What is “Technically American”?

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No, that’s not a Jeopardy question.

According to CNBC sports reporter, Darren Rovell, there’s a distinction between “American” and “technically American”. Why? Because Rovell believes that naturalized immigrants aren’t really American.

Apparently, Meb Keflezighi, a marathon runner who immigrated and naturalized more than a decade ago, won the NYC marathon recently, prompting a newspaper headline to read “American Wins Men’s NYC Marathon For First Time Since ’82”. Rovell took exception to that headline because Keflezighi, who is an American citizen, simply isn’t American enough. He writes:

Keflezighi’s country of origin is Eritrea, a small country in Africa. He is an American citizen thanks to taking a test and living in our country.

Nothing against Keflezighi, but he’s like a ringer who you hire to work a couple hours at your office so that you can win the executive softball league.

No. No, he’s not.

Keflezighi isn’t “technically” American. He’s American. There are two ways to be American: 1) get lucky and be born on the right soil, or 2) state your allegiance and affiliation to America. Often, naturalized Americans have done more to establish their “American-ness” than those who are American by accident of birth. Which isn’t to say that naturalized Americans are more American than domestically-born Americans; being American isn’t a question of degrees. Instead, it’s simple math: one is or one isn’t American.

Rovell’s opinion piece reeks of the kind of xenophobia that remains all-too-common in parts of America, including here in Arizona where immigration is a local as well as a federal issue. The kind of nationalist zeal that would encourage distinction between “real Americans” and naturalized Americans is the same misguided bigotry that would defend racial profiling of illegal immigrants as “crime suppression”; they are both rooted in the pretense that “real Americans” are White Americans, and everyone else must be “ringers” (to borrow Rovell’s analogy). How often have brown-skinned Americans faced harassment here in Arizona at road-side stops by Border Patrol, while Whites drive casually through?

As the child of first-generation immigrants, I find it revolting that naturalized citizens still face suspicion and skepticism. Chinese immigrants are still stereotyped as perpetual foreigners despite having worked hard to naturalize, while no one questions the fealty of domestic-born American citizens. I can’t help but remember that less than 150 years ago, Asian immigrants of all ethnicities were denied the right to naturalize as Americans based exclusively on our race; are we really so far from that mentality even now? Americans are still perceived to be White, while people of colour have their nationality questioned or outright denied. Who can forget the infamous headline when Tara Lipinski beat fellow American Michelle Kwan to win an Olympic figure-skating gold? The MSNBC headline read: “American beats out Kwan” — implying that Kwan was not American, or at least not as American as Lipinski.

Just 24 hours after posting his anti-immigrant ranting, Rovell posted an apology. Sort of. He admitted he hadn’t fact-checked his piece, and that Keflezighi had been an American throughout his formative running experience.

But, he still insisted that we should only celebrate an American winning the NYC marathon when that American had been “brought up in the American system”.

All I was saying was that we should celebrate an American marathon champion who has completely been brought up through the American system.

This is where, I must admit, my critics made their best point. It turns out, Keflezighi moved to the United States in time to develop at every level in America. So Meb is in fact an American trained athlete and an American citizen and he should be celebrated as the American winner of the NYC Marathon. That makes a difference and makes him different from the “ringer” I accused him of being. Meb didn’t deserve that comparison and I apologize for that.

Sounds like it’s all “technically” a re-packaging of the same ‘ol xenophobia to me.

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