Last night many friends of mine dropped everything and went to airports to protest the ban on people from seven Muslim-majority countries entering the US. I wrote on Facebook that as an immigrant myself, I am proud of, and grateful for, everyone who did so.
Over the last few months, however, whenever I’ve expressed fear about the attacks on immigrants and positioned it in relation to myself and my own status, some smart-aleck has helpfully pointed out that I’ll be fine because I’m white/European. I’m beginning to lose patience with these comments. And not just because it implies I’m only scared for my own safety, rather than the safety of others.
Yes, as a white British person I have enormous privilege. I would not have been able to live in as many foreign countries as I have if I didn’t carry a British passport, and my reception would have been less welcoming if I had not been white. However, it is important to be precise about the threat that this restriction on individuals from certain countries poses, and to understand what it is stemming from. This is not just racism as usual.
The current situation in the US is racist, fascist, and misogynist. It is the latest and most threatening manifestation of deeply rooted traditions of white supremacy, Christofacism, and disaster capitalism. This new Republican Trump/Pence regime can be all these things at once, but it is important not to conflate them all into one. We need to know exactly what we are dealing with to avoid being blindsided by things like the totally predictable restriction on Green Card holders and citizens (through the ban on duel citizens).
The Islamophobia motivating this first ban is not the only story – in fact, it’s partly a distraction. Muslims were banned, yes, and there is no doubt that this is about targeting them rather than preventing terrorism. But it could just as well have been any other maligned, easy-to-attack groups, such as Chinese or Russians.
The reason being that this is really just a first volley, a matter of testing to see if norms can be redefined. A statement that something previously considered unimaginable (that citizens and legal residents can have their legal rights to live in the US removed) can now be imagined. The category of who can be removed (in this case, Muslims from a specific list of countries) is, to a large extent, a moot point.
Once the idea has been planted that legal precedents can be questioned, from here on it’s only a matter of shifting and expanding those categories. The rules of the game have changed from the moment we start having a conversation about whether people who were born elsewhere—even if they have citizenship, even if they have lived here most of their lives—can really be true Americans.
Today Muslims born in Iraq, tomorrow anyone born in Russia, or China, or Latin America, and eventually from everywhere if they display any ‘un-American’ tendencies or doesn’t display sufficient patriotic devotion. Once it becomes a matter of arguing over whether an individual born abroad can be a true American, it has already become a conversation about purity of blood, about loyalty to the nation, about Volk.
Volk, a German term for “the people”, was a 19th concept to describe national spirit, or culture, in the ‘being unable to express our feelings is what makes us English’ kind of way: the idea that a nation is made up of people who share the same customs, sensibilities, heritage, and language. At various points in time, of course, it overlaps with race, ethnicity, language, and so on. But it retains this idea of an essential national spirit or soul: that nations are made up of people who all have some shared, indefinable quality or essence. There is such a thing as a pure American, or pure German, or pure Brit. Volk became an underlying ideology of Nazism and other 20th century fascist regimes. We are seeing its resurgence today, I would argue, in the new nationalisms in Europe and the US.
What are the consequences of ignoring this? Well, look at the attacks on Europeans following Brexit. There was this enormous shock that French, German, Irish, Danish, and other ‘respectable’ Europeans who had lived in the UK for decades could become targets. They were white after all, and from ‘economically advanced’ countries – unlike those Indians and Jamaicans, Syrians and Iraqis, and Bulgarians and Poles. The assumption was that xenophobia in the UK was based primarily or only on racism, and fear of ‘economic migrants’ from new-and-thus-suspect-members of the EU, meant people were blindsided by the attacks on white Europeans.
But in retrospect, this looks naive. All that anti-Polish sentiment that’s been growing in the UK over the last decade? It was easy to dismiss it as being about Polish people, rather than about not-like-us people. The thing is, however, once anyone’s right to live in a country has become a matter of discussion, then it’s just a matter of defining the boundaries of your category of not-acceptable. If we are debating whether we can live alongside Poles, then why not call into question Germans and Danes too?
My point is not that racism or religious hatred are unimportant, but that what we are seeing today is not only about brown people or Muslims. Moreover, I am arguing that existing prejudices grounded in racism and religious hatred are being mobilized to prize open up the bigger question of Volk: the purity of true Americanness, or true Britishness. The idea that there is something essential about a person, that comes from their blood, their place of birth, their heritage, their inner being, that can be used to judge whether or not they have the right to live among us or not.
Today, Americans are being forced to articulate why they should live alongside people from countries like Syria and Iraq. The act of having to defend a legal right shifts that law from something in the background, solid, assumed to be unassailable, into the realm of things that can be debated, must be decided, are changeable. Tomorrow, it could be anyone.