Hypothesis: Whiteness is a Dinosaur
Let’s start from this premise. Whiteness is a dinosaur. It may perceive that the asteroid has already struck, that its extinction is already pending. But it has not yet adapted to the emerging paradigm. Whiteness is aging to death, and white people must develop new mental technologies to understand itself in relation to others, new ways of being in a coming world where they do not inevitably comprise a dominant class.
Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera is not just about race, though race discourse saturates it. The book deals with sexism and machismo and sexuality, and the ways that families craft their children’s experiences and demand conformity to custom. She deals with religion and mystic vision, the archetypical processes of birth and death, and the lived struggles of writing, being a woman, being a sexually nonconforming Latina. The book is a rich and harrowing experience, multivalent and layered. It uses many languages and modes of expression. It is poetry and analysis and reportage at once, and cannot be conveniently summarized. I urge you to read it. Perhaps the best measure of the book's continuing relevance is not that it is taught in universities and cited as influential, but that some people are trying to eliminate it.
In Arizona, since the passage of House Bill 2281, legislators and administrators have successfully dismantled a curriculum in which Borderlands/La Frontera is a canonic text. John Huppenthal, Arizona’s Superintendent of Public Instruction, was elected in 2010 on a campaign promise to “Stop La Raza” (in reference to the National Council of La Raza - literally "the race" - a national non-partisan Hispanic advocacy group). He and his allies targeted Anzaldúa’s work. There are many, many approaches offered by Borderlands/La Frontera. Here I want to focus on race, because I think that frame provides an opportunity to consider a question that illuminates the power of this work. Much has happened since the first publication of Borderlands/La Frontera 25 years ago. Changes in policy, generational change, new wars, new ways of thinking. And Borderlands/La Frontera remains a threat. Why ban a book that is 25 years old, and that has probably been taught in public schools for a decade? Has Anzaldúa’s book become more dangerous as it ages? Why now? I would like to pull back and look at the terrain, the context in which Gloria Anzaldúa’s way of thinking, her expression, has been attacked. I would like to start with the premise that whiteness as it has been constructed and enacted is going extinct.
The Baby Boom in the United States, which lasted roughly from 1946 to 1964, immediately preceded a major change in American border policy. In 1965, just after the birth of the youngest Baby Boomers, the Immigration and Nationality Act passed, despite widespread public protest. The Act lifted a decades-old restriction that had limited the flow of immigrants through a "National Origins Formula." The old system was designed to preserve the racial and ethnic makeup of the United States as it had been at the 1890 census. After 1965, immigration restrictions were far less oriented to race and ethnicity (1), and white demographic dominance began to end. Baby Boomers are the oldest and largest remaining generation to have come of age in a United States representing a sort of artificial "game-preserve" ratio of whiteness. The racially discriminatory distribution of G.I. Bill benefits for homecoming World War II soldiers spurred the rapid construction of white suburbs and a huge increase in college education among white men, but left out many black veterans and their families. Racial segregation and the widespread criminalization of "miscegenation" prevented and punished relationships between white people and everyone else. State-level miscegenation laws were deemed unconstitutional in 1967 – again, just after the birth of the youngest Baby Boomers. The Baby Boomers came of age in the last years of an apartheid-type legal system that maintained white power and privilege, and an immigration policy that kept white people in the majority. When white Boomers wax nostalgic about idyllic childhoods, they are recalling the salutary effects of systematic racism: White schools, white neighborhoods, white workplaces, white government.
According to 2010 census data, white people currently account for less than half of total births in the United States. Says one report, “New [sic] minorities [sic]—Hispanics, Asians, and other groups apart from whites, blacks, and American Indians — account for all of the growth among the nation’s child population. From 2000 to 2010, the population of white children nationwide declined by 4.3 million, while the population of Hispanic and Asian children grew by 5.5 million.” What does this mean for power relations in an ostensibly democratic republic? Today, 29% of eligible voters belong to racial and ethnic "minorities," as those who are of non-white/non-Anglo/non-European descent have been termed. In the U.S. population under the age of 18, "minorities" comprise 46% of the total – and their numbers are growing much more rapidly than whites’. Simply, the white population is getting old, and the last big white population bubble, the Baby Boom, is about to pop.
These demographic changes amount to a tectonic shift in white dominance. Suddenly, majoritarian democracy doesn’t seem like such a sweet deal to significant numbers of white people, especially in those Western states where "minorities" will soon be the largest populations. The manifestations of white demographic panic can be seen in escalating disenfranchisement and voter suppression, in public support for supermax immigration detention centers and mass deportations, in the ludicrous fantasies of an Israeli-style border wall on our Southern borders, and in the efforts to expunge ethnic studies and multilingualism from public education.
White dominance could once be depicted as a natural byproduct of democratic processes. When whites comprise the majority of enfranchised voters, the mainstream narrative on race and immigration was assimilationist - the problem of getting recalcitrant minorities to adapt and assimilate to the majority culture, to adopt "our" values. It’s apparently become harder to find enough rhetorical flesh to cover the skeleton of white supremacist ideology: witness the nervousness with which mainstream media commentators describe the developing demography, using awkward phrases like “minority-majority” and references to an outdated model of "assimilation." Who is assimilating who, and on what basis, when the minority is trying to control the majority?
Now, as the nation approaches a demographic tipping point and white supremacy can no longer be justified within a framework of majoritarian ideals, we see a shift towards blood-and-soil nationalism uncoupled from the convention that democratic decision-making is one thing that makes America great. One manifestation of this phenomenon is popular support for Tea Party candidates who are explicitly anti-government and seek elective office in order to disrupt the functioning of governmental processes, thereby increasing inefficiencies that justify "starving the beast" with reduced taxation and funding. This strategy directly undermines the democratic process. The United States has a problem: "civility" in public discourse has declined, cross-party and cross-class cooperation has become more and more rare, many are restive and angry at the winner-take-all electoral system. But the problem is not Tea Party Patriots or Republicans or even Baby Boomers, it’s white people. Or, to be charitable, it is white people who are loyal to the construction of whiteness as dominant, whiteness as superior.
The civil rights movement of the 1960s, which did so much to address legal racism, did not resolve the problem of white dominance. Segregation persists. Inequality persists. Why? Because whiteness, deeply encoded with its lineage of "superiority," "manifest destiny," and all the rest of it, also still persists. Segregation and inequality are still enforced even though the laws are now facially neutral and do not mention race. We have something like "universal" suffrage, although the right to vote is still not inclusive of most newly-arrived Americans and is unreasonably exclusive of people with criminal records. The right to vote has itself become less meaningful and more tenuous through districting, disenfranchisement and hugely imbalanced campaign financing driving up the cost of candidacy. We have seen the end of civil segregation, but since then, white purchasing power has maintained economically and racially segregated neighborhoods, and tax regimes work to concentrate resources in white suburban schools while starving urban or "minority-majority" districts. We have seen public universities open their doors to a wider variety of Americans, compelled to eliminate racially discriminatory admissions practices, but tuition has increased exponentially and raised an economic barrier to higher education. We no longer filter legal immigration through a web of racial entry standards, but discriminatory policing of immigration "crime" continues. When the National Origins Formula was jettisoned in 1965, the bracero program also ended, and the seasonal migrations of Mexican people who work American farms - previously not just legal, but encouraged and incentivized by the U.S. government - suddenly became illegal, and criminalization of migrants and immigrants has escalated since.
Federal immigration legislation during the intervening period reflects two large-scale trends: a focus on terrorism, as embodied by terrorist "aliens," and an ongoing "severity revolution" manifested in the War On Drugs and punitive anti-welfare policies. The immigrant-terrorist-criminal conflation which has become overt and pronounced in the 2000s was prefigured by legislation (2) that began to explicitly draw this link during the 1990s. Among other broadly influential effects, legislation has increased immigration penalties, added many minor offenses to the list of deportable crimes and invented new crimes that only immigrants can possibly commit. For example, failing to appear for deportation is a federal crime punishable by four to ten years in prison (followed, of course, by deportation).
We tend to imagine that the events of 9/11 instated a new hyper-vigilance, and we normalize post-9/11 legal changes as extraordinary measures for extraordinary times, accepting the official histrionics, accepting the state of exception which looks an awful lot like martial law. But note that sweeping legal changes were well underway before September 11, 2001. The conceptual nexus between terrorism, immigrants and people of color, and crime, which has been amplified and refined to enormous effect in the last twelve years, is not just conceptual. It undergirds a very concrete program of intervention – legal, economic, medical, interpersonal – which has developed over the four decades since the civil rights movement and is exactly coterminous with the period during which the Whitest Generations have held political power through demographic dominance.
If federal laws are bad, local rules can be even worse. Some states are asserting that they have the right to enforce federal immigration law on a local level – and even to exceed federal law, supplementing an already punitive regime with laws that are openly hostile to particular people. The white panic around undocumented immigrants (and those profiled as potentially undocumented) has undone basic protections under the rule of law. In Alabama, despite a recent judicial rebuke, it is a felony for an undocumented person to apply for a business license or a driver’s license, or to obtain basic running water from a public utility company (3). U.S. citizen children have been denied food stamps because their parents are undocumented. In some jurisdictions, eyewitnesses to reported crimes are regularly checked, detained, and deported when they appear to participate in trials. One county sheriff, who instructs his deputies to check immigration status during routine traffic stops, reportedly explained his program by claiming that vigilance is necessary because Mexicans are “different.” He claims their "different morals" lead them to drink heavily and to sexually abuse children (4).
When sheriffs and lawmakers and school board members talk about immigrants, they are talking about Mexicans; they are not talking about all immigrants without distinction. Here is where Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands comes under specific, direct attack. In Arizona, the law against teaching "ethnic studies" is a ban on Mexican-American studies in particular. During the forced dismantling of the Mexican-American Studies program in Tucson Unified School District (5), Borderlands was listed in a state-commissioned audit as a text "inappropriate" for teaching in school. It has apparently been removed from the curriculum. Officials clearly state that it is now against Arizona law to teach critical race theory, or even to discuss head-slappingly obvious phenomena like the relationship between racism and slavery. Tucson’s assistant superintendent Abel Morado was recorded explaining to a schoolteacher the legal constraints on how The Tempest could be used in class. Apparently, teachers must learn to avoid “buzzwords” like "oppression" and "racism“: "The nexus of race, class, and oppression is the problem. When those features converge, then there’s where the problem rests.”
There has been a great deal of controversy surrounding the claim that the school district has "banned" certain books (6). The district insists that only seven titles were removed from classrooms, and that copies of those books are merely in storage and/or available in the library. (12) Schoolchildren report distress at seeing district officials entering their classrooms, while classes were in session, to box up and take away the books from the shelves. The question of whether or not the books are "banned" is a side issue. Book banning is never right, but neither is systematic racial oppression, and the latter is the real heart of the situation in Tucson.
Arizona, along with Alabama, Georgia, and other localities, is engaging in the calculated production of fear, hoping to cause "self-deportation," or "attrition through enforcement." The stated aim of harsh local regimes is to make conditions so unbearable that immigrants will "voluntarily" return to their birth countries. Under these conditions, fear is well-founded. This is a dehumanization program. It is a calculated expulsion of a group of people, constructed as an ethnic threat, from the sphere of collective responsibility that encircles and defines humanity. Human sympathy can be expressed in few terms more basic than the feeling that people should have water to drink and food to eat, that none should starve at a table groaning with plenty. In order to deny someone the right to drink water, to deny their children food to eat, you must somehow deny their humanity. Patrolling borders is not just ensuring the clear delineation between nations. In very material ways, the border is policed as though it separates human from the non-human. As Anzaldúa teaches us, border zones are their own complex territories. And those who are caught on the "wrong" side of the national boundary are conceptualized – and more importantly, treated – as incompletely human.
It is in this context, in the midst of expulsion, dehumanization, and the active suppression of dissent, where white activists have come to view Anzaldúa’s book as dangerous. They are right. Dangerous books are dangerous to the order into which they are born. Borderlands is dangerous to the fundamental assumptions that underlie white domination. It exposes and names the harms of the system on both the macrocosmic level and in the searing sensibilities of one woman, Anzaldúa herself. Borderlands also provides alternatives to the regime of white supremacy – alternate conceptions of race, new models for hybridity and resistance, methods of defeating the internalized oppressions that infect as self-loathing and fear.
Anzaldúa, like her opponents, dreams of racial ascendance - of a horizon past which the current order is not just inverted, but toppled and trampled. She foretells a future that is past white racial dominance, and the future she saw 25 years ago is, perhaps, beginning to come into being today. The children of white loyalists are leaving their villages for the cities, where cosmopolitan exchange is possible. They are traveling to places where they are the foreigners. They are coupling and reproducing outside their race, ethnicity, culture, gender roles and language in unprecedented numbers. They are leaving the churches of their parents. They are reading books like Borderlands, and they are seeing something that their parents might not, perhaps cannot. Like her opponents, Anzaldúa thinks about race, about characteristics of the blood, constituted in the family line. But when she speaks of race, she speaks of a contingency, a shifting configuration that is never still, that is relentlessly adaptive, and her view is deeply informed by a bracing and vivifying aspect of evolutionary theory – the idea that categories and physical form are unstable, that change is inevitable, that the impending future is by definition unwritten.
She has absorbed a consequence of the anti-creationist upheaval of thought we call the theory of evolution, and it is one that I think white supremacists, especially those who cleave to deistic creationism and millennial apocalyptics, have also seen, if only in nightmares: That the theory of evolution requires not only a look backwards to the origins of species, but also a scrying into the future. What happens after the human race? What mutations will prove successful in the environments we are creating? What hybrids will populate the face of the future earth? In “No se raje, Chicanita/ Don’t Give In, Chicanita,” Anzaldúa tells of her vision:
“Quizá muriéndos de hambre como siempre
pero una nueva especie
piel entre negra y bronce
segunda pestaña bajo la primera
con el poder de mirar al sol ojos desnudos.
Y vivas, m’ijita, retevivas....”
“Perhaps we’ll be dying of hunger as usual
but we’ll be members of a new species
skin tone between black and bronze
second eyelid under the first
with the power to look at the sun through naked eyes.
And alive, m’ijita, very much alive...”
Suffering, the complaint, may be the one universal. We share the sense that things aren’t quite right the way they are. Anzaldúa is dangerous precisely in her grasp of the fierce hope that arises from intense suffering. Suffering, starvation, premature death - these are the irritants that biological beings morph away from. These are the base material pains that impel evolution. She is isolated because she is ahead of her time in a near-literal sense: She embodies a new hybridization of thought, of culture, an adaptation that has perhaps not reached its stasis, that is still in motion, stretching toward an environment that itself does not yet fully exist. She is the body adapted to Nepantla, the liminal zone, the space between bodies of water, which one must evolve to cross, and be evolved by the crossing. Anzaldúa knows that she is stretching, and she is not nostalgic for a mythic time when her particular adaptations made her kind the dominant force. She is eager for the next stage, the developments that will make her obsolescent, the new species who will roam the earth she has left behind.
It is this future orientation, and this idea of race as contingency, that sets her apart from her foes, from those who would ban her books and dehumanize her family. And this is part of what makes her dangerous enough to read today. Rather than urge you to read (or re-read) Borderlands because of its literary merits, its historical importance or its wide intellectual influence, I urge you to read it because those you must oppose would ban it if they could. Because it is a ferocious and ground-shaking work, and it strikes fear in the heart of whiteness. That fear is the education we need, right now, today.
(1) Though immigration policy has clearly retained its racialized character – now, the emphasis is less on racial entry requirements and more on racially disparate enforcement.
(2) See especially the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996; the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (ADEPA); and the Illegal Immigrant Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 (IIRIRA).
(3) Under the theory that signing up for utility service from a public utility is entering into a “business transaction” with a government entity.
(4) Juliet P. Stumpf, States of Confusion: The Rise of State and Local Power over Immigration, 86 North Carolina Law Review 1557, 1599.
(5) Over the loud and courageous protests of students, parents, teachers, and community members, a struggle which resulted in the arrests of middle school children and the firing of teachers, and which undoubtedly did more to radicalize the young students than any program of classroom study could. For video of student leaders, please see this compilation: http://www.youtube.com/user/ThreeSonorans
(6) Tellingly, the national public backlash against the idea that Tucson’s educational officials had banned the Tempest was quick, vocal and vehement, perhaps more so than mainstream criticism of mass deportations, indefinite detentions, torture in prison, or any number of other extreme violences against immigrants and people of color.
Sarah Lippek is an American writer, researcher, organizer, and generalist. She worked extensively with homeless young people in her hometown, Seattle, before moving to New York and becoming the inaugural director of the first needle exchange in the borough of Queens. A graduate of the City University of New York Baccalaureate for Unique and Interdisciplinary Studies and the Department of History at Central European University, she is currently a juris doctor candidate at the University of Washington School of Law as a Gates Public Service Law Scholar. Her work there includes co-founding the Northwest chapter of the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project, an international organization providing comprehensive legal services to refugees seeking resettlement. Ms. Lippek’s debut fiction collection, Complicity, was released by Publication Studio in 2010. A novel, 158 Suicide Letters, is forthcoming.
The artwork featured in this essay is provided by Malaquias Montoya. He was born in Albuquerque, New Mexico and raised in the San Joaquin Valley of California. He was brought up in a family of seven children by parents who could not read or write either Spanish or English. The three oldest children never went beyond a seventh grade education, as the entire family had to work as farm laborers for their survival. His father and mother were divorced when he was ten, and his mother continued to work in the fields to support the four children still remaining at home so they could pursue their education. Montoya graduated from the University of California, Berkeley in 1969. Since then, he has lectured and taught at numerous colleges and universities in the San Francisco Bay Area including Stanford and the University of California, Berkeley. He also served as Director of the Taller de Artes Graficas, in East Oakland, where he produced various prints and conducted many community art workshops. Since 1989 Montoya has held a professorship at the University of California, Davis, teaching both in the department of Art and the department of Chicana/o Studies. He is credited by historians as one of the founders of the social serigraphy movement in the San Francisco Bay Area in the mid-1960's. Montoya's unique visual expression is an art of protest, depicting the resistance and strength of humanity in the face of injustice and the necessity to unite behind that struggle. http://malaquiasmontoya.com/index.php