Johann N. Neem was born in India. Before he turned 3, his parents immigrated from Mumbai to San Francisco, part of the first wave of newcomers admitted to the United States after the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. He didn’t feel any conflict between his immigrant identity and his American identity. He grew up surrounded by other recent immigrants, joining their families for trips into Berkeley to eat masala dosas. But he and his friends also “rode bikes, played football on our muddy lawn … and pretended to be motorcycle officers Ponch and Jon from the TV series CHiPs,” as he wrote in a recent essay in The Hedgehog Review. “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.”
Now a professor at Western Washington University, where he specializes in early American history, he feels as though he is losing his country––as though he is being stripped of his very Americanness by two different factions in U.S. politics. He feels excluded by Donald Trump’s flagrant xenophobia and by progressives who center the role of white identity in American society.
“It was when some scholars on the academic left decided that the primary story to tell about America … was ‘whiteness’ that I first started feeling myself unbecoming American,” he lamented in his Hedgehog Review essay. “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.” Those scholarly ideas began to negatively affect his day-to-day interactions in recent years as they spread into the common culture.