I have spoken before, albeit vaguely and tentatively, about the need for a new identity – one that is locally rooted, “using a sense of place as a point of reference,” one that is “an alternative to white, American identity.” This is the second of my two “American Water/Desert Water” projects, and I think I may have had a mini-breakthrough with it.
Over the weekend, I finished reading Houria Bouteldja’s Whites, Jews, and Us: Toward a Politics of Revolutionary Love, and I am now in the process of re-reading it and annotating it. When I have finished re-reading it and annotating it, I will review it here at greater length. Suffice it to say, for the time being, that her core point is a simple one: if white supremacy is to be undone, its privileges will either have to be removed from white people forcefully or surrendered by white people willingly. The way of the former is war, and the way of the latter is peace, and Bouteldja (along with Cornel West, in her foreword) implores her readers – all of them, as the title indicates – to accept and work toward the way of peace.
It’s a big ask, and she knows it, and it begs the question about where to start, but that’s where I think I’ve had a mini-breakthrough. It’s a simple answer to Bouteldja’s challenge, and a missing piece of the “American Water/Desert Water” puzzle: divest yourself from the idea of America, and stop thinking of yourself as an American. De-Americanize yourself. I realize now that I’m not going to get away with finding “an alternative” to white, American identity, like an “alternative” outfit that I can change to match my shoes. I’m going to need a replacement identity.
Looking at those words on a page causes me serious unease, but that is in large part the point. Being an American is easy, and Americans laud the easiness of American identity (while paradoxically lauding the value of hard work). But the easiness of American identity – the way in which it magically supplies easy answers to hard questions – betrays its true nature. It is the product of an uncritical self-mythologizing, propped up by intellectual laziness and thinly-veiled self-interest. It is an imperialist identity, and it colonizes what it encounters, and it has directly caused or indirectly endorsed an unimaginable amount of human misery in the nearly two hundred and fifty years of its existence. It is a subset of a white imperialist identity that has caused greater misery still.
The fact is, I am complicit in America’s sins as long as I am an American, just as I am complicit in the sins of white supremacy so long as I am white. “[I] know what crimes have been committed in [my] name, or with [my] complicity.” But what if I was just a New Mexican? Or just a Burqueño? Or just a man? Or just a human being? Bouteldja’s polemic states plainly that “if your history made you white” - or American - “nothing is forcing you to stay that way.” The path leading away from my complicity and toward some meaningful solidarity is surely a long and difficult one, but I don’t think that it’s a particularly hard path to spot.
Donald Trump took to a podium yesterday and told the UN General Assembly: “America is governed by Americans. We reject the ideology of globalism and we embrace the doctrine of patriotism.” This remark was viscerally offensive to me, but – like many of Trump’s remarks – it was viscerally offensive by virtue of its complete accuracy. This is a country full of Americans: people who are far more disturbed and outraged by a football player kneeling during the national anthem than they are disturbed and outraged by American police murdering unarmed black children or American drones assassinating Arab teenagers or the oppression and torture of the gay community in Russia or ongoing ethnic cleansing and genocide in Myanmar. They have placed all their eggs in the American basket, and they have eyes for nothing else.
I can’t defend that anymore. It is indefensible.
So, I think there is one piece of the puzzle set in place – an edge piece, you might say, one of the easy ones, that gives me something on which to build. It is time for me to stop thinking of myself as an American, and time start thinking of myself as something else. What that “something else” is, I do not yet know – and it will take some time to divest myself fully of American identity, or to start actively identifying as an Un-American - and so the work continues.
Next on my reading list is Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God is Within You, and/or Belonging, by bell hooks.