What Does it Mean to be American?
The journey to build a nation of immigrants has led to the strongest, most vibrant society in history. Our creativity and innovation have been unmatched precisely BECAUSE we’re a liberal democracy, are tolerant of outsiders and embrace change. If we want to continue to be a global leader we must follow and embrace this path.
Starting back in 2015 and throughout much of 2016 people started commenting that my blog had become a lot more political. I guess I didn’t see it quite that way. My blog has always been a mixture of what was on my mind and a blend of venture, startup life, tech views and current society events that related to my interests: Venture, startup & tech.
So as societal movements had impacts on startups affecting LGBTQ issues, for example, I was public about my support. In fact, I originally spoke out publicly in favor of gay rights when it was somehow still controversial to do so back in 2010 after California had made some bad political choices. I felt it was both a business issue and a human issue and deserved to have support of non-gay leaders. And when the tides turned towards more inclusiveness I cheered it on whether it was on this blog or through Twitter / Facebook / Snapchat.
Being transparent in 2010 felt like more of an anomaly but being transparent in 2017 feels like more of a requirement to me. So as the election of 2016 swung into full gear with the entrance of Donald Trump and the threats I felt that posed to anybody who wasn’t white, Christian, male, heterosexual and born in the US — my voice got a bit louder until just after the inauguration and which point I moved my blogging onto other topics.
But I figure that if people remain silent or tire of defending ourselves against the onslaught of normalizing anti-democratic norms or normalizing hate based on race, religion, sexual orientation or gender then the other side gets stronger. So I’ve been spending more time thinking about an issue that I’m passionate about — immigration.
You may have noticed that the Trump Administration is delaying Obama approved immigration policies to allow more startup entrepreneurs born in foreign countries to work legally in the US that was due to be enacted starting today.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that not every great rocket scientist will be American born. Our most famous current rocket entrepreneur — Elon Musk — was from South Africa. The co-founder of Google wasn’t born in America nor was the co-founder of Sun Microsystems, WhatsApp, Yahoo! and the founder of eBay and many others.
And what of our most revered tech founder — Steve Jobs? Yeah, he was born in San Francisco. But his biological father was Abdul Fattah Jandali — a migrant who came to America fleeing political oppression in his native country of …. Syria. As you no doubt know, Muslims born in countries targeted by the Trump administration — including political refugees fighting for survival — are being banned from traveling or seeking political refugee status in the US.
America has always been the beacon of hope for many of the smartest and most ambitious people around the world who have flocked to our universities to get a top-notch education. We should welcome each and every one who graduates and encourage the smartest and most talented minds in the world to stay and to create jobs in America.
So it should have been predictable that when Donald Trump kicked off his campaign for the presidency with race-baiting comments against Mexicans after a long campaign claiming that the first African-American president wasn’t born in the US that I would speak up. You should, too. Even if you’re not in the currently targeted groups if you accept the normalization of race-baiting eventually they will come for you.
Trump has spewed race-baiting comments for years.
The is the race-baiter we elected as president of our country but these views don’t represent what the majority of us think or feel. What does it mean really to be “American?” After all, Trump’s grandfather wasn’t born in the US and neither was his current wife. So it’s clear that in his mind it’s OK not to be from the US as long as you’re not: Black, Hispanic or Muslim. By vilifying groups of our population Trump and his family have become the source of national division.
I have always taken the issue of immigration personally because I am the son of an immigrant from South America. My father is from Colombia and came to the United States for his residency in pediatrics more than 55 years ago. He served in the military, became a US citizen, married a US citizen and raised four children who appreciate the sense of freedom and opportunity that the US has to offer.
I grew up in a household with strange foods (arepas, platanos, tongue) strange music and a father who had no sense of American culture. My family was also Jewish (my father’s father fled Jewish oppression in Romania and his mother from the Ukraine) so in fact I am Jewtino.
Our journey is the quintessential American journey and our progress is the classic American success story. But childhood sure didn’t feel that way. I felt a bit like an “other” in that I didn’t celebrate the right holidays and there was always some goofy music in the house or “Colombian jokes” as we still call them. My dad liked soccer (futbol) and ping pong more than football or baseball. Don’t get me started on hearing my dad ask for a “sheet of paper” or “to go to the beach” but if you have a parent born in South America you likely know what I’m talking about.
Like every first generation Americans I was stuck between loving my father and all of his family and just wanting to “fit in” and be like every other kid. This story is universal for every American immigrant in whatever century one’s family arrived here and the “melting pot” is what uniquely makes America great. I know this first hand having personally lived and worked in many countries in Europe (and Japan) over an 11-year period where the melting didn’t happen.
So I deeply identify with all immigrants and know that there story is my story … is our story. It is the American story. I felt this emotion very strongly in watching the film The Joy Luck Club about a first generation Chinese American family. I hope you’ll take a minute to watch my favorite scene from the movie (also embedded below) and any immigrant of any nationality will knowingly smile at the assimilation of the non-foreign or Christian visitors to our cultural occasions. This scene captures the terror of first-born Americans better than most I have seen — especially the soy sauce!
Two of the best films release this past year tell the same universal story of immigrants to America and that unique desire of children to be just like everybody else.
Yesterday I watched Kumail Nanjiani’s (of Silicon Valley the TV show fame) biopic “The Big Sick” about his life growing up Pakistani-Muslim in Chicago as a struggling, young comedian when his white girlfriend becomes sick and he has to spend time with her family and deal with interracial, inter-religious rituals and norms. It was beautifully written with subtle humor. Predictable Kumail’s parents (who immigrated to the US) wanted him to marry a Pakistani-Muslim woman in an arranged marriage but Kumail just wants to be an American and isn’t sure whether he wants to be religious or not. In an argument with them he sternly says, (approximately, from memory) “if you didn’t want me to be an American then why the hell did you move to the US? I don’t get it?!? It makes no sense!” And in the movie he has to deal with racist taunts as he performs and anybody who follows him on Twitter knows this is a fact of his daily life still.
Interestingly amongst my favorite comedians right now is also a South Asian Muslim comic — Hassan Minhaj — whose family is from India. Interestingly if you add up the Muslims from Pakistan (176 million) and the Muslins from India (167 million) you have a population the size of the entire United States. If you add 210 million Muslims from Indonesia and 134 million from Bangladesh — it turns out that 700 million people from South and East Asia have the four largest Muslim populations in the word. I’m sure you didn’t pick up that nuance in the vilification and scare-mongering coming from our administration. Non-Arab muslims alone represent > 2x the entire US population and globally all Muslims are 1.6 billion or 23% of the world population.
Hassan Minhaj also produced a biopic about life growing up “different” in America called “Homecoming King” that is riotously funny but also very insightful in characterizing racial and religious tensions in America. Below is the Tweet I sent immediately after seeing it.
Hassan grew up in Davis, California about 30 minutes from where I grew up in Sacramento born 17 years after I left. He tells the story of his early experiences trying to assimilate into America and the story of acceptance into a White-Indian relationship and family bond — until he wasn’t. People were accommodating but accommodation only went so far. This must watch stand-up comedy is called Homecoming King.
And it seems that South Asian comedians are getting some well deserved screen time and recognition these days because amongst my favorite series on television this past year was “Master of None” with Aziz Ansari. The writing on this show is some of the best writing in modern American comedic shows. If you don’t know the show do yourself a favor and watch the trailer below (or here). Ansari also takes up the topic of a young African American woman growing up as a lesbian in our society and the family conversations and struggles that go with coming out. It is beautifully done.
Popular media helps break down stereotypes and differences in other populations and helps normalize national views on social issues such a gay rights. The media and demographic trends are in favor of the ongoing melting pot success story that America is and will always be. The backlash that produced Trump is just that — backlash — and the arc of history is on our side. Anybody on either side of the aisle knows that the US is and will become increasingly multi-ethnic.
Anybody who studies even basic demography knows that Asians make up the largest populations on the planet and will become and increasingly important part of the American success story along with Latinos.
And anybody with any common sense knows that Trumpism represents the last vestiges of blatant sexism and accepted sexual misconduct in our country as women play a more dominant role in our workforce and in our government.
We have never been a perfect nation and we certainly aren’t now. It will take every group repulsed by the normalization that the Trump administration has shown towards misogyny and blatant race-baiting to rise up in 2018, 2020 and in the years ahead.
You will need to do your part. Staying silent isn’t an option. Passionate voices win but know that demographics, tolerance and logic are on our side.
I made this little video a few months ago set to the music (rights cleared, huge thank you to WMG!) of Hamilton Mix Tape on immigrants of America. I hope you’ll watch it and share it if you enjoy it. United, We Stand.