Citizenship as Identity

On Friday October 14th, Leti Volpp, professor of law at Berkeley, attended the Revolutionizing American Studies seminar at the Center for the Humanities to discuss the concept of citizenship prior to her afternoon talk on the indigenous as alien. Here are the opening remarks for the seminar given by Cambridge Ridley Lynch, reposted with her permission from the Revolutionizing American Studies blog.

 

Opening Remarks for Leti Volpp Seminar

Dear all,

I hope you found Friday’s events as interesting as I did–between the two papers we discussed at 12:30 pm (“‘Obnoxious To Their Very Nature’: Asian Americans and Constitutional Citizenship” and “The Citizen and the Terrorist”) and Professor Volpp’s illuminating and detailed account of indigenous peoples and immigration law at 4 pm, I started my weekend with a lot to mull over.

Below you will find my introductory remarks for the seminar discussion. We moved away from some of the questions I had initially asked and towards a nuanced discussion of the concept of citizenship, so if anyone–including those who were absent–has any further thoughts, please feel free to voice them in the comments:

In the readings for today’s seminar, Professor Volpp leads us to ask important questions about the nature of citizenship. Her work is predicated in part on the multivalent qualities of the very word “citizenship”: using a rubric developed by Linda Bosniak, Volpp interrogates four separate versions of citizenship: “citizenship as legal status, citizenship as rights, citizenship as political activity, and citizenship as identity/solidarity” (“Obnoxious,” 5). In her studies of both Asian-Americans and Arab-Americans, Professor Volpp is able to identify a troubling truth about the nature of the United States polity: “the guarantees of citizenship as status, rights, and politics are insufficient to produce citizenship as identity,” a process which, in turn, forecloses the ability of minority citizens to fully exercise and enjoy their political and legal rights (“Terrorist,” 6). To say that untangling this complicated notion of citizenship—and most importantly, its bearing on race—is important in a democratic society like ours is an understatement.

There are many fascinating elements to each article that invite more detailed discussion, but I’d like to embark on a series of initial questions that explicitly link the two communities described.

One theme is that the exclusion of some minorities can benefit others—if, in “The Citizen and the Terrorist,” “other people of color have become ‘American’ through the process of endorsing racial profiling” (3), how do we reconcile—or, perhaps, break the cycle of—a process of othering that both helps mitigate historical structures of exclusion while transferring those same structures to another minority community? This is tied to Professor Volpp’s call for a “new form of struggle” (“Obnoxious,”12) and her note that the post-September 11 age might be “a moment for constructing coalitions” (“Terrorist,” 4), but just how can we extricate individual communities and society at large from this cycle, especially when it seems that we are caught in a Foucauldian structure of discipline or, at the very least, a democratic process that relies on exclusion as a foundational element in its construction of identity?

And, if hatred of Muslims since September 11 has ostensibly benefited perceptions towards the “legitimacy” of some Asian American communities, it seems that the recent fiasco over Amy Chua’s concept of the “Tiger Mother” indicates that a concern with Chinese foreignness has survived in another form, from geopolitical identification to a hard-wired cultural one: the idea of a Chinese spy has perhaps been replaced by the idea of the Chinese-American automata, trained with precision to succeed academically but woefully inadequate in common “American” social skills. An exploration of this attitude can be found in a subsequent long-form article by Wesley Yang in New York Magazine, entitled “Paper Tigers”—suggesting that for some 2nd-generation Chinese Americans, their very sense of personal identity is flimsy and two-dimensional. And although Yang is attempting to work through some of the very stereotypes that determine this point of view, it seems significant that Chinese Americans continue to be identified by their inability to fully assimilate into mainstream American culture—and therefore, still cannot be trusted to a full understanding of American citizenship. I ask this because I wonder if the process of othering doesn’t just get redirected into increasingly intangible ad insidious structures of exclusion.

In short, Professor Volpp’s articles are immensely important to our interrogating the inequalities of democratic American society. But I was also led to wonder: which is more devastating—explicit hatred of Arab-Americans, which is easier in some ways to identify and act against, or the subtle and continued marginalization of Asian-Americans? Is this process of exclusion merely an unending continuum? And finally, must we accept that the consolidation of American identity requires an “other” to define itself by going forward?

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