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.
In his searching essay, he expounds on the necessity of fighting racism, the flaws in the left’s anti-racist approach, and why that approach makes him feel as though his own identity is at risk of being erased. Earlier this month, he agreed to an interview, which has been edited for length and clarity.
Conor Friedersdorf: What prompted you to publish the essay in the Hedgehog Review?
Johann N. Neem: We’re increasingly a country that seems unable to find common ground. For a long time, I hoped that was only true on the extremes. But I started to see it more in daily life: Common space that we once called “American” was being reclaimed on the right by people who are very defensive about wanting to protect a certain vision of America––a vision that is narrow and racist, and rooted in what they see as white identity––while on the left, people were starting to say, you know, all of these things that used to belong to America need to be relabeled as whiteness.
You probably saw the controversy over the table put out by the National Museum of African American History and Culture. It called things like rationality, hard work, the scientific method, and planning for the future “white culture.” The fact that we’re now in a world where intelligent, educated, well-meaning people see that as a plausible thing to think scares me. The emergence of whiteness as a category of analysis is not always a bad thing. But if you go too far, you make it so that there is no common world possible across racial boundaries. I see it as claiming ground for white people where a lot of people of all colors and backgrounds actually belong—and where all kinds of people have made contributions. I don’t see this leading to a more tolerant country.
There are ethical problems with this approach too. It essentializes people’s culture by their racial category or their skin-color category. And it erases a lot of diversity within racial and ethnic groups. I know the goal is anti-racism, but it has a way of reinforcing race as a primary category to divide us.
Friedersdorf: You’re not white, but you’ve felt that your personal identity is under attack based on the way that others conceive of whiteness. Can you explain the connection as you experience it?
Neem: Absolutely. Part of it is about the emergence of Trump and his understanding of America pushing me out. Trump’s racist and xenophobic rhetoric about immigration encourages treating people like me differently. You know, because I’m not white. It’s also scary to learn about hate crimes against Indian Americans. One can’t help but feel unsafe because of that—as many nonwhite people in America today do.
But that isn’t my daily life, fortunately. I’m more likely to run into progressives who read works like White Fragility, by Robin DiAngelo, and then have a kind of conversion experience. They may have had white skin but they weren’t necessarily “white”—they were just people who believed in equality and opposed racism. But after reading books like White Fragility, they convert to being white for the first time in their lives. They think of themselves as embodying whiteness. They talk about needing to do work on themselves. And then they bear whiteness before others. They’re so aware of their whiteness that there’s a wall between us that wasn’t there before. Sometimes they’ll attribute something to whiteness and I’ll think, I’m not white and I believe that or do that. That’s just American. I’ve noticed a lot of the things they now think of as “white” are things we used to share. A lot of white people are overly sensitive to questions of race in such a way that race is constantly being imposed into conversation, creating boundaries.
These are progressives. They’re trying. I’m obviously not conflating them with white nationalists. They do it to be welcoming, but it doesn’t always feel welcoming. It’s a constant redrawing and minding of racial borders, making it more difficult for immigrants like me to be part of the nation.
Friedersdorf: Beyond matters of personal experience, I always feel that respectfulness demands treating everyone as equals––that if you and I disagree about something, it would be patronizing and othering for me to defer to your opinion. Is that part of what you’re talking about?
Neem: That’s part of what I’m seeing and experiencing. We have not overcome otherness. We have just all become “other.” Are any of us Americans? You talk to people these days and they think of you as an other in new ways. In some cases, they’re asking you to think of them as an other, or reassuring you that they’re actively working on thinking of themselves as an other. And sometimes you can’t help but think of them as an other, not because you feel any essential difference, but because you’re so nervous you’ll say the wrong thing.
Friedersdorf: You wrote in your essay about running into your son’s coach at the mall in late December. “He stumbled awkwardly after asking me if I was Christmas shopping, as if he’d committed an offense against my brown skin,” you wrote. “In fact, I was Christmas shopping … 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.” Have you experienced other moments like that?
Neem: It’s like, am I not part of the same world you are anymore? Are we no longer in the same culture together? Do you see me differently now, like you have to treat me as an other to be respectful?
I imagined my kids going to school and being socialized with other Americans of all kinds of backgrounds and having some things in common and differences too, and not always worrying that anything they could enjoy or share is partial or offensive. Today everything belongs to specific groups.
When I was younger, neighbors and friends welcomed my family into all these holiday traditions, and they were something you looked forward to as a kid. For immigrants, being invited to participate in national traditions is a sign that you are welcome. These days, at my kids’ school, it isn’t just Christmas that is seen as a problem. Every holiday seems to have a problem. Halloween was offensive to some people of certain faiths. Thanksgiving was offensive because some people think it’s genocidal. Then they canceled Valentine’s Day. At first, that was a relief. I can’t stand cutting out valentines all night with my kids. It’s a chore! But then I thought, Wow, this is an anodyne corporate holiday, you know? And even it got canceled. When I asked why, the answer was that it wasn’t inclusive enough. The conclusion seems to be that we are so diverse that it is offensive to presume that we have—or should have—things in common. All these things I considered part of growing up American are now seen by school officials as belonging to a group, not to all of us.
To be clear, the intentions are generous, and I am really thankful that my family is welcome. We need to take part in common traditions, but we also need to learn to respect difference. One good thing I see is that my children are really taught in school to be empathetic and concerned about the well-being of all kinds of people. What I see missing is a sense of them belonging to a larger country with national traditions that they share with those other people. And I feel that is a loss.
Friedersdorf: I think of the opening lines of the Declaration of Independence as a civic creed that we can all share. What do you say to students who doubt that is true, because Thomas Jefferson was a slaveholder?
Neem: I’m a Jefferson scholar. I think Jefferson was a racist. I also really admire Jefferson, not for his racism, not for his slaveholding, but for some of his other commitments that we continue to learn from. All those presidents on Mount Rushmore are flawed in so many ways. And they also have virtues, like all of us. They made contributions to our world. What I would say to someone who doubts that is: Go visit the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington, D.C., and stare out across the water as if through King’s eyes. He’s looking at the Jefferson Memorial. MLK was very clear that Jefferson was part of the problem, one of the racist people who helped to maintain racial caste and racial labor in America. Jefferson was also the person who wrote that promissory note that MLK was trying to cash. MLK’s gaze across the Tidal Basin is critical—he knows that Jefferson and subsequent generations of Americans failed to pay their debts. But MLK is also looking to Jefferson in recognition for what he offered all of us. And so can we.
We need a national reckoning with America’s history of slavery and racism. Juneteenth should be a national holiday, celebrated alongside other American holidays. The problem with, say, “The 1619 Project” in The New York Times is not that it foregrounds America’s racist history or that it emphasizes the role black activism played in expanding American democracy—we need to do that. It’s that it became a litmus test. It did not surprise me when some on the right condemned “The 1619 Project.” What surprised me was how some on the left responded as if one was not truly anti-racist if you raised questions about some of “The 1619 Project”’s conclusions—as if it was the story of America. If that were the case––it is not the case, but if it were the case––then there would be nothing to celebrate, or even salvage, from America’s founding.
I think of all the immigrants who have come and made a claim to religious liberty, to being equal. Who have sought opportunities to make a better life for themselves and their families. They, too, express Jefferson’s spirit. That is part of the legacy of the United States shared by all Americans.
Friedersdorf: You said whiteness as an area of inquiry has value sometimes. Can you elaborate on that?
Neem: Robin DiAngelo writes about how a feature of being white is that your skin color is normalized. It is important for white people to understand that nonwhite people don’t have that privilege. There are times when people like me walk into a room and feel out of place because of how we look. I think about that a lot as someone who is an immigrant from Asia. Between the 1920s and 1946, people like me could not be citizens of the United States. There was a court case that said we’re not white. For most of the 20th century, I wouldn’t have been considered good enough to be a citizen, because of my skin color, and presumably what that skin color said about what kind of person I was. That’s part of the reality of being me. Another part of my reality is that in 1965, America opened its doors. The country didn’t say, You can come here, but don’t be part of us. They said, We were wrong to think you couldn’t be part of us. All kinds of people can become American.
But now there are some people who say, “Look, immigrants come into America, but why should they have to become white?” And I say, “They're not becoming white; they’re becoming Americans.” And that’s a good thing.
I want my kids to be treated like other kids. When they’re different, I want that difference respected. But that difference is more likely to be respected because they share a culture and norms and values with their neighbors. That enables our differences to be more secure, and for people like us to thrive and not be seen as foreign. Because we are not, in fact, foreign. We are Americans as well.
Friedersdorf: If your view doesn’t carry the day, what do you fear most?
Neem: My biggest fear, actually, is violence. We forget that social order is fragile. You don’t have to look far to see how prevalent ethnic or religious violence is around the world. If we form tribes, we will respond in hateful ways to each other. Rightly or wrongly, people will feel beleaguered. We will get angrier and angrier. There will be less empathy. Whether on the left or right, it scares me when I see people treat those who belong to other races, or faiths, or political parties as enemies instead of as fellow Americans. We will be less open to our nation’s diversity if we think in these ways. We may not even accept election outcomes, since we don’t consider ourselves one people.
I want a place where my kids can grow up feeling safe and secure, and where I can feel safe and secure. I want us to live in a free country. And I think these aspirations require us to maintain a shared culture.
Friedersdorf: Practically speaking, what would it take to make you feel as included as you used to in Americanness, or at least to feel less excluded or less frequently othered in day-to-day interactions?
Neem: Here’s the challenge: Insofar as people presume that we don’t have any common culture, or that American culture is fundamentally white, or that we have to place everyone into color-coded boxes, they’ll see me walking down the street and they won’t see me as one of us. The first thing in their minds will be how to navigate my otherness, whether hostilely or respectfully, but awkwardly.
So my ask is to recognize that it’s okay to live in a world where there are parts of us that are the same and other parts that are different. Those shared parts help us to live together and treat each other equally; they allow us to feel at home. We shouldn’t assume that just because something is reflected in majority culture, it’s suspect—or that immigrants cannot or should not become part of it.
Challenging racism doesn’t require racializing everything. Please don’t convert to whiteness. Don’t turn our America white.