something about learning from the margins

there have been many headlines written about this dumpster presidency, but one of them keeps flashing through my mind; it is an article about how in this moment, we can learn from organizers resisting ICE in maricopa county, phoenix, arizona, the site of this country’s most racist and extreme laws against undocumented immigrants. we learn from the people who have been through hell, not the people who live in paradise.

somewhere between my last two trips to los angeles i felt a great comfort descend upon me with living on the margins. not that i consider living in a big city managing a high profile project to be in any way a marginal situation. i am referring more to the well documented spatial marginality of the south and the midwest relative to the coastal areas, from its access to culture, to its voting records.

another form of marginality i’ve been considering is the marginality of countries considered less developed in terms of late capitalism and representative democracy relative to the united states. is this true anymore? as the united states gets downgraded to a flawed democracy and we are shown to be the puppets, not the puppeteers, of international electoral manipulation,  what is the cold comfort that accompanies no longer being at the center of the world?

in migrant words, did i leave my homeland for this?

i’ve been asking myself these questions about a regional and global loss of centrality that was perhaps never mine to begin with. i have no answers because perhaps i too, retain a glimmer of a dream that somewhere is better than here. but i am learning to love the margin. i am learning to love the way it gives me critical distance with which to view the center, i am learning the value of the occasional slip into anonymity, i am learning hyperlocal contradictions that give bloom to the complexity in humanity; i am learning the bitter beauty of forging survival.

my artist community has been fretting about the loss of the national endowment of the arts, and while i by no means want it to go, living on the pseudo-margins has taught me that we don’t need anything, but ourselves, for the revolution.

our immigration struggle must center blackness

a few days ago i wrote a piece that elicited so many white tears, they could be used to provide the city of flint, michigan, with water. i have also appreciated the ways that people have engaged with and questioned the piece, so that sentence will be the only joke i make about white people in this post.

in reflecting on why some white people and nonblack people of color don’t think some of the behaviors i outlined are destructive, i truly believe it is because our traditional immigration narrative has been rooted in anti-blackness.

i am equipped to speak to the traditional immigration narrative because i am the most model of model minorities. my father received a scholarship to come study in the united states after completing his degree from the Harvard of China. my parents received WIC aid and worked themselves up from factory jobs to homeownership and sending their two children to top tier, ivy league universities. everyone in my nuclear family has citizenship and advanced degrees.

this doesn’t mean that we haven’t felt racism and discrimination along the way, or that we don’t know what to it’s like to survive through poverty. however, i think it does mean that we have rested on those experiences of suffering to not engage with solidarity efforts with black people in the united states, who also suffer racism, discrimination, poverty, and additional violences like police brutality and trauma from slavery.

this is ironic because black people have been at the forefront of fighting for our rights as immigrants in the united states. the civil rights movement fought for voting rights for immigrants, and martin luther king jr and malcolm x were vocal critics of the united states’ imperial war in vietnam. black people have done more in the united states for immigrants than white people, and we need to revise our immigrant narratives to acknowledge the role of blackness.

anti-blackness in the immigrant narrative starts happening when distinctions are created between “good immigrants” and “bad immigrants”, or “good minorities” and “bad minorities”. this is why i am vehemently opposed to narratives about”great” immigrants, because they are used to indict black people and people of color, especially undocumented people, who don’t fit into this mold. black people are criminalized in the united states according to stereotypes like “lazy” and “thuggish”, whereas immigrants are praised for being “hard working” and “upstanding”. donald trump is already perpetuating this good minority/bad minority divide with his order to publish a list of immigrants who commit crimes (funny how white people are suddenly silent about how  “we are all immigrants” on that front). focusing on “great” immigrants is just a white liberal way of doing exactly what donald trump is doing.

the good minority/bad minority distinction is perpetuated by paternalistic descriptions of peaceful, docile immigrants (asians!) in stark contrast to angry, divisive black folks. however, paternalism has always been a key justification for colonial wars. the submissive asian woman stereotype continues to sanction violence to this day, when asian women are killed by their white boyfriends because of a paternalistic narrative of submission. this violent history is at the root of attempts to persuade white people to let in “the peaceful and kind immigrant,” which is why i don’t fuck with appeals to how comfortable my existence is for white people.

lastly, it is important to understand that anti-blackness and colorism plays a role in the erasure of certain immigrant communities. i have often been told that asian americans are too wealthy to concern themselves with the struggle. this may be true of some east asians, but it not true of darker southeast asians, many of whom are refugees, and who live in some of the highest poverty in the united states. anti-blackness and colorism within white communities and our own communities erase immigrants who are systemically disenfranchised because of anti-black discrimination across the globe.

in having conversations over the past few days, i’ve come to realize that the mass narrative of immigration is not accustomed to being challenged at this profound level (though these arguments are nothing new amongst immigration organizers). we’re in a moment of transformation where i think we should question and challenge many of the prevailing ideologies that got us to this moment—including our ideologies about immigrants. i point out these fallacies in the immigration narrative not to be divisive but precisely because we can never come together under an ideology that commits violence against some of the most vulnerable in our society. it is this violence against black communities and people of color latent in white liberalism that divides, not the voices of people of color who point it out.

your defense of immigrants is fucking colonialist

This past week, Donald Trump showed his ass. So did white liberals. You know, the ones swathing themselves in American flags and holding pictures of dead Syrian children. For a moment I thought the alt-right had gone so far right it was left again, because some of the white liberalism I witnessed at #NoWallNoBan actions this weekend was downright imperialist in the name of immigration. 

“Yo!” you protest, “Stop criticizing the people that are joining the movement! They should be rewarded with freshly baked cookies and golden safety pins for their allyship!”. To which I reply, without criticism, the only movement that these white liberals are joining is the United States’ movement to colonize the globe. People need to understand what they’re fighting, and it is unfortunately abundantly clear they will never reach this understanding without my salty first generation immigrant opinions ruining their day, nor the voice of other sisters who’ve been fighting their entire lives. 

In no particular order, here are some things I want to express to well meaning white liberals. And trust me, I’m a model minority, so this is the nicest and gentlest way anyone is ever going to explain this to you. 

  • It’s the United States, not America. There are many countries in North and South America, and they sure as fuck don’t want to be lumped in with a monstrous administration that is trying to legislate them out of existence. 
  • The United States’ “greatness” is a code word for expansionist imperialism. It is part of decades-old nationalist rhetoric that says because the U.S. is greater than other countries, they are justified in imposing their greatness on other countries through military violence. Seeing United States flags and hearing “USA! USA” chants is fucking violent to those of us who have seen nationalist jingoism be used to justify military intervention in our home countries. This is not at all a proud moment for the United States, so leave your patriotic pride at home. 
  • Immigrants don’t owe you any explanations for their existence. Please stop with the well meaning talk about how immigrants make this country great, as if we ONLY grant citizenship to great individuals. If citizenship were based on greatness and contribution, we would be revoking the papers of white people who didn’t do anything with their lives. 
  • If it takes a picture of a dead Syrian child to get you to care about immigrants, you might need to have a talk with yourself. If you are NOT a member of a community of color who has PTSD from seeing dead bodies killed by the state, then you should thank the stars for your sheltered existence, and then have a talk with yourself. And then stop circulating those images forever. 
  • Yeah your great grandpa was 1/8 Hungarian or something, but unless Trump signed a ban on travelers from your country OR your family is here due to the U.S. bombing your country, please kindly stop appropriating the experiences of people who are actually suffering. “We are all immigrants” is cute in theory, but it completely erases the role white supremacy plays in specifically targeting Latinx, South Asian, African, and Middle Eastern* immigrants. 
  • Learn some fucking Spanish. Or Arabic. What’s the point of expressing your well intentioned allyship if the people you are supposedly supporting can’t understand you?***
  • Immigrants are among most impacted in the United States by lack of access to healthcare, wage theft, poverty, gentrification, police violence, etc. So if you’re pro-immigrant, consider fighting for those issues that affect immigrants once they have to figure out how to live here.
  • Black people are Muslims/immigrants too. Sudan, one of the countries on Trump’s ban list, is a country of predominantly Black Muslims. The United States has been resettling refugees from Africa for decades. And slaves were brought to the United States against their will. And yet people will hold #RefugeesWelcome signs and in the same breath wonder why #BlackLivesMatter isn’t #AllLivesMatter. If your immigration stance is only based upon uplifting immigrants that are pale (i.e. light-skinned Muslims) or stereotypically docile (i.e. Southeast Asians), then you are not actually pro-immigrant; you’re pro-white. To oppose colonialism is to oppose the anti-blackness inherent in our global systems, and to say #BlackLivesMatter.

Now go drink some water to wash away that salt. Oh, and that poster by Shepard Fairey sucks. 

* 1/31/17 UPDATE: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated “Arabic” and omitted South Asians and Africans affected by the ban.

** 1/31/17 UPDATE: White people have complained that this post leaves them paralyzed and without action items, so I have culled only the directives from what I have written above  :

  • Leave your patriotic pride at home. 
  • Stop with the well meaning talk about how immigrants make this country great.
  • Have a talk with yourself.
  • Stop circulating those images [of dead Syrian children] forever. 
  • Stop appropriating the experiences of people who are actually suffering [via] “We are all immigrants”.
  • Learn some fucking Spanish. Or Arabic. ***
  • Consider fighting for those issues [healthcare, wage theft, poverty, gentrification, police violence, etc.] that affect immigrants once they have to figure out how to live here.
  • Say #BlackLivesMatter. 

***2/2/17 UPDATE: People are apparently tripping out over the fact that language justice is like, a thing, so here’s further explanation. https://www.waysidecenter.org/programs/language-justice/