Bobby Jindal’s denial of our hyphen-nation

At the First in the Nation leadership summit this past weekend in New Hampshire, potential Republican 2016 presidential candidate Piyush “Bobby” Jindal echoed remarks of his at CPAC earlier this year:

“I don’t know about you, I’m tired of the hyphenated Americans. No more “African-Americans.” No more “Indian-Americans.” No more “Asian-Americans.”

Jindal went on to assert that President Obama’s rhetoric “seems intent on dividing us by class, by geography, by race, by gender, by income.”

But is it really speeches that are dividing American society? Is the core of the “problem” our hyphens, which slash through the fabric of our nation?

After all, we are a society that almost entirely consists of folks who originally were from someplace else. Some families came 200 years ago, some came two weeks ago, but the story of the United States is comprised of individuals tales of immigration. I don’t know about you, but growing up attending public schools in northwest Ohio I was spoon-fed the nationalist myth of the melting pot, and later that of the salad bowl — that metaphor was more in vogue when I was in high school. I believed it then, and I believed it when then junior Senator Obama made the speech that would galvanize his career at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. As I use my own family history to try and deconstruct my Turkish university students’ notions of a solely or predominantly blond-haired blue-eyed America, I believe it still. Our diversity is our strength.

So whether Bobby Jindal likes it or not, the story of America is one of a hyphen-nation.

I don’t think I need to explain that we don’t live in a post racial society, as some would like to argue. The choice to attach one’s religious, ethnic or national origin (or sexual orientation for that matter) to their American identity, in addition to the pride and cultural awareness such a choice can foster, should also be seen in light of that group’s treatment in American society at large. No one can convince me that the experiences of a black American are the same as those of a Hispanic American or an Arab American. The prejudices and stereotypes faced by a Hindu American or a Jewish American or a Muslim American, and the relative safety any of these groups, are not a result  of their inherent “American-ness,” but of their identities which include that of American. The prefixes that some Americans choose to affix to their sense of national self are not lines of demarcation, but rather windows into both the historic legacy they inherit and their unique lived experiences. When Bobby Jindal tries to pull the curtain on that window, quite clearly with the hope of targeted political gain, he insults what real American-ness is built on (multi-pluralism) and deeply offends some members of the Indian American community as well.

Lets also not forget the substantial political power that is employed via ethnic national or religious identification in this country. Look at the fundraising details of many political candidates and you find that, especially early in their careers, they seek the support of those who come from similar ethnic or religious backgrounds.  Political candidates with Greek heritage, Polish heritage, Arab heritage, Asian heritage, Latino heritage; candidates who are Jewish, Protestant, Catholic, Muslim, Buddhist, Mormon…all are known to both actively seek and receive unsolicited financial support from individuals and organizations on the basis of those identities.

Piyush "Bobby" Jindal, via Christopher Halloran / Shutterstock.com

Piyush “Bobby” Jindal, via Christopher Halloran / Shutterstock.com

Bobby Jindal, of course, is not removed from this long-established practice. The history of Indian American support for his political career is as long as that career itself. This is no small part of his hypocrisy regarding identity and political messaging, of course. For example, the United States India Political Action Committee (USIPAC) began its engagement with Bobby Jindal in as early as 2003, organizing coalitions to support his 2004 campaign. It seems to have worked, as Jindal reportedly received more than $2 million in campaign contributions that year from members of the Indian American community. At just one 2007 fundraiser, a Dr. Desai in Louisiana raised, “more than $100,000… for Jindal’s campaign.”

His latest comments about eliminating hyphens from identity discourse are just another step in Jindal’s long history of distancing himself from the community that has long celebrated his political successes. Though often seen as a role model for future potential Indian American candidates, one has to wonder what kind of message Jindal sends to those future generations by downplaying his own heritage. To me, the schism he creates in the Indian American community by doing so is perhaps the largest insult he makes to the project that is American society and pluralistic political participation.

As a kid, I knew which of my classmates had German heritage, or Vietnamese heritage, or Irish heritage, or Japanese heritage, or Scottish heritage, or Mexican heritage, or Ghanaian heritage, or Chinese heritage, or Polish heritage, or an amalgamation of heritages because we openly discussed and celebrated our backgrounds in the context of our coursework on civics and American history. Bobby Jindal likes to talk about the importance of instilling in our schoolchildren a sense of pride in the legacy of American exceptionalism. While I find the implications of that kind of rhetoric troubling, I will say this: if Bobby Jindal wants American children to grow up feeling a sense of pride in their nation, how is denying the very thing that makes the United States exceptional productive?

The longstanding myth, the longstanding danger in what was once the epithet of “hyphenated American” is that of dual loyalty, implying a lack of patriotism or worse as a result of identifying with one’s cultural or religious traditions alongside their American selves. Despite this, I am grateful to have always been given the space to celebrate my German and Egyptian heritage in the context of my sense of self as an American citizen. Living in Turkey as I do currently, I tend to blend in and so when people find out that I’m American, I usually explain that both of my parents are born and raised American citizens, but that my mother’s family came to the United States from Egypt (hence my coloring, which is often the source of the confusion). My most difficult, most important and indeed most frequent task as a Fulbright ETA here is explaining my families immigration stories, and having to defend the “American-ness” of my mother’s side of the family.

Those who have come and settled in the United States have had a long and dark history of presuming that the longer they or their ancestors have resided in the States, the more “American” they are, and that myth has journeyed out into the world as a result. As scholar Ashis Sengupta has noted, “American national identity had long been synonymous with a single white, male, middle-class culture – a collusion of race, gender, and class.” I am none of those things, but I am an American national, and I retain my right and, indeed, my privilege as an American to assert that I am as American as my paternal grandmother’s cheesy potato casserole, and I am as American as my maternal grandmother’s stuffed grape leaves.

Like Bobby Jindal, my name and my identity are as intracultural as my nation; my name is Tess Waggoner, and I identify as an Arab American. But unlike Bobby Jindal, I refuse to deny or downplay any given aspect of my identity, because I know that my story and my family’s story are an intricately woven part of the larger story of the nation which all of my immediate family so gratefully calls home. Unlike Bobby Jindal, I don’t see my choice to identify as an American with an addendum as something divisive; quite to the contrary, I see it as evidence of my pride in my identity as an American.

Hyphens aren’t shredding the fabric of our society, they’re the stuff of that fabric.  Using a hyphen or a capital letter does not negate ones American identity, it celebrates it.


Tess works at the Turkish Fulbright Commission and is a 2 time alumna of Fulbright ETA program. She graduated from Kenyon College in 2013 with distinction in her degrees in Religious Studies and Asian Studies, concentrating in Islamic Civilization and Cultures. Tess has worked with a variety of organizations re: the Middle East, refugee advocacy, and ethnic-based community organizing. Her favorite topics are identity, religion, and politics, which makes her an ideal dinner party guest. The views expressed in Tess' work are her own, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Fulbright Program or any of its affiliations, partners, or associations. Follow Tess on Twitter at @TessWaggoner.

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