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You Want to Know Who America Is, Pay Attention to Who She Was
In 1996, Jacques Derrida gave two important seminars on foreigners and the role of hospitality, later collected in a book called Of Hospitality. In the first lecture, “The Foreigner Question,” he says,
Isn’t the question of the foreigner a foreigner’s question? Coming from the foreigner, from abroad…the question of the foreigner is a question of the foreigner, addressed to the foreigner. As though the foreigner were first of all the one who puts the first question or the one to whom you address the first question. As though the foreigner were being-in-question, the very question of being-in-question…But also the one who, putting the first question, puts me in question.
Let’s unpack this. What Derrida is saying here is that the foreigner brings with her questions. The foreigner, by virtue of being different and othered at the outset, generates a series of questions, and the questions go as follows: “Who are you?,” “What is your name?,” “What do you want?,” and most importantly, “Who am I in relation to you?” The foreigner, because she exists, puts the host into question.
When we question the foreigner, we are already trying to decide if their humanity, their “being,” is enough like our own that we can find them acceptable. In most cases, though, we impose on the foreigner a way of being that is ours, and we assume that this living, breathing person in front of us has no way of understanding the world unless they understand it as we do. Derrida calls these impositions acts of violence — but they’re also where hospitality can begin, because we then have to make a series of choices about who we want to be in relation to this foreigner standing before us.
We can turn them out. We can invite them in and wash their weary feet, or we can lock them in chains, camps, or detention centers. The key here is that whatever action we take is a reflection on us, and that is what the foreigner does: she always holds up a mirror.
But there is something important about the foreigner that we need to address. The foreigner is not just a Guatemalan fleeing a volcano eruption, seeking the safety of America. A foreigner is also that black person hanging from a tree in Georgia, that Seminole elder weeping along the trail to Oklahoma, that gay man beaten and tortured in Wyoming, and that lesbian being raped by some man attempting to make her understand that she is not gay. Of course these are all on a micro level, but the important thing to understand is that the foreigner can be anyone society dictates. The point is the power, or rather a series of relations based on power. The host always has power over the foreigner because the host can reject or accept the foreigner.
Over the weekend, responding to a tweet about the detention camps and the separation of children from their parents, I tweeted:
I don’t understand why people are finding this out in the Trump era. What do you think the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1875 was about? You want to know who America is, pay attention to who America was. We. Are. On. Repeat.
Quite a few articles have rightly pointed out America’s history of using human beings and children as political strategies. There is something about the pathology of America that makes this deplorable act possible and repeatable, and it is, quite frankly, a desire to fortify our own identity by deciding that everyone else is an undesirable.
As early as the 18th century, Benjamin Franklin railed against allowing Germans into the country, calling them ignorant, lazy, and a danger to the Anglo way of being.
There was the yellow peril of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and the intense resistance to Irish, Italian, and Jewish immigrants during the latter. In many cases, former immigrants would turn on the newer immigrants, denying any and all possibilities of hospitality.
Then there was Japanese internment, which we are currently reliving in the twenty-first century (but with Latinx people, the Japanese having been accepted and offered a contingent version of hospitality). And the question I keep seeing across the web is “How could this happen today?” I find this question infuriating. The real question, in my eyes, is why hasn’t anyone been paying attention until now, because it’s never stopped. It’s just become normal, so normal that we stopped paying attention. Then it became legal.
In my dissertation on Hurricane Katrina, I wrote a chapter on the ways in which the law is a contributing factor to the suffering, discrimination, and absence of justice that people of color often face in America. The law has traditionally allowed some extralegality when dealing with minorities, and, as Langston Hughes so eloquently put it, justice cannot only see, but it sees in color and even class distinctions.
Despite the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable search and seizures without warrants or probable cause, the law has found a way to legally discriminate while maintaining the illusion of justice and equality. In a 1975 case brought by a Hispanic man stopped by police on suspicion of a crime, the Arizona Supreme court ruled that:
While detention and investigation based on ethnic background alone would be arbitrary and capricious and therefore impermissible, the fact that a person is obviously out of place in a particular neighborhood is one of several factors that may be considered by an officer and the court in determining whether an investigation and detention is reasonable and therefore lawful.
And so here we are, back to Derrida’s foreigner. This precedent setting decision splits hairs by saying that racial profiling is illegal but being “out of place” is probable cause enough for detainment. The question here is who determines who is out of place? Clearly in America, that answer is White. If Henry Louis Gates, an eminent Harvard scholar, was arrested at his own front door because he was suspicious in a predominantly white neighborhood, how is this not racial profiling made legal?
President George W. Bush would cement the Arizona Supreme Court ruling with his Patriot Act, which makes clear the “reasonable” extent to which America needs to be protected from the other. Again, this othered person — this Foreigner — varies greatly.
Under the idea of protecting America, our federal government had detainment camps established during Hurricane Katrina — with food and toilets —well before rescue and recovery attempts were even started. Even during a moment of national tragedy, the question of hospitality and the other dominated all humanistic efforts.
The Patriot Act gives wide latitudes for authorities to do whatever they want. What was extralegal and largely directed at minorities in the twentieth century has become mainstream and also “in the interest of national security” in the twenty-first. And so here we are, once again, confronted with our humanity as a nation.
America has proven that we are capable of greatness, but we are also capable of great darkness. Using anyone as a political pawn is grotesque; using children is a sure sign of depravity. This is America’s problem.
As a nation, we need to deal with our own pathology. These Latinx migrants are coming from deplorable conditions of crime and poverty that the United States of America had a hand in creating. We move through the world for our own interests, using our influence, money, and power to create outcomes that benefit us while sometimes hurting others. Just one example of this happened in Honduras. With our support and money, Honduran rebels overthrew the lawfully elected president and helped to install a regime that reduced the nation to chaos. While we did not create the situation, we exacerbated and manipulated it for our own end. Do we then have the right to tell a Honduran mother that she cannot come here for asylum when one of her sons was shot with one of our weapons?
As citizens, we allowed this to happen. We constantly voted for people who helped perpetrate these atrocities on people, or foreigners because through our action or inaction, we have decided that their lives do not matter. Our social and cultural myopism gets others hurt.
Our moral outrage today should also be directed at our individual selves. Our willful ignorance of the past, and of things that do not affect our every day, keeps us tethered to the past and leaves no room for healing.
A part of understanding America is accepting that there will always be about a third of the country who are loudly and proudly racist, classist, sexist, and so on. They are American too. But they did not get to their place of prominence today using their own power like they did one hundred years ago. They arrived there because of our power, those of us who do not endorse racist, classist, etc. policies.
There is power in action, and there is power in inaction.
You cannot call yourself a progressive if your inaction is directly leading to the regression of LBGQT+ rights and so on. You cannot call yourself a liberal if your actions up to this point has been to pay lip service to change and equal protections, but demonstrated indifference through your every day actions. And you cannot call yourself a conservative, and certainly not an evangelical, when you forget the command that says, “What you do unto the least of these, you do also unto me.”
As we sit here and watch the repulsive display of dishumanity happening in our country, hopefully we can learn a lesson this time that we have neglected to learn previously. Hopefully we can stop repeating the worst aspects of our pathology.
Big business is not America.
We are. The citizens. What kind of America do we want?