A Piece of Paper. Waking up as an immigrant on Nov 9, 2016.

<> on June 27, 2012 in Los Angeles, California.

Naturalization ceremony. Photo from Daily Yonder

The funny thing is, I was actually looking forward to waking up on November 9th. And yet yesterday I discovered that I have lived for the past eleven years surrounded by people who hate me. They may not know it, but they do. And now I know it as well.

***

Back in September I was disappointed that the evening class I’m currently taking met Tuesdays from 6 to 9pm. It meant J and I wouldn’t be able to celebrate the election together at the Grafton Pub, as we had when Obama won in 2012. (We dared each other to drink a shot of Malört if he won. The barman warned us it tasted revolting, and it did.)

As I travel to my evening class each week, a group of African American students heading home from college always join the train a couple of stops after me. Sometimes they are boisterous, sometimes they coyly flirt with each other. One week I shared a bench with four young women silently and seriously working through their homework, text books full of equations and diagrams spread open on the adjacent seats as they hunched over the worksheets on their knees.

This Tuesday, November 9th, the students were jubilant. They had just voted. The adults in the rest of the carriage snuck glances and smiles in their direction, indulging the noisy celebration of these first-time voters. I heard one of them teasing his friend “I bet you voted for the Donald!”, which set off another tumble of laughter and arm punches.

I got to class. We chatted briefly about the election. (I think I argued that I we shouldn’t wish for Republicans to be completely destroyed, as one of my classmates hoped. While on the one hand I want the Republicans to reap what they’ve sown, a functioning democracy requires a healthy opposition.) Then we made a pact that none of us would check our phones or the internet for the next three hours. The professor arrived we focused on workshopping our short stories.

So when I got the train home again at 9pm, I still didn’t realize that I now lived in a different America. I should have known from the change in the other passengers, however. The train was silent; every face blank and shocked. Many were scrolling grimly through their phones; others stared unseeing at nothing, not even noticing the way the train jerked them from side to side. Only two guys were talking, in an almost whisper. I caught a few words, but still thought they must be over reacting.

I got home. I watched until every state had been counted. I eventually went to sleep. I knew on an abstract level that Trump had won, but I still didn’t really know it or believe it. It didn’t seem possible.

 ***

Around mid-morning on Wednesday, I got an email from a friend in my class who also works at the same university. She recently got married to a South American guy, so we often chat about our shared experiences of the spousal green card process and having a transcultural marriage. She emailed to ask how I was doing. She offered companionship and a safe space in her office if I needed it. She then wrote: “I hope you know that I firmly believe that immigrants make this country wonderful, and while it’s a hard day to be here, I am so glad you are here. Thank you for being you.”

It suddenly hit me – and I guess this is what we anthropologists call interpellation – that I am an immigrant. Here I am, with a temporary green card due for renewal, in a country that has just elected a president on the basis of his hatred of immigrants. I have always thought that as white European who was able to come/stay here with student and spousal visas, it would be trivializing my own privilege to overtly refer to myself as an immigrant. But I realized with her email that I am just an immigrant who is able to pass. My friend was afraid for me because if the laws change, my passing would mean nothing. The sentiment behind the anti-foreigner hatred that uses the ‘good v. bad immigrant’ narrative only as a fig leaf for its bigotry has now gained enough acceptance to elect a president.

 ***

Another friend in a transcultural marriage texted me around the same time as the email. They are looking into applying for citizenship for the green-card holding spouse. I went out for lunch alone and thought again about whether I should do the same.

What was an abstract in my discussion of citizenship a few months ago now suddenly felt urgent. As I discussed on this blog earlier, a Mexican American friend first suggested I apply for US citizenship after Brexit. “I don’t know if I will ever feel American,” I said, squirming a bit, “It feels weird.” She told me I was being silly. It’s just a piece of paper.

She was repeating back to me an argument I’ve often made about marriage to people who say they “don’t believe in it.” This sentiment irritates the hell out of me. Only straight people (or more accurately, straight men) who fall in love with someone from the same country have the privilege of not “believing” in marriage. I get the reasons why older feminists wanted to abolish marriage, back when it took away a woman’s right to her body, her income, and labor. But these days, when women still earn less than their male partners and continue to sacrifice their careers to care for family members, marriage is sometimes the only defense against financial destitution for a woman if her relationship falls apart. Not to mention that in the US and other countries unmarried partners can be barred from visiting their loved ones in hospital or carrying out funeral arrangements, a particular problem for gay couples before marriage equality. So I’ve often expressed the view to friends who felt ‘weird’ about getting married that you don’t even have to see it as a religious or cultural thing. It doesn’t have to be a celebration or change your relationship in any way, if you don’t want it to. But you do have to go sign a piece of paper to protect your rights should something bad happen.

So my Mexican American friends was implying it’s the same with citizenship, right? It’s just a bureaucratic thing: a matter of signing a piece of paper to protect my rights. I agreed with her a few months ago, but yesterday, as I considered this again with more urgency, I started to think that even if I consider it to just be bureaucracy, that doesn’t mean it loses its broarder significance. (I might not believe in citizenship, but it believes in me?) For instance, I’ve heard that getting US citizenship involves an actual ceremony where you stand in front of a flag and swear an oath of allegiance. Could I really swear allegiance to a country that hates me? Become part of a country that has elected a president who is a racist, a misogynist, a liar, and a fool?

In my mind, as I walked to lunch, I imagined crossing my fingers in my pocket.

The problem is, even if I signed that piece of paper and even if I spoke the pledge with sincerity, that wouldn’t be enough. Pieces of paper granting rights are just that: paper. They become imbued with power only through law, custom, convention—all of which can evaporate overnight, as this election campaign has shown us so starkly, and history has demonstrated every time a dictatorship or coup occurred in a democracy.

J and I didn’t have the privilege of not believing in marriage—if we hadn’t got married, I wouldn’t have been able to live in the same country as him. My gay friends don’t have that privilege either. Their relationships are far more likely to be challenged at a moment of crisis than those of straight couples, married or no. But while J and I signed a piece of paper to get married, we still are legally discriminated against for loving someone from another country. This makes me bristle with anger, but it also now scares me. We can’t be together without legal protections that are dependent on the whims and votes of the fifty percent of the American people who harbor enough hatred of foreigners to put us in harm by voting for Trump. And there is no option to leave, since the UK has turned against foreigners in the same way. We are still in the US because going back to the UK has become so difficult I would have to choose to leave him behind. I can’t help but feel like I am punished, legally, by the government and voters of the UK for loving someone who isn’t British.

So should I try and play the game? Get citizenship so that we are both acceptably the same nationality?

I found myself thinking of other times and places where people saw the tide turning and rushed to convert to Christianity, change their names, claim or denounce citizenship. The truth is, the people who hate immigrants will not hate us less if we become citizens. Even, it seems, if our parents or grandparents do. The legal distinction between those who are citizens and those who are not, those who are legal immigrants and those who are not, those who are real couples and those who are not, is ultimately about what kind of people are recognized as sharing our own rights and humanity, and what kind are seen as inherently Other. It all comes down to notions of purity in the end. You can’t protect yourself from that kind of hatred.

 ***

We know from exit polls that is was overwhelmingly white people who voted for Trump. Also that is was middle- and upper-class white people, both male and female. This election wasn’t about class or poverty: as some tried to point out before the election, the narrative that Trump was only supported by angry working class people was both insulting and dangerous. After all, plenty of Americans of color are working class, and they sure as hell weren’t voting for him. Women voted for him too, or at least enough white ones did, so we can’t pretend it was all about gender either. This election was just about the fear and anger that is at the heart of whiteness. The extent to which white people fear and hate the Other.

So as I walked downtown towards the café where I was going to have lunch, it occurred to me that I might be passing people on the street who had voted in a way that asserted their right to harm me. People who may not even know how much they hate the notion of me: an immigrant living in the US, a person who loves someone who isn’t the same nationality of me and therefore needs to live among them.

I found myself looking about me, at the white men in suits passing me in the street, at the young white guy with tattoos who took my order at the café, at the two older white women sipping coffee at the table behind me. I acknowledged how well I fit in among them. I’m a white middle-class woman, and these days you can’t really tell I have an accent until we’ve been talking for a little while. At the same time they could also have been thinking the same about me.

I sat silently eating my pasta and my salad, and I thought about how I could easily be in the presence of someone who hates me and neither of us would know it. I realized this is how my European friends in the UK have been feeling since Brexit, since they discovered that their neighbors or co-workers or students or just passing strangers in the street hate them.

 ***

I’m not sorry anymore that I spent Tuesday night in a creative writing class rather than watching the election results come in. It felt good to carry with me the image of those African American students high-fiving each other on the train. It felt good to magnanimously concede that the Republicans shouldn’t be completely crushed. It felt good to continue in my ignorance and naivety for a couple more hours. I am also aware that there are people who are suffering more and have more reason to be afraid than me; and that despite that, I have still chosen to write this long post about myself.

Of course I didn’t really step out into a new America at 9pm on Tuesday night. It had been like that all along and the only thing that changed was that I became of what people of color, Muslims and Jews, people living here without documents, and LGBTQ Americans have been trying to tell white, straight, Christian people of European descent like me all along. It’s on us, this election. It’s our fault that we didn’t pay attention until it affected us too, and that makes me feel ashamed.

 ***

I left work early yesterday. I didn’t talk to my colleague who was so bursting with things to say and wanted to rehash the night. I didn’t read the news or listen to the radio as I drove away. I left work early, I took my son home, I sat cradling him in my arms watching episodes of In The Night Garden while I kissed his fluffy head. I took a sick day today so I could sleep, write, and bake cookies. Its ok to spend a few days grieving and practicing selfcare. I hope you have been taking caring of yourself too.

But tomorrow, friends: tomorrow I will join you with no excuses. Tomorrow we organize. Tomorrow we plan. Tomorrow we fight back.

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