Exclusion starts here. | Jonathan McIntosh

Brown Existence Anxiety

The courts and the culture are building an edifice of exclusion

Exclusion starts here. | Jonathan McIntosh
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It never leaves me, this paranoia borne of being brown and female, immigrant and Muslim in the age of Trump. It is with me while I am waiting to have my blood drawn at a clinic and the two plump white grandmothers switch from talking about their grandchildren to how they like to post about gun rights. It is with me at the airport, when a ticket agent calls ICE on me despite the fact that she is holding my American passport. “You are born in Karachi, see” she says insistently and I get it: being a naturalized citizen is being a lesser citizen. It is with me when a scowling, white waitress insists that I sit at the breakfast bar, despite the fact that the restaurant is a sea of empty tables and I have asked to sit at a table. Even as I comply, she ignores me for a long time.

This weight, the burden of being brown and the paranoia that it entails is a secret ailment. The obverse of “white extinction anxiety”—that fear of demography working against whiteness—“brown existence anxiety” feeds on the feast of fear that is the present moment. It is not just the anguished, hapless, and hysterical terror faced by those suffering the most, the brown souls and their babies taken at the border, it is also the lesser mistreatments of brown-ness, the scowls and sneers, all the ordinary inflictions of distress that remain un-tabulated and uncounted.

White people, so central to all of this, are kept busy discussing the value of civility. “Let the Trump team eat in peace” scolded the Washington Post while considering the matter of three interrupted dinners for members of the Trump administration. Bands of other white people discuss it all heartily, over craft beer and at potlucks. For many the “right” stance on this is something that is yet to be figured out, an issue over which they can “agree to disagree” with some friends and relatives. Politeness too is deployed in the service of whiteness, a decree that has decided that a dressed-up racism, prettified with a bow, must be admitted at the table.

Even detractors keep whiteness at the center. When Charles Blow writes a retort to Pat Buchanan’s racism in the pages of the Times, it is not about brown-ness but of the demographic erosion of whiteness. It is well and good and expected, the sort of thing the good whites like to read. There is little mention in it of the brutality of transformed perceptions, or even the ever-rising stock of whiteness, and thus of white opinions, white benevolence, the popularization of “white nice.” Vice President Mike Pence models this best, a pursed lip smile and deep-voiced concern, even at the slaughterhouse of brown dreams. There may be fewer white people, I want to tell Mr. Blow, but they count for many more. Their numbers do not matter, their power does.

To write of “white extinction anxiety” keeps the matter of whiteness at the center.

There are numbers that are better at foretelling the future. Since 1990, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services has filed cases to “denaturalize”—that is, revoke the citizenship of—just over three hundred people. But soon that technique may affect thousands. While presiding over the sordid tableau of wresting children from their parents at the border, the Trump administration has also launched an effort to strip those Americans of citizenship that it believes “cheated the naturalization process.” For an administration that plainly detests all brown immigrants, describes them in terms of infestation and invasion, it’s easy to imagine an effort to round up even hundreds of thousands to be subjected to such scrutiny.

I worry about this and other brown, naturalized citizens do, too. I did not lie on my application, but I am not sure the truth will matter or prevail and even if it eventually does, it will do so only after imposing large costs. As the white and lucky Americans debate civility, mourn the demise of democracy, I turn and twist at the possibility of having to be forced somehow to leave the country. As a lawyer, I know I could fight it; as a lawyer, I know that the legal system is imperfect, that it rewards whiteness. There will be no gut-wrenching tableau at the border when the de-naturalizations begin; there will only be the sterile cruelty of injustice enacted after the pretense of due process. I wonder if white people will debate this over dinner.

Brownness stings and hurts now; it is unshakeable and immutable and invested with a stench that seems to disgust America. A vast architecture of exclusion is already in place, its bricks placed carefully and consistently. Citizenship belongs to whiteness; the legalities and the details do not matter. Even the whites who do not participate in its construction are complicit in its valuation, the silent, secret triumph of being better. They hide their complicity in civility, in a concern for suffering whites whose loss of status has been pinned, glibly, to the job-grabbing of cheap workers in brown lands. The paths to brown condemnation are sometimes circuitous but they always point to the same color of culprit.

The Supreme Court, in the meantime, has done its part in the construction of the edifice of exclusion. Today’s decision in Trump vs. Hawaii finds a “rational basis” for discrimination against Muslims. The rational basis is the threat Muslims pose to national security—in other words, it is justified by white anxiety. The ruling is an expected one, and its triumph lends all of this president’s other exclusions the imprimatur of legitimacy. As the majority’s decision says “the Government has set forth a sufficient national security justification to survive rational basis review.”

The nod has been given to exclusion framed in terms of religion and skin color. The president has the power to exclude, the court decided; his prejudicial campaign statements against Muslims, loud and lewd and consistently made, did not matter. “Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States”—and now he has permission from the Supreme Court to do just that. And just like Trump, the court indulged in its own subterfuge, in the midst of providing a legal framework for religiously based exclusion: it finally issued a condemnation of Japanese internment camps set up in the United States during World War II. When pushing new architectures of exclusion, it is permissible to tear down the scaffolding of old ones. It is in Trump’s own words “a tremendous victory.”

And he will use it. While the adherents to “white nice” get distracted by another tweet about some other debacle, the brown who are now also the bad, will bear their burden, festering in the fear of further exclusion, bans and de-naturalizations. As they do with the crisis at the border, the good whites will watch and write and mourn, and exhort each other to let the architects of exclusion “eat dinner in peace.”

Rafia Zakaria is the author of The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan (Beacon 2015) and Veil (Bloomsbury 2017). She is a columnist for Dawn in Pakistan. She writes regularly for the Guardian, Boston Review, The New Republic, and The New York Times Book Review.

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