Pro-immigrant activism in Boston

Yesterday morning I went with organizers from the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition (https://www.miracoalition.org/) to the State House in Boston to advocate for the support of amendments to the state budget which protect immigrants’ access to housing, in-state tuition, education, and health care. We spoke with representatives and their aides and interns about this complicated but yet very human process of passing laws. Inspiring to think about how shaking hands, seeing people face to face (if not eye to eye), can still influence change. We are all civically connected!

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I’m also attaching the a link to the documents which listed the talking points we brought with us to speak with the representatives. MIRA made it accessible and real for everyone involved. A great model to follow in considering how to participate in the health and protection of our community in partnership with our elected leaders!

MIRA opposes Public Housing Discrimination 1
Please co-sponsor these amendments_&_opposed amendements for action

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The eye in the sky and “low-status” domestic workers

Not long ago, I watched a PBS Frontline video called “Rape on the Night Shift,” an expose delving into the abuse of and violence, often by their own supervisors, against female immigrants who work as janitors for poor wages in buildings that I would wager the majority of Americans have frequented for one reason or another. One of the reasons for the lack of oversight and protection of these women is due to the fact that they are invisible, so to speak, in terms of labor rights, or else cannot pursue recourse. Many of them are undocumented and/or lack the literacies and language use needed to advocate for themselves, things which most of us born as citizens and into English-speaking worlds have more access to.

How is it possible that we can allow such things to take place? It’s hard to fathom that we don’t feel compunction when we hear of such events, and I imagine that since Frontline added this to the queue, it has an audience. Still, there is a seemingly long distance between one’s couch and the ballot box or the street, where political action takes place…but where does this distance come from? I connect this to two points: the first, one of geopolitically-/economically-derived guilt, which inadvertently commits the middle-class White American to an uneasy avoidance, and the second, the straight-up social (and even geographic) distance we have from such lived experiences.

In my sociology class this semester entitled Immigration in an Era of Globalization, our class read a book called Domestica: Immigrant Workers Cleaning and Caring in the Shadows of Affluence, which charted the experiences of Mexican and Central American women who work as nannies and housecleaners for wealthy White and Latino families in Los Angeles. These workers are not referred to as such, according to the text, by many employers, who prefer to call them “the babysitter” or “the help” because class guilt makes more direct (and perhaps honest) references distasteful. This doesn’t just happen in LA; I know people who use such indirect ways of speaking about physical laborers who come to their houses, almost as an aside when talking about what’s happening with their day. “We need to be out of the house when the cleaners come,” they say, “because we don’t want to be here when they’re here.”

The Eye in the Sky allusion in the title of this post brings in my second thought, which is one more of the lack of global consciousness (if such a thing exists) of those of us in positions of wealth and power in the world relative to those who have less. I saw a movie tonight with the same title, which brought much of this home to me. Eye in the Sky deals with the complex philosophical terrain underneath the decision-making in questions of war, especially as it relates to questions of contingency and the value of human life held in the hand as an abstraction or a real proposition. I strongly recommend the film, especially as it brings to bear the same struggle I mention above, asking the following question: Does our ability to disarticulate ourselves from others, especially those who are dark, who are poor, who are foreign-tongued and strange-ritualed, who live far away from us geographically and/or culturally, make it easier to ignore their suffering? Clearly put: do we employ an “eye in the sky” when we train our sights on those whose lives are convenient to us only insofar as we do not see a better reason to extinguish them? Does this metaphysical distance cloak these people with an invisibility that is only vaguely and temporarily lifted (if at all, when the other risk of course is commodification, a topic which merits its own post) by Frontline or a well-crafted movie?

ca. 1910 - 1930 --- Hindu servant serving tea to a European colonial woman. Undated photograph. BPA#2 4362 --- Image by © Underwood & Underwood/CORBIS

ca. 1910 – 1930 — Hindu servant serving tea to a European colonial woman. Undated photograph. BPA#2 4362 — Image by © Underwood & Underwood/CORBIS

PS – Such questions are clearly philosophical but require deeper exploration using various lenses, including postcolonial and critical race theory as well as feminist theory, among many. Another good step is to avoid luxuriating in white guilt and other Western catharses.

Discourse, voice, and rightness in an animal rights activist talk

Tonight I attended a talk at the Blue Stockings Bookstore on Allen Street in lower Manhattan with a friend, where we partook in a conversation about animal rights called Animal Rights Campaigning and Racism. Interesting questions framed the talk:

  • How can we campaign for animal liberation while being self-aware of privilege, xenophobia, imperialism, and the ongoing instrumentalization of animal welfare issues by racist parties and groups?
  • Who has the “right” to criticize “other” cultural practices?
  • What role does our language and imagery play?
  • Which targets should we choose?
  • How are we to remain sincere to our anarchist, emancipatory ideals for total liberation?

My friend, a near-vegan and animal rights proponent, had invited me to join her and I was looking forward to learning something new, especially with such a critical frame. Topics like decolonization, anthropocentrism, and speciesism came into the thread, and some of the important racist dimensions of the construction of animals-as-inferior, which include anti-indigenous and genocidal practices in the past and present, were discussed by the moderators, three young people of color who had studied, participated in, and taught about animal activism.

I struggled with some of the discourse generated by the talk. A recurring theme was the indictment of the White Eurocentric settler colonialist tradition, which is absolutely important to discuss in terms of topics relating to oppression and consumption. Yet at times it seemed reductive. American thinking tends to be very race-centric as a way of constructing difference, and there is so much more to explore when thinking about the cultural relationships we have to our environments as human beings, including geography, religion, economics and labor relations (though capitalism and neoliberalism, in fairness, were referenced a couple of times). At times where someone brought up a point not considered supportive of the overarching theme mentioned above, like a comment by a young woman about food deserts, it was shot down fairly quickly either by the moderators, or with their support.

This is good to observe, as a budding professor and future moderator of conferences (I hope). I felt that the way the moderators spoke implied (a) a strong belief in one’s rightness, which was drawn from what were assumed to be common understandings among the group, and (b) an emphasis on pontification and proselytization. As a participant, this became a sort of drone that I ended up taking little away from.

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This really signals the important question of voice, which resonated with questions I have about how to manage my classes in a way which is fair and values all participants. Rather than give a blow-by-blow account of the night (it went on too long for my taste, with too much showing-off of knowledge, intermingled with teary accounts of one’s deep convictions and struggles), I’ll just say that events like this are instructive. They remind teachers like me that any leadership posture we have in a group confers power over internal norms and language use, terminology, processes of inclusion and exclusion, and other ways of shaping how the group interacts. And I hate to say it, but after this, I don’t know if I ever want to be a part of a “group” like this again.

Hesitation and dehumanization in the Syrian refugee crisis

Pope Francis, a beacon of what many from various quarters hope could be a new trend in religious leadership, today has taken three families who are refugees from the Syrian Civil War with him to the Vatican. The war, which rages on into its fifth year and finds thousands of people continuing to flee the conflict, often ending up in squalid conditions in refugee camps, under threat of renewed violence by receiving countries, or worse, has created an international dialogue about how to resolve the eternal question of how to care for our fellow human being while maintaining our own stability and security.

Or is it? I had a professor challenge me on a comment I made last year about immigration, in which I discussed the relationship between the Global North and the Global South, and how those of “us” in the former category owed a moral commitment to those in the latter. The division, as I read more, becomes clear as a discursively constructed dichotomy which, not surprisingly (considering the source, e.g., American and Western European intellectual types) positions people living in Africa, Latin America, and other parts of the world in the Southern Hemisphere as “lower” in value and stature while appearing to describe this distinction in political and socioeconomic terms. I’m becoming more aware of the fact that seeing someone as “lesser” in some way derives justification from one’s relative ability to dehumanize them, whose precedent precedes written history.

This quiet illumination notwithstanding, my professor’s challenge was a simple one which dredged up much confusion: “So are you saying we should just get rid of borders and have everyone move anywhere they want?” I hesitated, and, being a grad student, came up with a deft though ultimately noncommittal hedge: “Well, we’d need to build a lot more infrastructure and consider the economic and political, not to mention social, changes that such a decision would imply.”

Where does this hesitation come from? Certainly it is true that I am not an international relations specialist, or a political leader of any sort. I can plead a certain amount of ignorance about the matter. Still, I wonder how much “hesitation” is staying the hands of those who have, indeed, studied and been trained in the resolution of border-complicating questions like mass migrations due to war or natural disaster. And why is it that Pope Francis can respond with such a bold and non-bureaucratic act? Is this simply symbolic, meant to inspire and change minds, or is it substantive as a commentary on the inaction, the discursive reduction of the thousands of refugees being held in detention camps to animals in cages both by their treatment on the borders of Macedonia, Turkey, and other countries as well as by the international prattle?

Great reporting is offered by PBS Newshour, as it includes the voices of many participants rather than simply creating images for shock and consumption that are bandied around on Facebook and then forgotten like the most recent episode of GoT. It seems, too, particularly important to think about where we get our information from and how the truth is distilled from so many versions of the story. Our historical capacity to forget how to think critically — let alone engage ethically — is one against which we must struggle.

Immigration and the question of assimilation

When I was in in masters program at UMass Boston, the word assimilation came up occasionally in conversations about how immigrants adapt — or not — to their new cultural, social, and political environments. The old model of assimilation (defined here on Wikipedia) gets a bad rep, in part because it implies that (1) immigrants who come to a new country will invariably acclimate to their new surroundings in a unidirectional fashion, and (2) the receiving society by definition provides the cultural target that guides the process of adaptation. Newer visions, including one I’ve been exploring in a class at the GC with Richard Alba and Nancy Foner, discusses the relationship between individual, interpersonal, collective, and institutional dynamics as ecological conditions in which immigrants and residents in a receiving society interact and influence each other. I’m curious to learn more about some of the following:

(1) How does the political economic climate of any given time shift both public discourse as well as intellectual movements relating to how immigrants are perceived, received, and conceptualized (and, accordingly, humanized or dehumanized)? For example, the challenge to the old assimilation model came, not surprisingly, in the 1960s, when civil rights questions sat right in the middle of civic consciousness.
(2) How does academia overlook the structural barriers that exist to marginalize immigrants in the form of gatekeepers (teachers, employers, local representatives, etc.) and the ways in which their prejudices can unconsciously/consciously structure the outcomes of immigrants’ experiences of assimilation?
(3) How is the acceptance of new valid cultural ways of being — anything from the relatively new attractiveness of people of varied and uncertain cultural backgrounds (the Benetton ads of the 1990s come to mind) to the popularity of Trevor Noah — relate in part to processes of commodification under the heading of capitalism and its creation of consumer culture in the U.S.?
United Colors of Benetton
(4) What about racism, then? I’m not sure it’s gone. Rather, it seems to fade or flourish depending upon the political economic climate in which people live. At a geopolitical moment of economic uncertainty, fear, and anger, I think people are persuaded by arguments that our stability is further threatened by foreign-language-speaking Brown people, some of whom (according to two of 2016’s presidential candidates, see https://embed.theguardian.com/embed/video/us-news/video/2015/jun/30/donald-trump-mexico-comments-nbc-universal-video“>here and here) may be rapists or terrorists. How do the fluctuations in political economy and public discourse influence processes of assimilation and cultural experience of immigrants who come to this country? How does this change the conversation about topics like equality, access, and inclusion, as well as safety, security, and integrity?
To add a final real-life touch to these thoughts, I’m including a sign I saw on the NYC subway yesterday. It’s a campaign to poke fun at stereotypes about Muslims. I get it. But it makes me angry that it’s assumed that I’m a racist, a xenophobe, an Islamophobe. And it’s even more insulting to think that Muslims should have to apologize or explain themselves, even in encoded “jk” form.
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Undocumented immigrants and schooling: a class discussion

I’m teaching a grad course on Bilingualism and tonight we discussed the important but under-explored issues related to working with students who are undocumented/unprotected. Students in my class come from all backgrounds, some of which include being children of immigrants, both documented and undocumented, and some have even been undocumented at some point in their own lives. Rather than parse the complex and deeply emotional and personal space our class created once again as we worked together on topics drawn from a paper by Suárez-Orozco, Yoshikawa, Teranishi and Suárez-Orozco entitled Growing Up in the Shadows: The Developmental Implications of Unauthorized Status, I’ll share what I posted, humbled and deeply grateful, to my students tonight after class.

Hi everyone,

Imagination, play and un-justification

Noam Chomsky, world-famous linguist and probably the best-known living public intellectual in the 21st century, said in an interview published in Truthout in 2013 entitled Noam Chomsky on Democracy and Education in the 21st Century and Beyond:

Kids don’t know how to play. They can’t go out and, you know, like when you were a kid or when I was a kid, you have a Saturday afternoon free. You go out to a field and you’re finding a bunch of other kids and play ball or something. You can’t do anything like that. It’s got to be organized by adults, or else you’re at home with your gadgets, your video games. But the idea of going out just to play with all the creative challenge, those insights: that’s gone. And it’s done consciously to trap children from infancy and then to turn them into consumer addicts.

I ran into Chomsky, actually, in Market Basket, an employee-owned in Cambridge, MA on Valentine’s Day this year. Probably the most exciting celebrity sighting of my life and certainly one that left me blathering. Chomsky debated philosopher and social theorist Michel Foucault in 1971 and created the innatist theory of generative grammar, a theory of language learning which continues to be referenced in courses in language acquisition including the one I teach at Hunter College. He’s in his 80s now and it’s amazing to see him discuss modern geopolitical topics such as the political relationships between Israel and Palestine or Turkey and Kurdistan. Coming to the comment he made in the interview I excerpt above, I wonder what it is like to be a child nowadays, and whether what Chomsky is saying is true. It seems true, though it’s also true that parents are doing their best, and love their children, and defend their parenting decisions as being backed up by the best-informed and newest discussions of child development and health. The “it’s-just-the-way-things-are-now” trope is likewise bandied around, and I wonder if nostalgia isn’t the go-to for any generation past its own childhood years, glad not to return and yet wishing the now were somehow still for them.

However, I have to wonder…I didn’t have “play dates” as a kid. Granted, I grew up in a very rural town in a very wooded area, where there were no kids nearby and my single mother wasn’t there to shuttle us around to various social things. Still, I walked in the woods constantly, made up games with friends, sibling and/or cousins, explored and roamed alone, smelling moss, stroking tree trunks, listening. I wrote poetry. I breathed in the ripe body of a snowy midnight, blazing deep blue under a hoary moon, and didn’t rush back under my covers.

How to prove that was worth it, rather than what the newer generation does now, as its own normal? Is the lament for a loss of freedom, a lack of play unless structured (which might negate the term and replace it with “recreation”), a parsing of moments into qualified or “wasted” spending of time…Bourdieu said something about how before we labeled time according to consumption, to wage-oriented work, there was no such thing as “wasting time.” The student conference I attended included a smart student paper about the argument for being lazy, for fighting for the freedom from having to prove that we are either productive or consuming (or both) always. I saw a friend not long ago who, glazed yet somehow slightly self-righteous, stated that she was always tired, “so tired.” When I asked her about options for change, she showed no desire, or else ability to imagine things any other way, and told me more about how long her days were.

To be ambiguous…to be undefined…to be unjustified…even for a few moments. This must mean something. To be free…what is it to be free, to be a time spender, without having to make every moment productive? Enslaved by our fear of poverty, of losing our jobs and our stability, and maybe even of losing the top-down control over our lives which consumer society positions as a means of creating the illusion of safety, of membership. What then? What could we inspire, encourage, bring forth in our children?

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ODILON REDON [PUBLIC DOMAIN], VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS