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What Defines an American?

Amanda Kim, Staff

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When 2016 Presidential candidate and Governor of Louisiana Bobby Jindal stepped up to speak at the First In The Nation Republican leadership summit in New Hampshire, there was one subject in particular he was eager to address.

“We used to be proud to call America the great melting pot,” Jindal said. Jindal himself is a first generation American whose parents hail from India, and he insists that his parents “weren’t coming to raise ‘Indian-Americans.’ They were coming to raise Americans.”

“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 said.

The room erupted into applause and cheers at his remarks, but Tomás Jiménez, an assistant Sociology professor as well as the Director of Latino/a-American Studies at Stanford University, is in disagreement. “I think Bobby Jindal is behind the times,” Jiménez said. “That might be the way he sees it, but it’s not the way most Americans do.”

Jiménez is right – most Americans don’t seem to see anything wrong with being something other than strictly ‘American.’ Research conducted by professors at Tufts University in 2007 revealed that 72.7% of Americans believed that staying true to one’s heritage is actually an important part of what makes someone truly American. Out of all twelve options given, the most popular definition of an American, chosen by 96.7% of those surveyed, was someone who respected other people’s cultural differences.

Regardless, there does seem to be some kind of subconscious notion that being American and being white are almost synonymous. In 2010, a Lebanese-American Muslim woman named Rima Fakih won the title of Miss USA. Almost immediately after her name was announced, conspiracy theories began circulating the web as some internet users speculated whether or not Middle Eastern terrorist organizations had a hand in Fakih’s win. Four years later, Nina Davuluri, an Indian-American woman, was crowned Miss America. Again, the win prompted a wave of racist backlash.

“This is Miss America, not Miss Foreign Country,” one tweet read.

Racist Hate

But the xenophobia expressed by ignorant people goes beyond just beauty pageants. In 2011, American business magnate Donald Trump questioned President Barack Obama’s claim to American citizenship, insisting that Obama provide his birth certificate to prove that he was indeed born in Hawaii and not Africa.

Mark Flores, one of the co-chairs of the Asian-American Students’ Association, has often pondered what it means to be truly American, and expressed worry over the hate Davuluri received. “I’d wager some people see the pageant as quintessentially ‘American’ and Miss America certainly becomes a role model for many young girls,” Flores said. “Miss Davuluri’s win suggests that despite the fact that she doesn’t conform to many people’s understanding of ‘American.’ To be honest, this is concerning.”

Jiménez, however, has a more positive outlook on the subject. “The people who say these things are a select few,” Jiménez said. “They’re crazy, and their views are out of step with most Americans.”

The United States government defines an American as a citizen of the United States, and while the people’s definition may never be static, at least things seem to be looking up. “Davuluri’s win suggests that minorities are carving out a place in American society, especially in places of power and respect,” Flores said.

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What Defines an American?