“Do you need a password to become a US citizen?” and other heartbreaking student questions

4 Jul

citizenship-billboard_c-1919_loc_3g03808v1-e1368817317418Every once in a while a student will ask a question in class that breaks my heart because it reminds me of the utter absurdity of our society.

Don’t get it twisted – I’m not heartbroken because  the students’ questions themselves are absurd. I’m not calling them stupid.   I’m heartbroken that we live in a  society where students have to ask these kinds of questions in the first place.

For example, students should never have to ask their teachers “what will you do if  la migra [immigration agents] come try to pick me up in class and deport me?”  Students should also never have to ask “can you give me something to read at home, because I don’t think it’s safe for me to come to school anymore.”   These are questions that make me wish a  revolution could start by the end of the class period.

I felt this heartbroken when a student asked “don’t you need a password to become a U.S. citizen?”  His family had moved here from another country and he was  asking this because he  automatically assumed he was not a citizen since he never got his password.

I wondered where this student was coming from with this question.   Was he noticing that he is is denied privileges that others have?  Was he thinking that other people must be  buying access to some password that  unlocks these privileges,  like  purchasing a subscription to Netflix?  Was he thinking that U.S. citizenship is like a piece of software, where you download the free trial but you have to pay a fee to unlock the deluxe edition?

The social studies teacher in me wanted to lament the fact that this student’s misconception was never cleared up in elementary or middle school civics lessons.

But the revolutionary in me recognized  a much deeper problem: that this student’s perception is actually alarmingly close to how U.S. citizenship really works.

In fact, you generally do need a password to become a U.S. citizen, and it looks  like this:


Historically, immigration laws were designed to keep out people who did not have this skin color.   In fact, the  U.S. Naturalization Act of 1790 defined citizenship itself as white:

“All free white persons who have, or shall migrate into the United States, and shall give satisfactory proof… that they intend to reside therein, and shall take an oath of allegiance, and shall have resided in the United States for one whole year, shall be entitled to the rights of citizenship.” (quote from here)

It isn’t just white skin that  has historically defined what it means to be American; it is also white behavior.  And white behavior means taking an “oath of allegiance” to the U.S.  It means obeying the rules, staying quiet when you are oppressed, and, most of all, aiding the system in keeping down Black folks, indigenous folks, and people in other countries who are  rebelling against U.S. imperial control.

white male privlege

White skin privilege was the last refuge of the miserable.  Poor, working class white folks might come back to their tenements or homeless encampments, exhausted at the end of a day of back breaking labor, but the system wants them to think “at least I’m not Black” instead of “I want to go on strike.”  The system wants them to think, “I can move up in the world as long as I don’t unite with non-white folks to fight back.”

So in other words, the same password that unlocks the privileges of the deluxe edition of U.S. citizenship also locks us inside of it.  As Noel Ignatiev put it, white skin is a set of golden handcuffs. That’s why my friend Desert Rat wrote a song that goes “White People suck, so be pale pink if you have to.”

Books like Ignatiev’s How the Irish Became White document how some groups were historically denied the white password to full citizenship, but they gained access to it over time, usually by positioning themselves as loyal citizens willing to side with the Anglo elites against Black people.

Whiteness is not the only divisive password to citizenship that the capitalist system has created.  Another one is the “model minority myth”.  After decades of racist, explicitly-anti-Asian immigration laws, middle-class East Asians were recruited to the U.S. after 1965 to fill technical jobs.  Racist politicians have tried to pit them against Southeast Asians, working class Asians, Black and indigenous folks,and other immigrant groups; they say that because some Asians can move up in society, U.S. immigration policy is fair and racism is not something we should worry about anymore.  This hurts Asian communities and everyone else. 

This process of divisive “password protection”  is also playing out in the debates over comprehensive immigration reform going on right now.  Congress is aiming to pass legislation that will create a pathway to citizenship for some undocumented folks, at the expense of increased immigration enforcement vs. the rest.  This is an attempt to create a caste of so-called “good immigrants” who can be turned agianst a subordinated caste of so-called “bad immigrants”.  It’s a classic strategy of divide and conquer.

This will directly affect our students. While some of them will have access to Deferred Action and possibly the Dream Act, and will be able to go to college and get papers, others will be labeled “gang members” and will be deported because they have criminal records, even if it’s for minor offenses.  Considering the fact that many of our students are labeled gang members simply because of the neighborhood they live in or who they hang out with at school, this will severely divide and disrupt communities, including our school communities.

If this is what Congress means by a “pathway to citizenship” then it’s no surprise that my student is mistaking the process for a “password to citizenship.”

Citizenship may be expanded for certain groups, but many youth will be left asking why they’ve been denied the password to the deluxe edition.

I am a teacher because I want to help my students create the tools necessary to answer these heartbreaking questions.   I am a revolutionary because I want to struggle for a new society where we can spend time asking new questions,  because these ones will have already been answered decisively through collective action.


What kinds of questions break your hearts?  Feel free to share in the comments section, and we can discuss.


8 Responses to ““Do you need a password to become a US citizen?” and other heartbreaking student questions”

  1. girlinturquoise July 5, 2013 at 8:33 am #

    Ethnicity, race, etc has always been used as a tool by politicians/rulers for power. In Singapore under colonial rule, they applied the primordial perspective of races by allocating each race (Chinese, Indian, Malay, Eurasians) to a certain form of labour. For example the Chinese were in charge of commerce, the Indians worked the rubber plantations etc. This was came to be known as the Divide and Rule to prevent a united front against the British colonialists. Race/ethnicity is something that is malleable, shown in the manipulation by politicians.

    In Singapore, a different phenomen is happening though. The Singaporean locals are mad at the government for treating us as second-class citizens and giving foreign expatriates the fruits of our labour, including the luxury of being exempted from mandatory military national service which every 18-year-old Singaporean boy has to undergo for 2 years. A new “race” has emerged – the Singaporean race (less positive people call it xenophobia..) which is good in the sense, that it made us question what constitutes a “Singaporean race”, especially when we’re just a young, 47-year-old nation.

    But that being said, I am proud that Singapore is a fine example of how “racial harmony” can occur – there is no racial discrimination here at the workplace or in schools (though racial stereotypes and racist jokes do persist here at times..but even so, these people are reprimanded in Singaporean society).

    -Girl in Turquoise

    • mamos206 July 5, 2013 at 9:43 pm #

      Seems like the damn British constructed racial hierarchies everywhere they went, leaving a trail of oppression and division around the world! Your comment is a good reminder that North America was not the only place where capitalist colonialism has generated these racial forms of oppression.

      I’ve been to Singapore three times to visit family there (local folks, not expats from the U.S). I love the people there, but I am freaked out by how some of the worst parts of the U.S. seem to get exported there. When you talk about the racial division between foreigners and Singaporeans, are you talking about the divide between the rich, jet-setting U.S., European, and Japanese people who use Singapore as their playground and are given privileges over the local Singaporean population? If so, I agree with you, this seems to be a racialized class divide.

      Do you think it would be accurate to describe it as a new form of white supremacy? I heard that white people who work there get paid much higher, for example, then Singaporean folks. I also noticed that a lot of the models in the advertisements on Orchard Road are of white people – what does that say about the standards of beauty the companies are pushing? It seems neo-colonial. Of course, the term “white supremacy” doesn’t account for the legacies of Japanese colonialism, rising Chinese power, or the new imperial hierarchies that favor the global elites, whatever their race, over local populations.

      But it seems that this jet-setting elite is a very different group of foreigners then the migrant workers from the Philippines, South Asia, etc. who work in construction and as domestic workers. I’ve heard they are not treated well, and do not have the same rights as Singaporean workers. Would it be accurate to say they are struggling under a system of institutionalized racism?

      Finally, I’ve talked to many Singaporeans who do not share your optimistic view about racial harmony among Malay, Indian, and Chinese folks. Some have argued that Malays are discriminated against and tend to be tracked into lower-wage jobs. What do you think?

      Of course, I’m not trying to hate on Singapore when I raise these critical questions. The U.S. is no better! But comparing and contrasting like this is helpful, especially since the U.S. and Singaporean governments adopt a lot of methods from each other, especially when it comes to educational policies.

      • girlinturquoise July 7, 2013 at 4:27 pm #

        Hahaha yes, the British sure did made the whole issue of race/religion EVEN more salient wherever they went which sparked off a [hell] lot of conflict…

        White supremacy is more often than not, perpetuated in Singaporean culture and society, both implicitly and explicitly. As you have mentioned, the streets of Orchard road and the commercials on television are dawned with white girls seen to be the ideal notions of beauty. Moreover, through my observations in school, university students here tend to aspire to head to Europe or America to “broaden” their perspectives. They laugh with a tinge of superiority when university professors promote other university exchange programmes in Asian countries like China. (especially China.) The word “broaden” was deliberately placed in quotation marks because I find it rather ironic that they think so, because Singaporean culture is already so westernized – we speak {british] English (though not perfect all the time), watch American films, use American lingo at times, etc etc. Although majority of Singaporeans are Chinese, only a handful are confident enough to hold a conversation in Mandarin Chinese.

        You are very right to say there persists the “lower echelon” of Singaporean society – the other migrant workers who come here to find jobs as domestic helpers, construction workers etc. They live in squatters and are paid meager sums of money (although some detractors may say that the meager amounts are converted to a lot of money in their own homelands..), not given much welfare benefits, and are looked down upon (usually with scorn) here. Although there have been efforts by Singaporean youths and social workers to integrate these migrant workers into our society, it is really rare and sensationalized by the local Singaporean media.

        My definition of racial harmony is one whereby Singaporeans know racism is wrong, and will stand up against it. For example, a lady made a racist comment on Facebook about Malay weddings being noisy and cumbersome etc (The Malay tradition is to hold a wedding at their homes. As Singaporeans live in public housing apartments, they hold their weddings at the “void deck” or the basement of the apartments). This was circulated around Facebook and greatly enraged Singaporeans (Chinese, Malay, Indians etc). So as Singaporeans we understand racism is wrong and will highly reprimand racist, derogatory comments or jokes.

        However, “racial harmony”, a term coined ironically by the government is not practised in the national army, where Malay boys are given less prestigious jobs like firemen and the police force. The higher ranking jobs are usually given to the majority Chinese. Although the government has said this is to ensure that the Malays here do not face a dilemma when we defend SIngapore (Singapore IS aptly described as a Chinese nation surrounded by a Malay majority sea..), I suppose it’s a way to sustain Chinese supremacy. It is implicitly known among Singaporeans. But I do know of highly educated Malays who are working in high-paying jobs, though these are the rarities.. =/

        I love Singapore as a nation but I greatly dislike the state – there’s a clear distinction to be made. The government tries to make the two (nation and state) synonymous with one another but oh wells..

      • mamos206 July 7, 2013 at 10:18 pm #

        Thanks for your response. I think by that definition, the Seattle Public Schools would also claim they are for “racial harmony”, yet institutional white supremacy still persists, with Black students being 3 times more likely to be expelled from school.

  2. girlinturquoise July 8, 2013 at 1:55 am #

    Hmm what do you think ought to be the definition of “racial harmony” then – ie what defines racial equality? (:

    • mamos206 July 8, 2013 at 5:25 am #

      I don’t think the goal should be harmony, I think it should be the abolition of race as a social category. Race is not simply a matter of culture. Cultures are part of the human experience, and we should celebrate cultural diversity. Race goes beyond that. It freezes people into a social-economic-political caste system based on skin color and culture, and it assigns different people different roles in the capitalist division of labor, as you described under British colonialism. I think that needs to be abolished, so we can have total equality among all people. Until then, I don’t think the goal should be racial harmony, I think it should be struggle against any form of racial supremacy. That will necessarily involve conflict and controversy because there is no growth without struggle.

      To be clear, I’m not advocating “colorblindness” which is popular among white liberals in the U.S. right now. Pretending you don’t see race when racial hierarchies still exist is simply a delusional attempt to avoid facing reality. I’m saying that the abolition of race as a social category is a future goal, not a present reality.

      There is also a tradition of seeing race in terms of nations – e.g. seeing oppressed races as oppressed nationalities. I’m not saying oppressed nations need to be abolished – that would be genocidal and colonial! I’m saying the capitalist racial caste system that takes nationality and turns it into a hierarchy of different labor powers needs to be abolished.

      • girlinturquoise July 8, 2013 at 5:48 am #

        I like your response, there (: Thanks for the conversation, and will look forward to your future posts (:

      • mamos206 July 8, 2013 at 5:51 am #

        No problem. I’ve enjoyed the conversation too, it’s prompted me to think of these things in clearer terms, and in a more internationalist-minded way.

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