The Sikh Captain America
Recently, I stumbled over a skinny, bearded, turban wearing Sikh guy, dressed as Captain America with a blue Turban that proudly presented the letter “A” for “America”. Internet platforms like Upworthy or newspapers like The Atlantic hailed the call for inclusion into an US-American nationalism of the cartoonist Vishavjit Singh. In a hilarious interview with Totally Biased he states „I was born here, right? I am as American as somebody else.“ (min. 3:54).
The Good National Subject
In the same video, one can observe a Black guy who has been caught on the street for a short interview on his opinion, saying that he would imagine Captain America to be taller, have more muscles and be whiter. He states the obvious: the personification of the U.S.A. as a nation is exclusively white, tall and strong. A skinny Sikh man therefore, appears to be rather funny than subversive. But why is it funny? Because it is paradox. It proves that the good national subject has never been the working class woman, the Sikh man, the Black African-American or the Filipina domestic worker. Nationalism is exclusive per definitionem, and outside positions can only criticize it as a whole instead of fighting for inclusion, as this usually goes on the cost of others.
The Power of Nationalism
Nationalism is not only based on exclusion, but simultaneously appears to be totally inclusive and can speak for the sake of ‘everyone’. For this purpose, forgetting parts of the history to create a single story, is essential. Loomba (2005) shows this by citing Ernest Renan’s 1882 essay “What is a Nation?”:
“Renan is emphatic, too, that ‘forgetting … is a crucial factor in the creation of a nation’ (1990:11; emphasis added). Thus, forging a unifying collectivity involves careful selection from multiple histories.” (Loomba, 2005: p. 163f.)
Thus, nationalism relies on the help of marginalized communities to perform their own parts in this forgetting history by getting a piece of the nationalist cake. So, I wonder if our Sikh Captain America participates in a nationalist narrative that claims “to include ‘all’ the people, the ordinary folk, to celebrate diversity and speak for the ‘entire’ imagined community. Thus, Benedict Anderson argues that ‘Regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship.’ (1991: 6-7)” (Loomba, 2005: p. 165).
Vishavjit Singh’s performance as Captain America shows both, that Sikh U.S.-Americans feel part of a nationalism that pretends to be inclusive (1) and simultaneously that it is never really convincing, the costume fits poorly.
The Good Ivy League Subject
Similarly, I consider the movements that have been started by “I, too, am Harvard” as saying “I, too, am part of an exclusive middle-class elitist construct of higher education as as the means for identity formation”(2). “I, too, am Harvard” demands inclusion into an exclusive community and in their fight for being the good Ivy League subjects they force the forgetting of those othered subjects that do not form part of it. They obscure the fact that many well-educated middle-class migrants completely loose their inborn statuses by migrating not only countries, but classes and castes. Like Rhacel S. Parreñas “Servants of Globalization” (2013) as well as Obinze in Chimamanda N. Adichie’s “Americanah” (2013, chapter 24) work as cleaners and maids, despite their high education and despite the fact that they acquire a middle-class status “at home” thanks to the money they earn from the unappreciated work. “I, too, am Harvard” obscures this contradictory class mobility that is the everyday experience of many marginalized positions, especially migrants.
Proof for this process of forgetting and obscuring can be found in Anna’s post on Oxford students: this very problematic stance that Oxford students recently made here. Suddenly, the angry criticism of discrimination becomes a hailing of diversity:
I will conclude with this very fitting quote:
“…nations , like other communities, are not transhistorical in their contours or appeal, but are continually re-imagined.” (Loomba, 2005: p. 170)
(1) Another good example is this blog of a Sikh who celebrates her new US-American citizenship and wants to help Sikh’s to pursue the “American and Sikh dream”: http://americanturban.com/about/
(2) I deliberately use quite a radical tone to trigger reactions, here. Feel free to intervene and make this blog controversial.
- Adichie, Chimamanda (2013): Americanah, Chapter 24, London: Fourth Estate.
- Anderson, Benedict (1991): Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, London/NY: University of Minnesota Press.
- Loomba, Ania (2005): Colonialism/Postcolonialism, London/NY: Routledge.
- Parreñas, Rhacel (2013): Servants of Globalization: Women, Migration, and Domestic Work, in: Carol McKann and Seung-kyung Kim (eds.), Feminist Theory Reader, NY: Routledge, pp. 202-217.
- Renan, Ernest (1990): What is a Nation?, trans. by M. Thom, in H. K. Bhabha (ed.), Nation and Narration, London/NY: Routledge, p. 8-22.