Just one day after thousands of U.S. citizens rallied in our nation’s capital to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal came out with some interesting comments about race and minorities in Politico. He talked about ceasing the use of hyphenated identifiers and stated, “We still place far too much on our ‘separateness,’ our heritage, ethnic background, skin color, etc.”
Gov. Jindal’s comments are out of touch with reality because the term “American” requires a closer examination. Also, cultural differences and traditions help people remember where they came from and share that heritage with the next generation.
The term “American” requires some sort of directional designation. It has evolved to become synonymous with people from the U.S. But our country should not have the right to speak for the two entire continents of North America and South America. Let’s remember: the name of our country is the United States of America, not just America. When a U.S. citizen states he or she is “American,” the assumption follows that he or she is from one of 50 states, 48 of which are contiguous and located on the North American continent. In no other country does the name of a continent serve as a stand-in for the name of that country, and we would do well to remember this when we refer to ourselves as Americans. The term "American" has a broader meaning than Jindal supposes, and so to add further detail to it is only natural.
Individuals who choose to identify themselves as a so-called hyphenated American do so for a specific reason. Many of us who are U.S. citizens recognize that while we may have been born here, our family’s roots do not stem from U.S. soil. In fact, anyone who does not come from a bloodline of Native Americans cannot truly claim family roots from U.S. soil. For example, when a person identifies as an African-American, this is an indication that this person's ancestors were likely slaves, taken from Africa and brought to the U.S.
Cultural differences are also important. When I want a haircut, I have to find an African-American barbershop. This is not to say that someone who is not African-American could know how to cut my hair and do it well. But the chances of finding such an establishment in area away from large concentrations of African-American residences (i.e. suburbs) is slim to none. I have previously taken non-African-Americans (triple hyphens will really bother Jindal) to African-American barbershops and they were equally intimidated and fascinated by the atmosphere and conversations. To the African-American community, the barbershop holds an institutional importance that is only rivaled by the church. If African-Americans were to end the barbershop's role as a specific community institution for the sake of some abstract ideal of assimilation, we would be throwing away a large part of our culture and our ability to share it with others.
After living in New York City for the better part of a year, I had the opportunity to indulge in fantastic foods options such as Ethiopian, Peruvian, Cambodian, Indian, Thai, and Chinese. But again, according to Jindal’s comments, the different backgrounds that are responsible for these cuisines should drop their cultural/geographical indicators and simply call themselves “American” restaurants. This is akin to asking children to forget where their parents and grandparents are from. We tend to identify hot dogs, burgers, and apple pie as foods relating to the U.S., while thinking of lo mein, ceviche, and biryani as something from afar. But this does our country a disservice. The various cuisines that exist in the U.S. give us an opportunity to understand just how large and diverse our country is.
Gov. Jindal’s statements appear to call on all U.S. citizens, regardless of their heritage, to cease stop focusing on said heritage because it keeps us from moving towards a real melting-pot situation. But you cannot have a real, functioning melting pot without key, distinct ingredients. It would be a shame to disregard where the ingredients came from, the circumstances of their arrival, and how they can individually contribute to the whole.