I know from experience that diversity does not necessarily lead to fragmentation. Living in a diverse society depends on tolerance and mutual respect, and, I learned, both a willingness to share and to participate in American culture.

American culture will continue to evolve, combining old with new and changing with the times. But some things stay the same. In neighborhoods around the country, children are still riding bikes and playing games. In the dark winter months, they share with their families and friends the joys of Yuletide as they anticipate Christmas morning. They are going to public schools. They play sports, while parents cheer and become friends on the sidelines. When I go to my kids’ baseball games, I meet people of different economic and ethnic backgrounds, and even different partisan views. We come to respect and care for one another not because of our differences but because of our children’s love of baseball. For me, it’s a reminder that what holds us together is that our differences are not the only or even the primary things that define us. That is what sustains my hope, even in these dark times, that we Americans will not give in to the forces that are driving us apart.

This paper was given as a public talk as part of a workshop hosted by Hannah Arendt Working Group on Critical Theories of Modernity at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture. I thank Isaac Ariail Reed and Michael Weinman for providing the occasion. I have incorporated feedback from Elvira Basevich, Jennifer Geddes, Mark Hoipkemier, Jackson Lears, Tony Lin, Andrew Lynn, and Jay Tolson.