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 /

Piyush “Bobby” Jindal, via Christopher Halloran /

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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66 Responses to “Bobby Jindal’s denial of our hyphen-nation”

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  2. labman57 says:

    In Bobby Jindal’s world, Baskin-Robbins would still sell 21 flavors of ice cream, but they would all be called “vanilla”.

  3. SkippyFlipjack says:

    Um. OK.

  4. barrystutner says:

    Piyush’s economic and political beliefs are those of the Confederacy — not those of the United States.

  5. SkippyFlipjack says:

    ps — I didn’t know that he’d chosen Bobby after the Brady Bunch (per @emjayay:disqus’s comment above). I’m all in favor of calling him Marcia Marcia Marcia Jindal.

  6. Jon Green says:

    Sparafucile was a contrarian all day yesterday, not just on this post. My request was responding to more than just that one comment.

  7. rmthunter says:

    Hmm — that’s the one I have around here, somewhere. I should probably look it up, but the nice part about being an editor is it’s my call.

  8. SkippyFlipjack says:

    I’ve written hypercritical comments about posts on AmericaBlog before. Thanks for showing me how douchey it sounds.

  9. emjayay says:


  10. SkippyFlipjack says:

    I think that’s just rationalization. If his name was “Frederick” and he went by “Bobby” you wouldn’t have mentioned it, so you’re saying “it’s important to use Jindal’s Indian name.” A better way of making the same point is adding: “Jindal, who was born to Indian immigrants…” Using “Piyush” just sounds catty.

  11. emjayay says:

    Picking the name of one of the Brady Bunch is really just one odd bit of Jindal’s complete conversion, including adopting a fringe fundamentalist version of Catholicism, to his idea of being an American.

  12. emjayay says:

    Ye Olde Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate actually includes a little essay about exactly this issue. Yes, I actually bothered to pick up that book this time.

  13. emjayay says:

    As a friend once said about a thousand years ago, “In the Haight, you don’t tell other people how to act.” This value, like some others from that time and place, has spread beyond the neighborhood. Don’t tell other people how to act or feel. And don’t assume things, like how calm or not another person is, without any evidence. It’s rude.

  14. SkippyFlipjack says:

    I think that’s just because it’s “us” and not “them”. Not-so-subtly reminding people someone is of a certain ethnicity is intended to play on racial stereotypes.

  15. SkippyFlipjack says:

    He doesn’t call himself Barack Hussein.

    Face it, it’s the same thing whether it’s us or them doing it.

  16. nicho says:

    No, not even close.

  17. barrystutner says:

    Barack is his real first name. Bobby is simply an alias used by Jindal to pander to his ‘base’

  18. rmthunter says:

    I know “comprised of” has entered common usage, but just as a personal quirk, I hate it — it’s right up there with “tow the line” — and I’ll take it out anyplace a writer has used it: it reverses the action of the word, if you understand what I mean. I much prefer “composed of.”

  19. rmthunter says:

    Jindal is, as usual, full of it. As you point out, this country is composed mainly of people whose ancestors came from somewhere else (actually, if you want to go back 30- or 40,000 years, you could say “entirely”), and I’d lay odds that every one of Jindal’s constituents can recite his or her ancestry without stopping to think about it: we’ve always done that, and for those of us with mixed backgrounds, we know all of them. (How does Lithuanian, Scots-Irish, English, French, Cherokee sound?)

    One could adopt the position that adding the “-American” is a means of uniting us rather than dividing us, since it attaches our common identity to whatever individual variation exists.

    But then, you see what you’re looking for.

  20. Jon Green says:

    Also, while I fixed the typo and changed Congressman to Senator, I’m leaving “comprised of” as is because its correctness is both debatable and not that big of a deal:

  21. Jon Green says:

    I think it’s not only acceptable but important to use Jindal’s given name in an article that’s specifically addressing his willful ignorance/hypocrisy over inclusion and diversity in American culture. If the article were about Jindal’s tax plan, I think you’d be right to say that it’s unnecessary and intentionally derogatory, but in this case it was part of the broader point the article was making.

  22. Jon Green says:

    Thanks for the catches. Now please calm down.

  23. SkippyFlipjack says:

    I remember that movie

  24. SkippyFlipjack says:

    He chooses to go by Bobby. Obama chooses to go by Barack. Calling them Piyush or Barack Hussein is editorializing in a way I find a little ugly. The only difference is that one is aimed at supporters, one at detractors. I feel the same about those who call the Texas senator Rafael Cruz. It’s like “Hey, don’t forget he’s Latino! Not that there’s anything wrong with that.”

  25. barrystutner says:

    Bobby is a made up name. Piyush is his real name.

  26. Indigo says:

    Irish-German-Alsatian-Algonquin-American. I usually cover that quilt of the genetic pool with “North American” and leave it at that.

  27. Indigo says:

    ‘Pre-literate’ works too.

  28. Houndentenor says:

    Yes, I do. None of those are idiots. Jindal is.

    btw, you realize you’ve named yourself after a fictional assassin/murderer, right?

  29. Sparafucile says:

    And I have a multitude of Caucasian friends who are African-American. Isn’t @tesswaggoner:disqus also an African-American? Or is she a Byzantian-American?

  30. Sparafucile says:

    And yet, you still support the President, AG, new AG, HomeSec Sec’y, and Energy Sec’y?

  31. mirth says:

    Oh, I agree! I’ve edited my Inauguration Day action list with your comment word for word. See how fast I respond to “The People.”

  32. Sparafucile says:

    Geez, Tess … find yourself a factchecker and a proofreader. Or do the job yourself.

    1) Learn to correctly use the word “comprise”.

    2) Learn to follow a stated premise with a logical conclusion, unlike “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?”

    3) “when then junior Congressman Obama made the speech that would galvanize his career at the 2004 Democratic National Convention” …. Are you sure about that?

    4) “my Turkish university students notions” … Punctuation is your friend. Discover it.

    And that’s just in the first couple paragraphs.

  33. emjayay says:

    Huh? Oh.
    The “bit confused” thing is a figure of speech and doesn’t literally mean anyone is actually confused. It’s a kind of indirect British sort of way of saying “This makes no sense to me.” Or maybe “WTF?”

    If you or anyone reads the whole comment it should clarify my position.

  34. SkippyFlipjack says:

    Is calling him “Piyush “Bobby” Jindal” sort of like saying “Barack Hussein Obama”?

  35. Tess Waggoner says:

    emjayjay I’m not sure I follow your confusion, happy to clarify if I can though

  36. emjayay says:

    Once again, I spend a bunch of time writing something I do mean seriously but think might be controversial here, and no one says a damn thing. It’s all a little disappointing.

  37. Naja pallida says:

    I don’t know if I’d go to minimum wage, I think I’d ditch a salaried approach entirely and go back to the old per diem system. So they only get paid for the days that Congress is actually in session, and they actually show up to do their job for the full day. Back then it was $6/day… adjusting for inflation, that’s somewhere in the vicinity of $150/day. Still fairly high, until you consider that the last two Congresses weren’t even in session for 140 days of the year. I think the main thing to cut out would be all the perks – travel, hair cuts, huge staffs, or meals. Make them go eat fast food at the mall food court, or brown bag it, like so many low-wage employees have to.

  38. The_Fixer says:

    I wish I could upvote you both more than once :)

  39. The_Fixer says:

    Then the person who was offended should correct the person who has made a mistake. It promotes cultural awareness and educates someone.

    There’s such a thing as an innocent mistake based upon a lack of knowledge. Not every such mistake is ill-intentioned.

  40. mirth says:

    Exactly so.

    Elect me to the presidency and, by executive order, I pledge to do at least two immediate things:

    1. All publicly elected officials must use their legal name.
    2. The salary of all persons in Congress will be reduced to minimum wage.

    Inauguration Day will be busy, so I’ll minimized official acts, but, man oh man, you should see what I have planned for Day 2.

    And I don’t lie, not even to my voters.

  41. mirth says:

    Holey Moley, I didn’t know about the exorcism.

  42. Houndentenor says:

    Nonsense. We’re all different but we can all get along. That’s the point. It’s not that hard, really. Give the idea a try. Think

  43. Houndentenor says:

    I think the term you are looking for is “useful idiot”. They have a non-white person willing to play their racist cards for them. It’s brilliant really. Repugnant to be sure, but brilliant nonetheless.

  44. nicho says:

    We’re talking about a guy who forcibly performed an “exorcism” on a young woman. He is insane. What else is there to say?

  45. Naja pallida says:

    Especially on an official ballot. Nobody is going to let me vote using an assumed name, especially not in strict ID states. So the candidate’s name on the ballot should be an actual, full, legal name as well.

  46. mirth says:

    Hey, Piyush, how about all publicly elected officials be forced to use their legal names.

  47. Brittney Miles says:

    Yeah, reducing someone to their color or social construct, as opposed to their lineage, culture, and history (which is what I thought the article was about) seems counter-productive. Interesting that she has Egyptian heritage and didn’t say Africa or African one time.

  48. Naja pallida says:

    That word makes me grit my teeth every time I hear it.

  49. Bill_Perdue says:

    I agree and I think the reason is that while people of color in general bear the weight of racism in the South and in most of the country the oppression and hatred of African Americans is the most violent and enduring form racism and that can be seen in the almost daily murders by racist cops.

    The only thing I’ve see that approaches that is the hatred of native Americans where the phrase “the only good Indian is a dead Indian” still expresses the feelings of many EuroAmericans. I saw that in Arizona and my brother reported seeing it in Alaska.

  50. 2karmanot says:

    Don’t even get me started on ‘Cis’ American…..

  51. 2karmanot says:


  52. 2karmanot says:

    I would prefer ‘post Intellectual’ in more academic circles. lol

  53. 2karmanot says:

    Well, there is a certain paradox at work concerning Jindal, who in wide swaths of the ever racist South would be considered ‘colored’ and suspect, yet, he get elected governor of Louisiana and his post-racist propaganda provides the far right with a scrim of deniability.

  54. emjayay says:

    I’m confused. The author says she is of Egyptian and German heritage, and identifies as an Arab American? Reminds me of a career National Park Service employee who was the presenter at a week long training. She talked about how her father was also a career NPS ranger, and that she identified as a Latina. I still regret my silence in that class.

    I do agree with the more modern idea of acknowledging and valuing whatever your heritage is, not to mention whoever you are, instead of the previous compulsion to change your name and conform to the perceived norms of whatever it means to be a white bread American. I identify as a human being, and honor my German, Irish, Catholic, and American background. According to the DNA, behind that some Scandinavian and Middle Eastern. Further back, African of course.

  55. Hue-Man says:

    What an uninteresting vision of any country – everyone silently racist. With Vancouver and Surrey’s Vaisakhi parades just past, it’s a reminder that Jindal would cancel St. Patrick’s Day parades, Chinese New Year Parades, Gay Pride, Greek Days, Black History Month, and every other opportunity to celebrate fellow citizens’ cultures. Why stop there? Cancel Christmas, Easter, and all other religious events. Maybe enact laws in France which prohibit the collection of census data based on race, religion, ethnic origin. Isn’t it better to treat everyone equally but have an open discussion about race?

  56. Bill_Perdue says:

    Jindal is a representative of one right wing and utterly corruptible party of servants of the rich who try to rule using the strategy of divide and conquer.

    Hillary Clinton is a representative of the other right wing and utterly corruptible party of servants of the rich who try to rule using the strategy of divide and conquer.

  57. Hanafuda_88 says:

    This article disturbs me because it practically advocates continued discrimination in society. We cannot continue to promote equality and inclusion while at the same time adhering to labels of exclusiveness masquerading as identifications of heritage. It’s counter-productive. The continued use of hyphenated identifiers does nothing more than separate society into exclusive groups that breeds prejudicial behavior because one is either a part of it, or they are not. That’s a very mean thing to be celebrating.

  58. Jon Green says:

    I think it’s worth noting that Tess was careful to use “black American” instead of African American for precisely this reason.

  59. 2patricius2 says:

    It seems to me that one respects what another person wants to be called or not called.

  60. 2patricius2 says:

    I get confused by Jindal. It seems that he is trying to identify so much with the 1% that he forgets all about who and what he is, and who and what the people of Louisiana are. Is he trying to be an uneducated white, evangelical, creationist, climate-denial, anti-poor, anti healthcare for all, rich man?

  61. thisisfutile says:

    What about when it offends? I have a friend who’s a US citizen and who’s skin tone is black-as-midnight and he hates the term African-American because he’s from Panama.

  62. Demosthenes says:

    So he’s not properly classified as “Stupid-American”?

  63. The_Fixer says:

    The question I would ask of people like Jindal is : Would you prefer using the ethnic slurs of old? They had them for every group of people of “non-acceptable” heritage.

    Shame on him for falling for what is literally a whitewash. It’s particularly troubling that a person who belongs to a group of people that have been the victims of xenophobia become xenophobes themselves.

  64. Al Heyman says:

    The ever mounting list of GOP A_HO*** Wanna Be presidents gets another one!

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