Words matter

I’m hearing what you say/but I just can’t make a sound…

-One Republic

I had one of those “wow, these people don’t like me” moments today. In my teleconference class (which is already in and of itself strange—being in front of a projected screen with most of the class on it). We were discussing indigenous politics, specifically a book called The Politics of Indigeneity by Roger Makka and Augie Fleras. The book looks at indigenous political movements in Canada and New Zealand. It’s interesting reading, but this one quote that another student pulled out for us to scrutinize bugged me on some level.

Here’s the quote, from page 32:

Immigrants differ [from the indigenous] in other ways. They have ‘voluntarily’ left their homeland, have opted to abide by the rules of their adopted country, and do not bring a government or legal apparatus that they can assert.

Now within the context of the argument the authors are making about Canada and New Zealand this seems like a legitimate statement, but the student who raised the question, and several others, made moves to equate this to America.

I said “I don’t think an American would ever write this definition of immigrant,” and the room—on TV—went silent. So I elaborated, pointing out that perhaps the most profound immigrant experience stamped into American history is slavery (which invalidates the first two criteria above) and the most currently discussed version of “immigrant” is the “border jumping” Mexican (which many American policy makers claim violate the second criteria above, and who some might argue through the way American law works DO have some measure of the final criteria).

A little more silence.

So I went on to point out, as I have several times in this course, that I am not an expert on Canadian policy or Canadian history, and that it was possible that in that construction (I didn’t get to New Zealand, but the same is true), such a reductive definition might work.

Then someone loudly asks, into the silence, “how can you claim an American wouldn’t write this?” then kept going. This class makes me totally uncomfortable because the only way to be heard is to yell over someone else (which is not my style), so I pointed out that if this were an American author, I would instantly press him or her about slavery (it would, at the very least, require a footnote if this quote were to survive more than a single reading as a rhetoric text). And I reiterated that I didn’t feel Americans could construct immigrant in that way. The person who asked the question then spoke for about ten minutes, moving in a constant line away from the question and into something else.

I asked myself, in the car on the ride home, if this intervention into class was worth it. I had a presentation in this course a few weeks ago, and instead of considering my questions/engaging with them, one of the remote site students (perhaps the same one—their faces are blurry on our screen) spent too much time being outraged about my question than discussing it.

I wrote on my notes, for the two students on my site to see, “I’m pretty sure they don’t like me,” and shrugged it off. 🙂

But I do think the point I made was important, because the text we were discussing today was (even if the prof wasn’t so sure) political science. And if we’re talking about a polisci definition of “immigrant” that one might want to utilize as an American, that definition simply will not work. America has the beloved “melting pot” (which also came up in class, ironically as some sort of support for the quote, which perhaps I’m parsing wrong—if you think so, comment). Immigrants founded this place, and in reality, it would be easy enough to make an indigenous/immigrant binary. The African slaves who later became African Americans were immigrants, if we use the term the way polisci has for generations (they weren’t JUST immigrants, obviously, and it sort of glosses over one of the true horrors of American history, but they were people relocated from one nation to another).


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