Dec 15, 2005

Red Cross Head Resigns.

More evidence that my criticism and skepticism of the Red Cross were not wholly unwarranted.

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Dec 14, 2005

Debating So-Called Immigration Reform

I was glad to see that Sepia Mutiny picked up on HR 4437 (the so-called Border Protection, Antiterrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005) and urged its readers to do something. Regardless of whether the bill eventually passes, it sends a very strong message that the restrictionists, the know-nothings, and the xenophobes are gaining ground and pushing a restrictionist, ultra-right wing agenda that can get quite far. It's very scary stuff.

But as in the past, I was really troubled by some of the comments on about this bill. Some folks don't seem to be able to take off their desi, middle-class, status-holder hats to think about what this means on a broader level. Not that I have all the answers, but it's funny how some of these things are just understood in radical/progressive desi/immigrant rights spaces, but in mainstream spaces, they have to be revisited again and again. But since commitment to progressive work is also a commitment to education, let's learn together...

The small picture thinking around issues of so-called illegal immigration views the concerns of the state as central in a debate that affects large populations of people whose fundamental human rights are eviscerated by hateful laws . These laws do little more than slap around people who are not empowered to vote or pay the legislators to leave them alone (insert religious right, corporate hogs, and every other interest group *here*), and pander to the ignorant (and I would say, less than majority) base in America.

But we shouldn't just accept the question of who is allowed to be in this country as some kind of inherent granted privilege. This so-called "legality" is a fiction. If not for its arbitrariness, then for the sheer fact that it has become a new way to split our communities - by immigration status. And immigrants and their progeny who were allowed to come here were picked by the people in power to fulfill specific roles in U.S. economy. Let's not get too carried away with the thought that there's some real distinction between people who are "illegal" and people who have been allowed to come here. For some reason, some immigrant community members think that they are somehow more worthy of the opportunities presented by the United States (read: money) just because they fit the description of what the nation was looking for at the time (or their parents did).

People come to the United States for money and a stable future for their children. The fundamental freedom that they want is to be left alone, like the not-so-innocent Pilgrims who started the colonial experiment in the 1600s to come here so that they could continue to stone and burn people and do whatever else they did at the time. But I digress. The point is, people migrate more because the situation back home isn't stable or they won't get a good return for their investment of time and work in a lifetime. The promise of America is more the freedom to get more for your hard work than in places where the social order is even more rigid than it is here, and that inequality is state-enforced. Some (myself included) would argue that the inequality and class divide in the United States is also state-enforced, and the gap is widening, but still - the prospect (or false hope) of moving from one strata in this society to another is very present and very known to people who come here. It is the Gold Mountain myth, the land of opportunity myth, whatever else different communities have called it. But that possibility is still more than many have in their home countries.

But the critical piece that restrictionists and their apologists don't acknowledge is that the ridiculous difference in economic conditions between the North and South are very much the result of colonial and imperialist powers doing as they pleased for hundreds of years with no regard to the long-term effect, or even the human cost of subjugation of entire races of people. The vast majority of people who come to the United States, including those who come through the channels that are currently authorized by the government, do so with two hearts - leaving home, where your roots and your people are, as well as your comfort to be one of many rather than one of a minority, where you can speak in your own language and hear the songs of your ancestors in the street life - that decision is heartbreaking. The promise of America is more for the immigrants' children than it is for themselves, and I know that I am the beneficiary of my parents' decision to move here, far more than they were, isolated and far from home as they were.

For people living in the shadows of the American majority culture, immigration status is a barrier even to trying to access critical human needs, and it is becoming increasingly more difficult. Shunning those who came via different paths, and distancing ourselves from those who are the most vulnerable to the periodic waves of extreme anti-immigrant sentiment, is both a disservice to our brothers and sisters, and a movement towards becoming a house hajji who adopts the white mask and forgets that the violence of the United States doesn't end with wars - that its past and current immigration policies very much constitute a structural violence against peoples of the world, and we shouldn't sit back and take it. Not in our names.

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Dec 11, 2005

Debating Australia

Got involved in a discussion on SM for the first time in a long time, about racism in Australia. Rather than post there, and because of limited time, I decided to just to keep my thoughts here. If you're visiting from that thread, feel free to pile on here.

Australia has been extremely xenophobic as a matter of national policy. Of course, the United States is certainly not a beacon of openness in the world community (for a good example of this, and a call to immediate action this week, click here about HR 4437, an ugly bill that turns aiding undocumented immigrants into a felony) and more of Europe is moving in this direction, but Australia has been there for a long time - and my statement that you couldn't pay me to go there is a personal statement of my own fear of what may happen to me, even though I have relative privilege of gender, class, and status.

Discrimination is one thing - overt xenophobia as espoused by national policy (see Australia's refugee policy), is another. Of course the United States is a beacon on this, from exclusionary immigration acts to the death blow of the 1996 Welfare reform legislation, and even what's going through Congress right now.

Admittedly, I don't know enough about Australia first hand, but I would definitely want to hear the perspective of different people - when you listen to middle-class desis talk about the United States or the UK, the perspective is very different from that of more working class or recent immigrants.

I wonder if the same is true for different classes of immigrants and refugees in Australia, even from the same broader diasporic community. How is it for non-English speakers? How is for folks who live more on the margins of Australian society? Has Australia moved forward from its xenophobic past, the way that Canada has? Or does it remain in a way more troubling than just fringe groups or politicians, sorta how it does in the United States.

Though it's reassuring to hear some positivity out there about Australian society, individual accounts of "I'm okay, you're okay" don't seem convincing enough to me. For every person profiled or harassed for being of a particular religion or ancestry in the United States, there's always someone else ready to supply a soundbite of "I've had no problem, I'm very thankful for being here." Neither picture fully represents what's happening, and I guess it's hard to really get an accurate macro picture.

And it's also a question of more at stake than just "what's going to happen to desis here, there, or wherever." Distilling racist and anti-immigrant instances into a "what's the brown factor" analysis amounts more to a "tell me why I should care" lens that threatens the basis of coalition-building. The point isn't how this affects your future vacation plans to Australia. The point is that the fundamental infringement of peoples' rights to live without fear and to migrate peacefully are at risk, and the basic values espoused by international human rights law are being undermined.

So I've been thinking about it not just as a desi, but as a member of an immigrant community - and I've been wondering for the many different paths and peoples who have made their way to the shores of Oz, what were their experiences? Is there tension? Or is there a thin veneer of 'tolerance,' which need only be scratched lightly to reveal the animosity that festers beneath. I'm not really convinced that Australia is a welcoming place to communities of color, and I'm not convinced that it's analogous to places like Canada or the UK, which while still facing racism and other issues of difference, have a large enough immigrant/non-white community to have to deal with these issues.

The United States is still stuck in passive "multicultural" window-dressing mode, rather than more active anti-racist work, but then again, we still have our heads up our asses about global warming and radical climate shift, so I'm not holding my breath about an honest confrontation of the American tolerance myth.

I'm just driven by hope that the world will grow up quickly, so that the brat in the room (us) can follow suit.

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Dec 10, 2005

Desi Orgs: The Big Tent.

This is interesting. Some folks have come together recently to launch an initiative called "Desi Orgs" which they claim, on the website, will focus on "the use of technology to communicate better and to give the ALL desi groups an opportunity to convene online, and, perhaps, once a year in person. Groups that have never dealt with each other on a regular basis are finally going to get a chance to."

An interesting development, and worth watching to see where it goes. The meeting is today, so I'm interested to see what comes of it. It seems like, because of some of the players involved, it will probably get decent press, but I would urge anyone reading at home to wait a bit for the enthusiasm to settle. This isn't groundbreaking, but it would be useful to have a calendar and perhaps a database, for organizations. If that's the only agenda, more power to them.

However, the utility of bringing together groups of all stripes simply because they have overlapping contacts or constituencies is questionable, if it's for some other purpose. Most of the "South Asian" groups in the United States, especially those without an explicit progressive or radical mandate, are governed predominantly with an Indian, Hindu, male, heterosexual focus.

As a person with radical values and progressive tendencies, I worry about the marginalization of women, queer communities, the arts, minority religions, creeds, languages, castes, geographies, abilities, divergent or radical politics, ages, citizenship status, work status, and the like. I question the bull-headed determination to crank out the largest gathering of South Asian organizations possible, without a sense of what unites them. Race- or national origin-based organizing has its utility, but it also has its limitations. If you bring these groups together with only that common denominator, the prospect that they can see eye-to-eye on anything (even the concept of "South Asian" is hotly contested by traditionalists/neo-nationalists) is very unlikely. Regardless, even if this extraordinarily heterogeneous group of groups can find some common ground, with such radically different views on so many things, how can they work together, or find allies in a common struggle from different communities?

Aside from the sea of hegemonic indo-cultural groups (many of whom promote a monocultural narrative as the sole vision of an India or South Asia that has many more facets), there are more malignant currents in the community, many of whom are rabid about their neo-theocentric-nationalism, trying to paint India, Pakistan, Bangladesh in a particular brush, streamlining, reinventing, and rewriting histories to conform to a world view that excludes the perpetual others that make a uniform view of any of these nations very problematic. Ethnic cleansing begins with the negation of peoples' histories, and some of these folks are damn good at it. I wouldn't want to deal with them, for any reason. Even I feel marginalized by these folks - what about more traditionally oppressed groups within our communities? But perhaps my progressive bias shouldn't taint this post. Still...

Besides the obvious problem of bringing together people with many different agendas (some with communal perspectives), I am worried about the ability of the many political and quasi-political organizations and groups, including the many political action committees that have sprung up to the various folks vying for an elected seat somewhere, to push their agenda in a mixed crowd like this. Is it just a big networking opportunity for ambitious self-promoters to dredge up support for their foray into the wide and wacky self-promotive world of politics? Without a filter or framework to bring people together, what keeps these folks from hijacking the agenda?

The desi left may have many rifts and partitions within itself, but I think that folks generally agree that there is another threat to our work than a competing theory of change from a sister organization. Everyone coming to a meeting of desi organizations has an agenda, but does it make sense to bring them all together without sufficient shared common ground? What purpose will it serve, and does that purpose transcend individual dreams of recognition?

Keeping my heart open is more difficult when confronted with the ballooning egos of many desis involved in non-traditional careers and life pathways nowadays. Everyone is a so-called social entrepreneur, on the cusp of introducing the idea that will make a unified desi voice a reality. So many people enter this work with the perspective that they have the silver bullet, and that it can't be that hard - it just takes the right person, people, or know-how.

The remarkable hubris in that calculation, as well as the inability of many folks to realize that this work takes time, commitment, an open process, and a dedication to the value of community empowerment rather than personal achievement, drive me crazy. Community work is messy, is built on relationships, and takes time. Trust is built through experience, not emails. And without that trust, without that stable and firm foundation of shared values and vision, efforts are hollow and will be unable to weather the challenges of consensus building and conflict, both internal and external.

I will reserve judgment for now about the Desi Orgs initiative, because I don't have the details, and I should be positive about developments, even if I don't understand the underlying motives. I know that there will be posts and articles about this phenomenon and initiative, and thought I might as well get my initial thoughts out before the flood for what it's worth. Let's see if I'm pleasantly surprised.

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