Melting Pots and Salad Bowls: Lessons in Acting White from Bobby Jindal

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Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal is the nation's most famous elected Indian-American, and it seems he exists entirely to embarrass me personally.

As our country marked the 50th anniversary of Dr. King's "I have a dream" speech, Jindal penned an op-ed in Politico showing his contempt for America's multicultural tradition and utter ignorance for institutionalized racism in this country. Betting he can curry favor with the Republican primary voters as the Deep South's first brown governor, Jindal has taken to blaming racism on... people of color, or in his lexicon, "hyphenated Americans."

We all remember learning in grade school about America as the great “melting pot” — a concept that was completely compatible with Dr. King’s dream of every American being judged on the content of his character and not the color of his skin. You come to the United States and you become an American, regardless of your heritage, your ethnicity, your traditions, or your accent. But now we seem to act as if that melting pot is passé, an antiquated notion.
— Bobby Jindal

Right, you just... became American. Like a melting pot. You were melted down from whatever lower form of life you used to be, magic America juice was added, and then re-formed as an American (wink, wink: white). Then the first words out of your mouth were: America, fuck yeah!

But you see, the recent comers to America are trying to change that. Heck, even the spawn of the older "America, fuck yeah" folks are trying to change that. They are trying to change the melting pot to a salad bowl - which means that the result is lots of items in the bowl blended well, but not one monolith coming out of the melting pot, whatever you were going in. The salad bowl is no bueno.

Yet we still place far too much emphasis on our “separateness,” our heritage, ethnic background, skin color, etc. We live in the age of hyphenated Americans: Asian-Americans, Italian-Americans, African-Americans, Mexican-Americans, Cuban-Americans, Indian-Americans, and Native Americans, to name just a few.

Here’s an idea: How about just “Americans?” That has a nice ring to it, if you ask me. Placing undue emphasis on our “separateness” is a step backward. Bring back the melting pot.

...we must resist the politically correct trend of changing the melting pot into a salad bowl. E pluribus Unum.
— Bobby Jindal

Who knew salads were so scary? Because you see, when you eat a salad, you are totally incapable of enjoying the salad as one item; you must pick out each individual ingredient and bite into it, separately. At least, that's how I eat a salad. How about you?

I have no real qualms with either analogy - the melting pot or the salad bowl. The truth is that it is too simplistic to contain the idea of America in either a bowl or a pot, of whatever kind. What I do have is a real problem with people like Jindal, who use these analogies to pander to the fears of white supremacists afraid of losing their grip on America.

In uses like this, the melting pot is exactly about race: more precisely, about an idea that all Americans need to be molded and taught to "act white." See, the melting pot really isn't about the ingredients being melted, it is about the person (or institutions) doing the molding. And that authority is unicultural, inflexible, and dominated by the same individuals and institutions that makes it possible in the 21st century for a person with a "black" name to be less likely to receive a callback for a job than a convicted person with a "white" name, when equally qualified..

Want proof? The proof, ironically, is Bobby Jindal.

Why can't we all be "just Americans", asks the governor from Louisiana who had to adopt a white name, Bobby, to be accepted into the schools of the Deep South he so praises. Pardon me, a "just American" name. Evidently, his given first name, Piyush, would be too much of a salad bowl item rather than a melting pot thing. Piyush, obviously not American. Bobby, totally American. But it's not about being or acting white. See?

When I came to this country at the age of 15, I didn't know much about America, and spoke very little English. Perhaps this is the contrast between growing up in California and growing up in the Deep South, but it never once entered my mind that I needed to be a certain type of American to be American. It was never about just blending in. I remember my English Language Development teacher in high school - who must have spoken at least 7 different languages fluently - spending countless hours, and probably a lot more patience day after day after school to teach me English - not so that I could blend in but so that I could stand out.

This isn't to say being - or becoming - an American isn't about expanding one's horizons beyond one's home culture into the broader American culture. But speaking from an immigrant's perspective, what makes the draw of that expansion so (if I might use the word again) American is the opportunity to contribute to that mainstream. To me, there is nothing more American about what we call American culture than the free flow of cultural exchange. That cultural exchange, that cultural contribution welcome from every American - whether it is about a group of friends from different backgrounds, or a street fair with food from every corner of the globe or a musical piece mixing up classical Mozart with modern Bollywood flare and Latin salsa dancing - that is what makes American culture American.

To me, that is what it means to say out of many, we are one. E Pluribus Unum.

So no, Jindal's vision of the "melting pot" is not compatible with Dr. King's dream. In fact, it is what Dr. King was fighting. The content of one's character is not about ending one's former identity and emerging into a new one. It is about changing the system so that it could shed the dogma of that identity.

What Piyush Jindal damningly calls "separateness" is not about separateness at all. The part before the hyphenation is about the things that make up the part after: American. I am an Indo-American. I'm a gay American. I am an Asian-American. But first and foremost, I am an American. Not because I am separate from being gay or being Asian, but because understanding my heritage and LGBT history makes me a better American.

The "salad bowl" (yet another imperfect analogy) is not about separateness, it's about community, cooperation and diversity. Note I did not say 'coexistence'. Because mere 'coexistence' is not worthy enough of the American experience. Just like merely molding everyone from everywhere into a monolithic "American" undermines the American idea.

Fearing the salad bowl and praising the melting pot is to be asking for monolithic, white culture to pervade while the contributions of minorities are kicked to the curb. And so it has been in America for so long: our history books still rarely speak of the slaves who built the American agrarian economy and the blacks who built the American industrial revolution, of the Chinese Americans who built the rail roads, of the Latin and Filipino farm workers who still to this day sustain the supplies in your grocery store. Our textbooks almost never mention the contribution of lesbians in women's suffrage and women's rights movements in general.

The fear of multiculturalism at its core is white supremacy, even if it is manifested by someone with skin darker than Vladimir Putin's. It is about a phobia of the "other". It is despicable, dishonest, and un-American. Piyush Jindal's pandering to the racists in his party is nothing better. He wants to demonstrate that unlike the mulato in the White House now, he is not about multiculturalism - that he will perpetuate the "white" culture, whatever that is. He may not be the white supremacists' color, he assures them, but he is their kind.

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