‘Please Don’t Convert to Whiteness’: Johann N. Neem on Current Trends in Racism and AntiracismHistorians in the News
tags: multiculturalism, antiracism, Whiteness
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.
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