In 2017, the United States of America turned its back on refugees. History will judge us poorly, but that’s no consolation for the children, women, and men fleeing war zones today, thinking America represents safety and freedom. So while the Statue of Liberty boldly declares, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” the U.S. government has abandoned that ideal. In 2017! But this essay is not about Pres. Trump’s executive order, or the extraordinary responses by so many lawyers and other citizens who stood up for the rights of refugees and Muslims. It’s about the more deeply-rooted beliefs that allow such an executive order to come to fruition in the first place.
The executive order reflects a particular world view, an understanding of the world built on a tiered othering. Demonizing an entire people based on their country of origin or religion is only possible when we refuse to recognize their humanity. From the slave trade to World War II portrayals of the enemy to human trafficking narratives, racialized, spatial, gendered, and class-based forms of othering have enabled laws and acts that violate the rights of certain individuals.
I lived in New York City at the time of 9/11. I vividly remember the horrors of that day and its aftermath. I will never forget the smells, the missing person signs all over my neighborhood in the days that followed, the burnt office paper scattered on my block. But what I also remember is one of the most extraordinary expressions of humanity: Muslims, Jews, Christians, and others coming together for a candle light vigil in my neighborhood a few days later. I recall hearing about attacks on Muslims in parts of the country nowhere near the terrorist attacks. And I don’t recall a single such incident in New York City. Because we were neighbors, we saw the humanity in each other. The terrorists were just that. Everyone else in the neighborhood was a neighbor, a New Yorker, an American.
It’s hard to think about the long game when there are so many pressing crises that threaten the rights, and even survival, of millions of people right now. At some point, however, we must develop a meaningful response to these underlying attitudes. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights asserts that education “shall be directed …to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms…[and] shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups.” Education is critical. And we need to be innovative in our approach; it cannot be limited to formal classroom settings.
Literature and other art forms offer important spaces through which viewers can appreciate and understand the humanity of others. Explaining his approach to writing children’s books, Walter Dean Myers stated that when he wrote about poor inner-city children, he wanted “to make them human in the eyes of readers and, especially, in their own eyes. I need to make them feel as if they are part of America’s dream, that all the rhetoric is meant for them, and that they are wanted in this country.”
As Walter Dean Myers highlights, othering occurs not just with people in distant lands, but also with marginalized populations in cities and towns across this country.
My father used to say “America is the second best country in the world. There is no number 1, yet.” In other words, greatness is achievable only by acknowledging our own flaws and working to address them. The problem with othering is not only that it results in devaluing the Other, it also fosters characterizations of the Self as virtuous and without fault.
When we turn our back on others, be they refugees or children living in poverty in the United States, we are anything but virtuous.
Action is urgently needed to avoid repeating the awful choices of prior generations that we now condemn. But we also must build a sustainable movement that teaches tolerance and respect for one another, so that we can end the cycle of human rights abuses.
Note: The views expressed here are mine and do not necessarily reflect the views of any institution or organization that I work for or have an affiliation with.