“A Nation of Immigrants” and Passive Racism

The acts of the white supremacist terrorists in Charlottesville VA, the notifications posted of more “rallies” planned by these terrorists, and the White House response to it―laying the blame equally upon those who were beaten, mauled, and killed―had me shaking in my shoes.

When I finally calmed down, I started wondering what actions I can take to create a better world. Some people seem to have figured it out. They’ve made speeches of condemnation and of unity; posted stirring remarks that are worthy of quotation long after today; demanded that the Justice Department investigate; and criticized the White House response. They’ve put the blame squarely on the shoulders of those it belongs to.

Citizens marched in solidarity in Charlottesville, created a yuuuge peaceful protest around Trump Tower in NYC. Veterans are banding together to protect the counter-protestors, in much the same way as they protected Native Americans at Standing Rock. People are sharing stories of friends and family members who have fought and died to defeat the Nazis and other racist/genocidal ilk. And they’ve set up a GoFundMe page for Heather Heyer, the victim of vehicular homicide.

Some of these are big things, some of them are small. All of them will have an impact on where we go from here, and make me proud to be an American. So the question becomes: big or small, grand or minuscule―what can I do?

The first thing I can do: I can tweet and re-tweet, to let others know they are not alone in their outrage, in their sorrow. Let others know that their actions are abhorred by the majority. I can encourage the groups that are active, and the people who are just beginning to see how deep this problem goes in our society.

And there’s another thing I can do. Because through all of this, all the condemnation of terrorism, all the support of the victims, all the voices calling for a swift and uncompromising statement from the White House―through all of it, I’ve noticed a strand of passive racism:

We are a nation of immigrants.”

It sounds like such a little thing, and I know what the point is. I know it’s meant as a show of solidarity. It’s supposed to shame the white supremacist terrorists whose ancestors, like most of ours, had the same dreams and goals as those who come today. Who came willingly across the seas, searching for a better place, a better life, a better day.

But it does so at the cost of those whose ancestors did not.

The “New World” was populated before the advent of Columbus. There were peoples here who were self-sufficient, who had complex religions, governments and languages, whose myths and histories were handed down through countless generations. Who had a connection to the land and a reverence for it that most of us are lacking today. The European invasion decimated these populations, forced new religions and languages on the conquered, dismissed their care of this precious earth. Those who did not conform were exterminated. There is a long and bloody history of abuse of these peoples.

They were not, and their descendants are not, in any sense of the word, “immigrants”.

There is another history, just as long and just as bloody, that the adage ignores: slavery. Men, women and children crowded into the holds of ships, treated like cattle, fed just enough to stay alive, and thrown overboard if they died of abuse, starvation or disease. Those who survived were sold to the highest bidder. And whether you call them slaves or “indentured servants”, these individuals did not come here willingly.

To call them immigrants denies their history in this country.

I objected to one Tweet and was told “nobody means any harm by it.” I choose to believe that, to believe that most people do not mean to harm. But it does harm.

If the objective is solidarity, this phrase accomplishes exactly the opposite. It makes outsiders of those who did not choose to come to this continent, and outsiders of those who fought and died to preserve their right to live freely, and who are now confined to the worst pieces of land our government could find. Land that’s been whittled down to practically nothing.

Yes, it sounds good in a tweet. Yes, it’s accepted by the mainstream. But systemic racism exists, and “nation of immigrants” is a passive yet destructive force within it.

So this is my first tiny step toward eradicating passive racism: trying to convince others of the harm inherent in this popular adage. There are quotes that sound just as good in a Tweet: “America is a melting pot.” “Lady Liberty welcomes all.” “America thrives on diversity.” Find one, or make up your own.

But please. No more “nation of immigrants.”

Not only does it hurt, it isn’t even true. And if we can’t stop telling our own lies, can’t recognize and fix our own passive prejudices―how can we criticize those who live by lies and prejudice?


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