Nationalist narratives, Immigration and Coloniality
by Leigh Patel
“I’ll tell you what freedom is to me. No fear. I mean, really! No fear”
“Take me to another place
Take me to another land
Make me forget all that hurts me
Let me understand your plan”
I am the daughter of immigrants. My family’s mixed history of sanctioned and subjugated migration has indelibly imbued our lives as well as our relationships to cultural practices, home and receiving countries, and to land. I am also a United States citizen and a scholar who studies migration. I have marched for immigrants’ rights and have met with local, state, and national policymakers to speak about the experiences of undocumented youth. I believe that the current push and pull of vulnerablized beings across nation-state borders is a project of dehumanization wrought by the insatiable settler capitalist project.
It is because of this mix of experiences that you will never hear me condone the idea that the United States is a nation built by immigrants. Or that it is a melting pot. Or a tapestry. Or any of the other commonplace nationalist narratives of migration that settler colonies fervently need. Decolonial praxis and dreaming require explicit attention to the ways that nationalist narratives of migration collude with and sustain the structures that displace and exploit Indigenous and Black life. These narratives don’t do any durable favors for migrants of various racial backgrounds, either. In this essay, I propose that we must be precise and exacting in locating the effects of these narratives in order to dismantle and dream beyond the structures they sustain.
While all narratives can be understood as fictional, they must also be understood as inherently political and therefore laden with the potential to be beneficent or malignant. As Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe wrote,
“Belief in superior or inferior races; belief that some people who live across our frontiers or speak a different language from ourselves are the cause of all the trouble in the world, or that our own particular group or class or caste has a right to certain things which are denied to others…all fictions are generated by the imagination. What then makes them different from the beneficent fictions for which I am making rather large claims? What distinguishes beneficent fiction from such malignant cousins as racism is that the first never forgets it is a fiction and the other never knows that it is.”
The narratives of a nation are not malignant because they are narratives. Rather, their malignancy resides in their impenetrability and material impact.
The imaginary of settler nations being built by immigrants is a malignant fiction deeply needed to sustain systemic structures. First – and perpetually – the settler imaginary needs a story that can obscure its violently consumptive structure (of relegating land and bodies into property for the extraction of resources and labor). Settler colonialism has an insatiable thirst for land as a form of property to be held by a few. These violent material practices always involve harm, pain, suffering, and death – nothing less.
This violence is made continually possible through narratives that contort, erase, remix, and re-present these violent realities. The nationalist narratives of immigrants building the nation through folksy determination, grit, and stick-to-it-ive-ness literally erase settler projects from view; in part, by making the appearance of access to material wealth seem both possible and somehow equally available. The appearance of access to material well-being is helmed by figurations of individualism and meritocracy, both of which work to obscure structures that organization swaths of populations. The individual immigrant in the nationalist narratives is male, revised and whitened over time. He is lauded for being a hero of conquest, manifest destiny, and patient lawfulness. Others are racially minoritized because of their disregard of mythic migration queues and placed in physical holding centers, guilty of their distal location relative to the fictive white settler hero. In fact, it is this white settler hero – the one who has followed manifest destiny and conquered savage lands and people – who is the figurehead for fantasies of equitable social mobility based on lawfulness and hard work.
The narratives intertwine with structures that accrue and protect property for white settlers, justifying those inequitable processes as mere outcroppings of meritocratic practices. Little wonder then that the wake of this mythology includes not only structures for white material profit but fertile terrain for vulnerablized Black and brown peoples to be in competition with each other for the façade of available property ownership. The pervasive mythology of nationalist narratives of immigrant determination leaves little room to contend with the acutely distinct, yet intertwined, realities of the erasure of Indigeneity, the afterlife of slavery, and forced labor across nation-state borders, often subject to similar malignant fictions.
For example, respectability politics demand undocumented youth be made liminally acceptable [read: more human] through details of their performances as good students and potential benefit to the national economy. Concurrently, respectability politics filters the violent state policing of Black youth through media evaluations of their innocence [read: humanity]. Both are manifestation of racialized respectability politics but with distinct locations that, cumulatively, support the evaluation of Black and brown bodies through whiteness. These racialized social locations are further blurred through mantras of multiculturalism, diversity, and democracy. Racially minoritized populations are left to decipher their relative social locations of dispossession, while settler privilege thrives.
While the settler imaginary may superficially seem to be pro-migrant, it does few actual and durable favors for migrant peoples because it works from a political economy of contingent merit. That contingent worth is hinged to shifting constructs of lawfulness and the state’s coffers. In the 1960s, then United States President John F. Kennedy and Senator Robert Kennedy, published the book, “A Nation of immigrants.” While the entire book is homage to the nationalist myth of an immigrant nation, the details in the argument provide necessary windows into the material impact of this fiction. They wrote, “Every ethnic minority, in seeking its own freedom, helped to strengthen the fabric of liberty in American life. Similarly, every aspect of the American economy has profited from the contributions of immigrants.” The first sentence in the quote activates the erasure of Indigeneity and displacement of Black life, while simultaneously making heroes of settlers, making innocent their genocidal and appropriative actions (Tuck & Yang, 2012). The next sentence builds on this malignant fiction to hinge migrants’ worth upon the nation’s wealth. Ironically, despite the pro-migrant platforms that use success stories of entrepreneurship and assimilation in the current push and pull of vulnerabilized human labor from the South to the North, the real prospects of racially minoritized peoples attaining wealth-holding settler status are low. Additionally the proliferation of privatized for-profit incarceration facilities is in part fueled by the creation of stateless, and therefore rights-less, peoples who can be enclosed in these facilities, justifying their creation. Citizenship is always contingent, and undocumented migrants are always already ineligible. Attaching human worth to constructs of lawfulness seems almost satirical within these contradictory discourses and practices, except that these practices are materially deadly.
The mythic nationalist narratives of migrant-built nations also facilitate structural racism experienced by migrants, by blurring the historical and ongoing racism fundamental to the nation’s property practices (Harris, 1993). Although not borne out by structural analyses of the cultural, economic, and social capital needed to secure safety and property in stratified societies, the ‘by-the-bootstraps’ mythology of meritocracy perpetuates individualism and deepens the white supremacist impact of colorblind dysconsciousness. The seductive narratives of immigrants who give up everything for a chance in a new nation, seemingly of their own autonomous will, and then succeed by sheer will and commitment obscures racial stratification and other structures of power and privilege. The laws and policies that have historically governed migration into settler nations are a far cry from the romanticized colorblind revision provided by the Kennedy brothers. Policies have shifted over to time to racialize migrants, in direct connection to protecting whiteness as property and providing racialized cheap labor pools across nation-state borders (Ngai, 2005). The United States’ most infamous anti-immigrant voice of the moment, Donald Trump, perfectly embodies the generationally protected white male settler wealth that racializes migration in order to re-instantiate nation-state logics of xenophobia and protectionism for its own material interests. Trump’s rhetoric, a mere stanza in long-standing variations on backlash to migration, is borne of mythologies of lone, independent [read: whiteness as individualization] immigrants. Settler nation locations like the United States, Canada, Israel, and Australia all display racism, specifically white terrorism, and xenophobia, precisely because their official rhetorics speak of frontiers, assimilation, and equitable pathways to citizenship.
The material impacts of these nationalist narratives, though, do not mean that they are impenetrable or fixed in how they are used. Social movement groups including the DREAMERs undocumented movement and the Dream Defenders have strategically leveraged nationalist fictions. These two groups, in their very name, invoke the notion of the American Dream to lift up the transgressions that have been enacted on behalf of violent projects of nationhood. The Dream Defenders, for example, have refused to confine the ‘Dream’ to practices within the seized land of the United States, instead citing wars of aggression domestically and abroad as part of what must cease. The youth-led group, We Charge Genocide, samples the legal language of crime and tort to indict the racially violent state. These practices of calling out settler practices and, at times, appealing to the tenets of the nationalist narratives raise important questions about how and what kinds of theories of change (Tuck, 2009) can be practiced by agitating the very premises of these narratives. However, agitation of power structures should not be seen as synonymous with dismantling these same structures. With further, ongoing analysis of the precise contours of a complicated, intertwined set of colonial logics, we stand a much better chance of dreaming beyond those logics and refusing to settle for fleeting inclusion to structures built precisely to stratify and exclude.
The answer to xenophobic racism towards racially minoritized immigrants isn’t found in Black and brown peoples assimilating into well-being here and there. The answer to the endless conversion of land to limited resource and property rights isn’t found in securing a mortgage. The answer to contingent citizenship isn’t found in a kinder, gentler ranking of contingency. The answer is the dismantling of citizenship as an enterprise of exclusion. The answer is in something that Robin D. G. Kelley wrote about having learned from his mother: having freedom dreams. Not citizenship dreams. Not ‘being validated as worthy’ dreams. Not dreams of getting yours and shrugging that others don’t. Collective freedom dreams.
The quotes at the start of this essay point to the ways that dreams must be both ambitious and connected to histories. Nina Simone speaks of living fear without any qualifiers, caveats or conditions. Arrested Development speaks of wanting to go to another, unknown place, in part, to better know the current place. No movement or quest for liberation works well without both expansiveness and genealogical knowledge. Dreaming of equitable protection, safety, and balance for all living and nonliving beings must necessarily involve reaching beyond our deeply learned ways of seeing ourselves and each other through the eyes of the settler nation-state. The more precise we are with knowing those worn perspectives, the better we may be at dreaming and building on wholly different terms.
Achebe, C. (1989). The truth of fiction. Hopes and impediments: Selected essays.
Kennedy, J. F., & Kennedy, R. F. (1964). A nation of immigrants (pp. 75-76). New York: Harper & Row.
Ngai, M. M. (2004). Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America. Princeton University Press.
Tuck, E. (2009). Suspending damage: A letter to communities. Harvard Educational Review, 79(3), 409-428.
Tuck, E., & Yang, K. W. (2012). Decolonization is not a metaphor. Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, 1(1).