We Are All Immigrants

I’ve been thinking about the nature of immigration recently: I am an American immigrant but because I am white, I'm exempt from the abuse currently afflicting many other American immigrants who do not look like me. I’ve seen a video of a man verbally abusing a Muslim woman for praying in the street. There is footage filmed on a smartphone from inside a car, the person in the neighboring vehicle shouting obscenities whilst telling the camera-holder that he should go home because he is a terrorist, that his visa will be rebuked. Last week in a local deli, a customer told the gentleman selling me a banana to take off his turban; he had been here long enough. The gentleman gave me my change — telling me it was $4.75 before thanking me in his American accent. These instances of overt racism and the talk of building a wall along America’s Mexican border are perhaps just the beginning. Will the next construction project entail fencing off the Canadians? 

The notion of a wall is particularly troubling. Walls aren’t only physical. They can be ideological, too. And those walls are much more intricate and dangerous in their form and function than a few bricks leveled and fixed together with some wet cement. They can’t be destroyed swiftly with a sledgehammer upon a whim. They take years, if not generations, to pick apart and dismantle and even then, the foundations can still be seen underneath the dust and the broken chips —like those I saw in Berlin, Germany, on a recent trip. 

I grew up in South Africa and when I was a child I was too young to know what Apartheid, a system of government implemented there between 1948 and 1994, really meant. I knew that on my passport, because of the color of my skin, the shape my facial features, and my wispy, white-blonde hair, that I was “White.” I also knew, despite being a child, that segregation based on race and skin color was the basis of so much socio-cultural and economic organizing in my country of origin. What I didn’t know then was that these systems of segregation were kept in place by laws dividing South Africa along racial lines and implemented with the intention of keeping it that way. This meant that resources — that everything — was separate, too. We had beaches designated for blacks, whites-only bathrooms and sinks, and separate education systems. 

My family left South Africa in search of a better life and perhaps, like the turbaned man in my local deli, our version of the American Dream. What would it be like, I wonder, if my Green Card were to be revoked because I was no longer deemed an American resident? But I don’t get stopped on the street, or hassled, or told to go home because of the colour of my skin. I am safe because I am "White." But this isn’t Apartheid South Africa. This is America, isn’t it?