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 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.