Think List


October 3, 2020


I'm opting to keep my writing to a minimum this week, in the hope that I might encourage you to read in full, and perhaps share, the essay and interview with its author that I've excerpted below.

In this black and white (and contradictory all over) world of ours—one that too often seems alarmingly and depressingly devoid of considered thought and nuance, leaving multitudes experiencing a manifold sense of "unbecoming American"—I suspect these words might bring to many the same inspiriting catharsis they brought to me.

Lastly, I too would love to hear whatever thoughts these words might inspire in you. You have my absolute discretion. I am committed to keeping Think List a "safe space," which, as defined by me, is a place where everyone is free to say anything without fear of reprisal. I'll be here waiting with eyes wide and ears and mind open. So let it all out.

Brian Leli, October 2020

Unbecoming American

America can belong to all Americans, and all Americans can belong to America. But when scholars condemn our culture for its whiteness, then that world can no longer be shared with people like me, with brown skin, who had once shared it. It is and was for white people, even if nonwhite people had become part of it. Racism presumes that certain people are inferior as a result of their biology or skin color. 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.
Many have rightly condemned Republicans’ race-baiting. The left is deeply and justifiably committed to fighting for those Americans who have been marginalized.14 However, the left has also engaged in the classic partisan effort to divide Americans along racial, ethnic, and religious lines. Barack Obama, while a candidate for the nation’s highest office in 2008, obtusely characterized embittered rural white Americans as “cling[ing] to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them,” and Hillary Clinton went a step further when she labeled millions of Donald Trump’s supporters “deplorables.” To be white and Christian was to be on the losing side of demography and morality, many Democrats as much as proclaimed. In turn, many white people felt that the country was no longer theirs; they were now the enemy.
If America is whiteness, then President Trump is, as Ta-Nehisi Coates put it, America’s first white president.19 He’s the first white president because previous white presidents lived in a world where being white was the precondition for their success. For Trump, and for too many of his voters, it is the essential and explicit part. His rhetoric has empowered white nationalists, and the result has been increasing violence in America’s public places and the erosion of democratic norms. But before whiteness and before our first white president, some of the rest of us were Americans too. We did not have white skin. We were not Americans just because we were here or because we possessed innate human dignity. We were Americans because we participated in American culture. Our pigmentation did not prevent us from such participation in the way it had until civil rights activists, at great risk to their bodies, fought for an America in which the color of one’s skin should not determine one’s status. The American Dream was, is, and will be the result of such struggles for inclusion.
In a diverse society, we will always be different. And we should be. A shared culture is not a totalizing one; indeed, it makes real pluralism possible by giving us something larger to share regardless of our many differences. Or so I believed. But when that shared world was redefined as white—and when white people, threatened by its loss, reclaimed it—I found myself an exile. A person losing his country.
I felt myself unbecoming in more than one sense. On college campuses, including the one where I now teach, the left imposes new boundaries on thought and speech in its effort to challenge historical boundaries, while, in politics, the right embraces boundaries that we had hoped never to see again. It is unbecoming, it seems, to ask for the kind of America that left and right once aspired to—where new immigrants are assimilated, where they become, to recall the words of the French observer of American ways Crèvecoeur, a new people in a new land. When I talk these days, I find that I risk offending—that my ideas are indeed unbecoming.
I am outside two worlds—both defined by race. On the left, race seems to be everywhere, as something to celebrate but also to divide. On the right, whiteness represents a reracialized vision of America that denies black voters access to the polls, engages in race-baiting that targets immigrants of color, and insults people of non-Christian faiths. It authorizes a president who suggests that we should deal with the problem of illegal border crossings by shooting migrants in the legs.20 I see myself distorted through both sets of eyes. But neither defines me. I don’t want to be white. I am proud of my Indian heritage. I am an American.

Johann N. Neem, The Hedgehog Review, Spring 2020

‘Please Don’t Convert to Whiteness’

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.

By Conor Friedersdorf, The Atlantic, August 2020