Reinforcing nationalism from marginalized standpoints

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).

Sikh Captain America

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:

Oxford failure

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.

References:

  • 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.
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3 thoughts on “Reinforcing nationalism from marginalized standpoints

  1. Love ‘The Sikh Captain America’! I wonder how we could think about the project regarding Bhabha’s concept of ‘Mimicry’ and in terms of linguistics. Language wise, I am referring to the pun in the title: ‘Sikh’ sounds the same as ‘sick’, which means that you can’t ignore the multi-layered associations regarding religion (sikh), wellness (is Captain America skinny because he is ill? is American national identity ill because of multiculturalism?) or way that he is perceived by the kids on the block (being ‘crazy, cool, insane’ according to urbandictionary.com).

  2. I really like this post, thank you! I read this one after having written my reply to your comment on the Hijabi Photographs and I feel like we try to talk about the same thing but seem to be talking past each other in a way. What I am really concerned with regarding these issues of national belonging and showing of a flag (i.e. feeling in one way or another connected to a socio-geo-politico-cultural space) are the realities of people. While theory is of course crucial and a foundation, I often feel it is far detached from realities. For instance: what is nationalism? What is a nation?
    I agree with you that these concepts imply exclusion. But to be honest isnt there always exclusion when we speak of inclusion? the fact that one can be included means that others are excluded. Now whether exclusion has negative and inclusion has positive connotations is another question.
    So for instance that nationalism is always exclusionary and the national always excludes is obvious. What this means is a different question. What comes in here is what you also kind of refer to: value systems, such as western cultural hegemony, whiteness etc. It seems to me as if the actual problem is not necessarily nationalism as a form of identification with a geo-socio etc. place and community but that the specific nation has value attached to it and therefore in/exclusion is also valued in a certain way.
    A lot has to do with how these national rhetorics are employed and instrumentalised. Nationalism, again, means different things in different places. National pride is something else again. showing one’s flag is probably another thing. Maybe we need to be more specific and define what is meant by all these terms in specific contexts? can we speak of nationalism as one specific concept? Isnt it always different?
    Whether we like it or not, we live in a world divided in uncountable ways. Nations and national identification are just some of these and it seems to me that they are not always necessarily the worst.
    What do you think?

    …maybe it helps to explain a bit where I am coming from actually. So I grew up in Germany and would (still) never say that I am proudly German or anything like this. But having lived in the US for a year, this whole nationalism thing started to be really fascinating to me. On the one hand I was really disturbed by the fact that we HAD TO pledge allegiance to the (american) flag every morning in school, but on the other hand I loved this new home of mine and in a way found this national pride very appealing in a funny way. Then, when I moved to South Africa, this national pride came up again in a different form. “Proudly South African” is a slogan printed on all products made in South Africa and is also part of everyday rhetoric. In my experience most South Africans love their country and are proud to be South Africans. The rainbow nation rhetoric that I mentioned in the reply to your comment is also part of this. And to be honest, although I am today even more critical of nationalism and believe less and less in the concept of the nation state (at least theoretically and ideologically), this national pride appeals and feels good. I would be proud top be South African and I am proud to be a bit part of that nation. I am really lost on how to negotiate all of this, so this conversation is really great! I am probably more on your side of this discussion than on any other, FIliz, at least in a theoretical and political kind of way. But I am trying to play devils advocate in a way and get more behind these big words that are used in these discussions…

  3. I really enjoyed reading this post and also reading comments. Marieke, you raised so many intriguing questions!
    To answer your few questions out of my own experience, I feel like I have never experienced in/exclusion when I think of nationalism. Because we learned to believe that South Korea (actually two Koreas together) is one ethnic nation so that there were no people to exclude or include. And migration is relatively a recent trend. Of course, one ethnic nation is a myth. We shared border with many different ethnic groups in the past and the border was not clear. I totally agree that nationalism can be diversified in different contexts. After Korea was divided into two countries, nationalism was almost equivalent to anti-communism and/or anti-socialism. The state had a great power to promote nationalism because of the colonized experience and the threat of communism even though nationalism evolved over time. And probably not only the state but also people policed each other.
    Personally, I don’t like being nationalistic. I think it’s outdated and childish in some ways. Probably because I’ve been witnessing such kind of nationalism. Somehow I am proud of my mother tongue and cultural heritage such as food, art etc. I like the landscape of my country as well. But I think I would feel the same even if I was from the Netherlands or India.

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