Let me return to a scene I have written about previously. On an official visit to sort out some legal matter or other, I ran across a Canadian-turned-U.S. citizen. She began by asking if I was an alien. Technically speaking, I am an alien. My legal documents, my tax forms, every official bit of business I conduct with a U.S. agency I do so as an alien. Still, I was taken aback by the question.
She was a nice woman, politically conservative, and eager to form alliances with fellow aliens. She was proud of having once been an alien. While she appreciates having citizenship, which provides access to a whole bunch of stuff, she had no shame over being an alien in a previous incarnation.
The fellowship of aliens.
In retrospect, I realized that she did not want to be an immigrant because immigrants are brown, and not just any brown, but south of the U.S. border brown, Mexican brown. Immigrant is a dirty word. A filthy, dirty word, tainted by its proximity to brown bodies.
None of this is new, of course.
I am interested, though, in the terms that other immigrant groups who do not want to known as immigrants use to describe themselves.
In something I have written for something else (appropriately vague), I have suggested, following Brent Edwards, that the term “diaspora” has taken on a new life in the Kenyan context, in which it distinguishes between the political exiles of the Moi era and the economic powerhouses of the post-Moi era. Kenyans abroad of the Moi era were considered and often considered themselves to be exiles. Kenyans abroad of the post-Moi era consider themselves to be diasporic. The turn to diaspora as an economic rather than political term has implications that I explore in that elsewhere I have written about this.
It matters what we call ourselves. It matters because names are relations of proximity, bringing us closer to some bodies and not others, granting us intimacy with some histories and not others.
It matters how we think about the temporality of immigration. Curiously, the sentence, “America is an immigrant country” does not mean the U.S. welcomes immigrants now. Wedding the “making” of the U.S. to immigration makes immigration central to back then, not right now. In other words, what some perceive to be a pro-immigrant stance can read as a strongly nativist, anti-immigrant stance, one that authorizes immigration then and de-authorizes it now.
As gayprof reminds us, this debate is based on truncated memories, in which a particular brown-ness is imagined to be too recent, too now, too disembedded from the actual making of America. And this has much to do with how we make labor visible and invisible, especially immigrant labor.
All this to say, I am very wary of how various groups are now describing themselves as diasporas and not as immigrants. I worry about the distance it suggests, the politics it endorses, and the alliances it forecloses.