Identity Lines

Watching the primary campaigns (as little as possible to tell the truth) I am again struck by this notion of ‘immigrant.’

The conversation begins with who is and who is not permitted to be in our country. But this is not the beginning. Beginning the conversation with borders, allows us to forget our history and instead grasp for righteousness. The conversation is rigged from the start with national security balanced against national conscience. On one side the cries of economic stability and protection against terrorism. On the other, the cries of human rights and access to opportunity. So many words arguing across this line. So many lives threatened in one way or another.

An acquaintance of mine recently pointed to the line. He said something about blurring the line. He spoke about the artificial nature of the line. As an architect, he certainly knows something about lines and what they represent. But his words shook something else inside me.

Who draws the line?

That question drives me in many ways. Understanding who draws the line and why is a life long pursuit. In that endeavor, I am immediately confronted with where I stand in relation to the line. Am I on the left or the right? Inside or outside? Above or below? Do I straddle the line or have I made a choice?

The identity I carry is the same as the one who draws this line. Maybe not the actual map maker, who is represented by thousands of hands, but assuredly by the policy maker who at some point, drew a line on a map to say, “everything on this side belongs to us.” Then the scribes and the cartographers went to work, imprinting this line into law and practice. As a white American man, I know which side of the line I belong on.

But I question it. My ancestors arrived in America searching for the Dream. They came as many contemporary immigrants come, looking to provide a better life for themselves, and for me. And while I do not know for sure, I feel safe in assuming none of them considered the Nations that were here before First Contact. Which brings me to questioning the validity of my knowing which side of this line I belong on.

Belonging makes all the difference. If I belong, I have safety. I have opportunity. I have community. I have home. To question this belonging is to question the fabric of my entire experience. Who am I if I belong to the colonizers? Who am I if my belonging is rooted in genocide?

Coming to grips with the colonial project has been painful. My first impulse was to deny my complicity. It is too much weight to bear. My heart burns when I remember the pain and death my people have delivered to this continent. The people, the land, the animals. All have felt the touch of our supremacy and none have been spared. But this pain is hard to really grasp. It is too overwhelming and spans more generations than I can embrace. The most painful piece has been recognizing myself.

I want to belong. From the first memories of kindergarten recess, I have had a deep driving need to belong. The comfort and love within my family has been present from the first. I have been fortunate to know this kind of support. But still, I have always searched for ‘my people.’

The insidious manifestation of this search has been in the form of supremacy. My culture teaches us to ‘Strive for Excellence.’ And really, this is a pretty good value to hold. Unfortunately, that ‘Excellence’ more often than not, implies being ‘better’ than the rest. Being on top. Being faster, stronger, smarter, keener, more agile. My thesaurus lists Supremacy as a synonym for Excellence. Even in this fortune cookie wisdom, imparted to (how many?) boy scouts, sports teams, and graduating seniors, the roots of supremacy can be unearthed.

That supremacy has been my key to belonging.

My choice of tools has long been words. Debate class in Junior High. Dinner table discussions. Professional discourse. But most painful to recognize; negotiating relationships. My goal has been to win and be right. This supremacy was promised to me from early on, but not guaranteed without effort on my part. And that effort must be bent toward Excellence. That effort was designed to prove my Supremacy.

Recognizing this shook me to my core. It was always there. The arrogance was easy for everyone around me to see, but invisible to me. I honestly have believed most of my life that my view was the ‘best’ view. That my perspective was the ‘truth.’ I struggle with it now. It marked me in ways that I still do not fully understand.

And it marked those around me as well.

My supremacy hurt the people I love the most. That knowledge, more than almost anything, is what has compelled me to change and understand myself in a new context. I have seen how that supremacy has kept me distant from community and denied me belonging. I did it to myself.

What I remind myself is that I was taught this. With all the best of intentions, I was raised to Strive for Excellence. And perhaps you read this and think that Excellence is not such a bad thing. Surely being the best person I can be is a worthy thing. It is. But this Excellence, or Supremacy, is dependent upon someone else’s inferiority. And that is what hurts.

It seems to me that this drive to belong, through the avenue of supremacy, is what gives us the ability to deny the humanity of the immigrant. To be able to draw a line across the land and declare that line inviolate, can only be possible if we see ourselves as superior to the people on the other side of the line. Indeed, it is only possible if we see ourselves as superior to the land itself.

So how can I belong? If I reject the notion of supremacy, I am no longer a viable member of the race I was born into. Do not misunderstand; I am still recognized as a member and enjoy the privileges thereof. But I no longer know how to belong. There was no teaching that said, Strive for Equity. There was no instruction on how to be in community. Nobody taught me what humility looks like. How can I belong once I reject supremacy?

This is what I am attempting to learn. Community has many places within it. There are those who were born into community. There are those that come into community at a young age. There are those that have just shown up. There are those that arrived in community so many generations ago, that the names of the original individuals have been lost. Each of those places within community has a different way of moving and articulating. There is no need to draw a line.

Learning to see with immigrant eyes on this land requires me to learn the movements of the immigrant. This is how I can find belonging in community. To recognize that the immigrant belongs to community is not to suppose the supremacy of either the local or the immigrant. It is simply to recognize that each has a role to fill that is different than the other. Together, the local and the immigrant, move in creating community in a way that it did not exist yesterday, and will not exist tomorrow.

This is belonging.


Silverback Gringo


2 thoughts on “Identity Lines

  1. Your post’s analogy between immigration and colonialization, supremacy and subjugation, and how to belong in relationship and community is interesting to me. It makes me think about the concepts of tradition and lineage, and how prescribed roles between men and women, kings and peasants, predator and prey, are developed and sustained. It makes me wonder about how migration as movement and change brings about a stronger flux between our environment and our ability to respond to it. When we stay in one place for long periods of time, we adapt in deep and subtle ways to the stimulus around us. Norms and expectations are developed over time, and are reinforced through repetition.We develop layers of complexity that are in direct response to the multiplicity of information that comes to us from our world. When we move from one place to another, the data shifts, sometimes radically, and our sense of belonging is challenged. When we are faced with radical change, we operate mainly through the recognition of similarity or familiarity. We see or feel things that we remember from the past, and we try to recreate from a place of knowledge and control. The impulse to be right is often times akin to an impulse for survival. When our environment is foreign and unfamiliar, we struggle to juxtapose our “righteous” understanding of the world upon what we don’t yet comprehend. Wanting to be right can be a self-defense against feeling helpless in the face of data or stimulus that confuses us, or that we don’t feel we have the time or sense to assimilate. When we move so radically from one environment to another, we must take time to adapt, with deep and careful observation of what is outside of us. We have to still our internal landscape to receive what is given, rather than projecting ourselves on our environment in order to feel in control. When there is a real fear for survival in the equation, the impulse for control can be great. Even fear for basic needs being met can create a tension between us and our environment, and we can easily find ourselves seeking opportunities to feel safe by knowing more, being stronger, and even seeking to destroy what we don’t understand so that it no longer threatens us. But if we can surrender to a state of being that is both receptive and communicative, and to a faith in the universe being a place of plenty, then there begins a dance of the within and the without. It is in this balance of energy flowing from one place to another, through boundaries both invisible and real that growth occurs. Therein lies the music that the spirit needs in order to continue its timeless evolution. When we cease to move and change, migrate and form diversified communities, cooperate and communicate, we cease to evolve. Somehow, in this pursuit of belonging amidst willful change, I believe we are also seeking growth and opportunity that is more profound than just a better job or a bigger pot of gold, or a higher standing in the hierarchy of life. I believe that deep within the fabric of our human existence, we long to form a greater body of being, one that’s strength is built upon diversity and a greater understanding of the complexity of life…. Somehow this longing overpowers the discomfort of entering an environment where we don’t know, where we feel small or less than, or where we are unequipped to survive.
    Anyhow, that’s what your post made me think about… Thanks for writing.

    1. Thank you Heather,

      I can understand what you are speaking to. I appreciate your input.

      There is also a piece which I feel is important to recognize, embedded in our culture. It is probably as you said that, “Wanting to be right can be a self-defense against feeling helpless in the face of data or stimulus that confuses us, or that we don’t feel we have the time or sense to assimilate.” And with this, there is more…

      In 1452, Pope Nicholas V wrote a papal bull, “Dum Diversas,” addressing King Alphonse V of Portugal. This was the first document is what is known as the Doctrine of Discovery. I believe it is a stone in the foundation of supremacy which this country is built upon.

      “…we grant to you full and free power, (…) to invade, conquer, fight, subjugate the Saracens and pagans, and other infidels and other enemies of Christ, (…) and to lead their persons in perpetual servitude, and to apply and appropriate realms, duchies, royal palaces, principalities and other dominions, possessions and goods of this kind to you and your use and your successors the Kings of Portugal.”

      My feeling is that the emotional and spiritual piece you are pointing to is very important and vital. And that it is exacerbated by a belief system which is grounded in notions of supremacy.

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