These days, it’s easy to be a “citizen of the world.” Within a minute, I scan storm updates for the Caribbean on Twitter, get an email alert from one of my French advisees, and dig into a burrito from the joint next door as I sit in a dress made in El Salvador. Without breaking a sweat, I participate in a network of nations I may never physically step into. And if I’m feeling extra-cosmopolitan, I can add a filter to my Facebook profile picture to showcase my support for the most recent country facing disaster. I could even send money to them.
Sarcasm aside, this is not to say we are all laissez-faire in the way we approach global issues, but we should acknowledge we have a low bar to jump when it comes to being interconnected with the rest of the world. We simply are and always have been. And when disaster and controversy strikes, it often shakes us enough to start reevaluating our borders. Then we can decide whether to huddle within them or reach out to the people on the other side–or reform the borders altogether.
Borders perplex me because when you really think about it, they are so antithetical to how human identity and living works. We literally have these lines on a map that some powerful people decided would separate where I belong from all that is Foreign. In one sense I get it: as humans, we block information, people into categories to order our understanding of the world. On the other hand, I keep asking: When we live in a country created by and composed of people from the entire globe, what are America’s borders?
In a childhood bookmarked with Melting Pot coloring pages and Diversity Day fairs, I found myself confused by this question of borders when I asked my white classmates about their background, and they answered: “I’m just American.” I never answered with “American” first when asked the same question (which I was–constantly) because I had become conditioned to respond with my racial and ethnic identities first. People were not looking for or expecting me to say I was American first. I wasn’t white, and so it felt like my peers wanted to figure out the foreignness in me before placing me safely in the “American” category.
Even in elementary school, it was made clear to me that despite our professed love for diversity, Americans are selectively global. Not only that, we only seem to embrace our global identity when it either suits our economic interests or preserves our image as a beautifully inclusive and mixed nation.
The increasing use of rhetoric that champions the cause of “Made in America” and “America First” offers striking evidence of this posture. With each new Executive Order, our national gaze draws further inwards as we anxiously survey our borders, afraid that the threats out there have already infiltrated our land and must be purged.
Why? Because there is the American identity (“the” not “an”), the purest notion of what it means to be an American–and the people we fear don’t fit into it.
No one will say outright that “Being American means you’re white and have lived here for 7 generations,” but our history as a country reinforces this definition of American identity as the norm. Newly-instated policies are preceded by other attempts to reconfigure who deserves to count as American, some of the earliest being the Naturalization Act of 1790 (citizenship limited to white persons) and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 (which lasted a decade and gave way to other stigmas).
Suggestions to accept more Norwegians over African immigrants provoke deja vu when you remember that white-passing Cuban elites were airlifted to America first during Fidel Castro’s regime while poor brown and black Cubans were over-represented among the “Marielitos” fleeing on homemade boats. (La Lucha for Cuba: Religion and Politics on the Streets of Miami by Miguel de LaToree sheds light on this dynamic). Our country has made it pretty clear in the past what immigrants are undesirable.
Our hyphenated labels also index what we value, separating the “regular” Americans from those who are conspicuous: African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Arab-Americans, etc. The Unhyphenated become the standard, and their legitimacy as citizens, residents is rarely questioned. Whiteness buys you this buffer: your lack of hyphen projects that you have deep roots in this country, worked hard to earn your place here, and followed the law like an upright model of the American Dream (unless you have a noticeable accent that isn’t posh or sexy–there you’re edging a little too close to being “ethnic”).
Awareness of this standard grows when you examine its inverse: the Hyphenated. In contrast to American residents deemed White, those classified with hyphenated identities are reflexively set at a distance. They aren’t in our murals of Americana, ploughing fields, building skyscrapers, and dancing under red, white, and blue. Their belonging is not secure, and our well-chronicled efforts to get rid of our undesirables prove it.
We prove it when we criminalize those of Latin American descent even as wring profit from them. We prove it when we reduce Asian immigrants to accents and stereotypes, casting them as foreigners when many have roots here for the same 7 generations as many White Americans. We prove it when we insinuate that Black Americans-some immigrants who moved here and others descended from peoples forcibly brought here-still need to prove themselves worthy and polite enough for their lives to be equally valued and defended. We prove it when we say nothing as our president diminishes the humanity of immigrants and signs order after order shoving out peoples who traveled here as long as decades ago to seek asylum, prosperity, and, ultimately, another home.
In America, we internalize suspicion towards people in the hyphen, people who are visibly non-White. Even if they play by our rules, their loyalty is constantly questioned, their every action representative of a whole population still being assessed as worthy. A Muslim woman wearing a hijab must prove what she isn’t (a terrorist) before proving what she is (an American). And even then, the security of that identity is never assured. If one person in her community missteps, the whole group suffers the fallout. White Americans get to be individuals; everyone else needs to maintain the goodwill towards their people group lest the tides change again.
The kindly image of the Melting Pot is replaced by the series of hurdles to jump over before you can even enter the pot. Then you will be allowed to keep your color, maybe a few trinkets of your culture (because in America we love to collect the exotic things of others), and then make the highly recommended and profitable choice to melt away into AMERICA. Whiteness determines how many ties to the countries outside of American borders you will be allowed to hold onto. Too much and the purity of the pot’s mixture gets diluted.
“But that’s not what America is!” you tell me, and after all, I live in New York City and see the evidence of a very different country teeming with people from all over the world with all their garb, practices, and languages. So if we have these proud beacons of multiculturalism right in the U.S.A., why this concern about policing each others’ American-ness?
Our anxiety remains because America is positioned as a White nation, not a global one.
We are caught in a disturbing paradox when we can declare we care for the poor in Africa, the trafficked in India, the homeless in the Caribbean and Mexico hit by storm after storm and remain conveniently silent when our national leaders tell us our neighbors from those “shithole” places are dangerous. Rather than wrestling with the multiplicity of our national identity, we build walls, deport even once-legal residents, and shun refugees. We are reactive instead of curious about how people come here and deeply ignorant of how America’s historic actions often contribute to migration because of the harm we have caused other nations (the book Harvest of Empire by Juan Gonzalez speaks to the stories connecting Latin America and the US).
This is how we counteract the narrative that America is a pure nation whose heritage must be enshrined in glass: we reject the call to prioritize American self-interests when “just American” is only a synonym for White. White Americans must examine the sense of entitlement that results in the racialized picking and choosing of who can come to our national table. True equity-building will require the humility of those who are racially and/or economically privileged to accept the invitation to the tables of marginalized peoples and collaborate with them.
When this happens, our political actions, even our conversations with friends, begin to rise above the charged rhetoric that splits our country into “conservatives” and “liberals.” We linger in the tension of tougher questions: how to exercise compassion and mercy towards people different from me, how to be faithful in stewarding our country’s resources, how to take ownership of wrongs committed against other nations.
And this question above all: what borders of the heart determine the ones of the soil? If my heart has already decided to shut certain people out, I will not permit them into my house. I will not call them American. I will not call them my sister or brother.
The borders our nation has laid out, however you feel about them, are eclipsed by the borderless love of Christ. This does not negate the need for national security nor the pressing interest for economic stability; instead, Christ’s love positions all other concerns in hierarchy under the commandment to love and delight in our neighbors without preexisting conditions. We begin here, and our vision of our diverse country clarifies and gains durability. We begin here, and our steps forward will dignify each other rather than divide us from each other.
Americans’ selective globality renders us incapable of envisioning a country where cooking jollof rice and arroz con pollo and curry chicken and hot dogs are all deeply and equally American. Not ethnic, not niche–American. As Moana’s father tells her in the movie: “Our people are not out there–they are right here.”
The world isn’t just out there in the places where people send aid and missionaries. It’s not limited to the places that resource our coffee and bananas and cell phone parts. The world is right here in America, spilling over our borders and reminding us that if we say we are “global citizens,” we must also choose to be accountable to the people our lives touch everyday and share this land with us.