Op-ed: On becoming a ‘real American’

by John J. Thatanamil

From adolescence on, I heard a constant refrain from my Indian father: “Don’t ever believe that you’re really American.” I found his advice peculiar, especially as I had been living in America since age 8 and had largely forgotten my time in India. To him, it didn’t matter that the only language in which I could think a complex thought was English. It didn’t matter that the only music I listened to was Michael Jackson, the Bee Gees and Billy Joel.

My father’s dictum infuriated me, in part because I took his comment to be racist. Did he mean that only white people count as real Americans? What about African Americans, let alone Indian Americans? I have insisted ever since that in America, what makes someone an American is citizenship, not race or ethnicity.

This summer — after hearing Sen. George Allen call an Indian American, born in this country, “macaca” — I better appreciated my father’s sober wisdom. What he meant to say is now apparent: “You will never be accepted as truly American.” Education, meaningful work and financial success can get immigrant minorities only so far. For some, whiteness will always be a prerequisite for being American. Conveying that message might not have been Allen’s intent, but it certainly was the effect.

What’s the lesson to be learned from this episode? Must South Asians and other immigrants resign themselves to second-class status — at least in the eyes of some? Of course “class” is the wrong word here. Indian Americans are, statistically speaking, the wealthiest immigrant group in the nation. We do experience discrimination and, on rare occasions, violence, as some Sikhs did right after Sept. 11, 2001. But discrimination has not had marked economic consequences. It is more often experienced by South Asians as a subtle matter of failed recognition: We are either rendered hyper-visible, marked out as different as S.R. Sidarth was made to feel by George Allen or, in other circles, rendered invisible because we are accorded the status of “honorary whites.” Membership in that exclusive fraternity is granted so long as difference is suppressed.

The Allen incident offers evidence that America is not now or likely to ever be a color-blind country. How are South Asians to live with this truth? Resignation is not the answer. Vigorous political participation is. My youthful intuition that what makes me as American as any Mayflower descendant is citizenship — not race or ethnicity — was only partly on the mark. The piece of paper that validates our identities as American citizens can do only so much if we do little to struggle for recognition.

There is also a second lesson to be learned from this incident. South Asian political engagement cannot be driven solely by the private interests of a single racial or ethnic group. America’s obsession with color has a long history that South Asians forget at their peril. Indian Americans and other affluent immigrant groups would do well to remember the civil rights struggles of African Americans and others without whom a racially inclusive American nation would have been impossible. The Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, which opened the door to people from the Eastern Hemisphere, must be recognized as the fruit of a larger struggle to expand the meaning of the term “American,” a struggle fought on our behalf before our arrival.

The aspiration to honorary whiteness — motivated by the hope that success alone will entitle Asians to equality within American life — betrays the memory of that long conflict. Only by making common cause with African Americans, only by joining with other immigrant groups that have not been as fortunate, can South Asian immigrants resist America’s troubled racial history and embrace its best aspirations for a truly democratic and inclusive future. That is a legacy I hope to transmit to my 8-year-old daughter, who is herself a lovely perpetual tan, a combination of my brownness with the lighter tone of her Ohio-born mother, who is herself part German, part English and part Native American.

In the near term, what this means is that Americans of color should work together to ensure that politicians who can see the many shades and hues of American life only as exotic, foreign or even un-American have no role in shaping our common future.

John J. Thatanamil is assistant professor of theology at Vanderbilt Divinity School in Nashville. He is the author of “The Immanent Divine: God, Creation, and the Human Predicament. An East-West Conversation.”

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