By Hanna Drennan ’17
Over the weekend, I had the privilege to attend the Posse Plus Retreat where we discussed the theme of “Us versus Them.” In the beginning, I was a little irritated by the retreat’s overwhelming emphasis on identity politics, yet I was also keenly aware of the facilitators’ motivations to use identity politics to have us engage in a specific rhetoric that promoted tolerance and acceptance. Within this “safe space,” a few individuals “came out” as having voted for Donald Trump. It was clear that within the structure of the retreat that these boys were to be lauded for the courage to reveal their conservative political leanings where they were the minority among us “liberals.”
That same night, President Trump signed the Executive Order to ban the entrance of refugees and immigrants, even green card holders, from seven Muslim majority countries into the United States. I was livid and felt that my anger was being policed by the nature of the retreat. I grew increasingly frustrated by the overarching opinion that the “Us” and “Them” should work together to “reach a middle ground” and “understand where the other side is coming from.” The retreat was so entrenched in its dialogues of identity that conversations regarding systems of power and oppression were mostly ignored.
At one point in the retreat, a friend and I had the opportunity to have a conversation with a student who voted from Trump. He came up to my friend after a large group discussion, having felt that her comment was a personal attack towards him. She seized this opportunity to ask him which specific parts about Trump’s campaign had appealed to him.
“Hilary said she was going to take away our guns,” he responded. Whether or not he realized the fallacy of his retort, I realized that maybe a middle ground does not exist between me and someone who could vote for a man that speaks with such hate and vitriol against Muslims, Mexicans, women, members of the LGBTQA+ community, people with disabilities —anyone that is marginalized. I realized that this young boy, a political science student like myself, was simply too scared to lose his privilege.
He felt that Trump’s presidency could protect his privilege, probably shaken up by movements such as “Black Lives Matter” and a growing body of voices that challenge white privilege in the United States. How scary it must be for him to imagine a society where his identity, his story, his experiences are constantly invalidated, silenced and forgotten.
The problem with the “Us versus Them” discourse intended to evoke a desire to reach the “middle ground” between two distinct groups of people is that it ignores the larger, systemic power relations that constructs the “Us” by simultaneously excluding the “Them”. To speak specifically about immigration, in her book Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America, Mae M. Ngai argues that in the aftermath of World War I, an “interstate system based on Westpahlian sovereignty” was introduced within the reinforcement of nation-states and re-conceptualized the distribution of human rights. Ngai further explains that nationalism played a powerful role in excluding war refugees from claiming rights, as it was only membership to a nation-state that could guarantee an individual’s protection.
Without recognizing its role in creating the refugees in the first place, the United States implemented “hypernationalist immigration controls” to explicitly cast out refugees from entering its borders. Since World War II, however the United States has strived to portray itself as a benevolent receiver of immigrants (until recently), a place of desire for refugees who were escaping the less than satisfactory political systems of their homeland. Within this nationalist framework of understanding immigration, the United States’ absolves its participation in the production of refugees and the dialogue about the unequal power dynamic that exists between the “Us” and the “Them.” The reality is that a “middle ground” cannot exist in a context when the “Us” already occupies the higher, more privileged ground than the historically subjugated “Them.”
When the marginalized individual (“Them”) meets the desired “middle ground” with the more privileged individuals (“Us”), the terms and conditions of that “middle ground” will benefit and give more power to the privileged individual more so than to the marginalized individual from a systemic point of view. The identities and lives of so many marginalized groups in this country have been, and are, under attack, for too long.
We cannot compromise our anger through mere tolerance when historical legacies of oppression are already deeply ingrained and institutionalized to protect the “Us” while endangering the “Them.” Our fury should not be tampered by the seemingly benevolent rhetoric that “peace and love” can fix the inequality that exists between “Us” and “Them.” Instead, we need to shift the burden of fighting against oppression onto the shoulders of those who have long perpetuated it. No matter how unwilling and scared they may be.