America and nationality, a troubled love story

For a long time, leaders (and many citizens) saw the United States as a country of, and for, white people. This is clear in our treatment of Native Americans and our trampling of many of the contracts we drew with them, and obviously, in our treatment of African slaves who then developed an African-American identity long before they were seen as legal citizens. With the powerful, nearly mythological construct of their "Manifest Destiny" backing expansion, Americans blazed across the continent, reaching the West coast and declaring nearly all that land, save for a small portion for Natives, as theirs.

But when it came time to seek other pieces of the Americas, there was a marked reluctance and not nearly the same sense of a God-given right to any land. We like to think that this was our sensible side taking charge, smartly avoiding the mishaps of other more established imperial powers, like England and Spain, whose empires were waning, and we saw the utter hassle of maintaining that much territory. There is a bit of truth in that.

More compelling, however, is this uninterrupted notion of America as a republic for white citizens. The colonization of African Americans back to Africa lay on the table long enough in American policy history to stand as a solid example of just how incompatible some saw a United States that contained large minority groups; need we even mention the Chinese Exclusion Act, which barred Chinese immigrants for twenty years upon its signing in 1882? (Asian immigrants weren't even allowed to earn citizenship until the 1940s.) We've had a treacherous, scarred, love-hate relationship with our immigrants, even while we became known as "the Melting Pot," but this relationship was especially acute when it came to annexing territories not contiguous to the North American continent.

Historian Eric Love argues that racism in the era of American imperialism was not used to support imperial annexation, harking on the "white man's burden," but was actually what anti-imperialists used against that cause. In the cases of Santo Domingo (today the Dominican Republic) and the Philippines, large populations of non-white natives was a large deterrent in making these islands part of the United States. Alaska had no such trouble, as Americans could more easily see it as assimilating with the nation as it was. In the case of Hawaii, that far-flung acquisition, the islands were annexed after enough convincing was done in showing that a large number of whites already lived there, the natives were docile, and populations like the Portuguese were, for all intents and purposes, white already. Plus, they argued, we need to protect those whites already living there.

So whether the Unites States has sought the land that happens to be occupied by non-whites, or whether non-whites have showed up at our doorstep and requested residency here, determining the fine line between citizenship and race has never been easy.

I would like to take this further and consider this fickle, slippery past in terms of the notion of nationality and self-identity. As the twentieth century developed around what started a bit earlier, with the world's structure as all land drawn up and broken into nation-states, we added another layer of personal identification: nationality. Before that the world operated on a more local level, and people's lives were far more contingent on what township you were from than anything else. Also significant was the language you spoke.

Fast forward a hundred years past Americans' fixation with non-whites standing as majorities in any hypothetical new states, and we are still discussing the issue of assimilation and "American" identity, though with far less racist undertones and with more modern logic. (Check into Love's book for some juicy stuff on our imperial era and his argument, which breaks the conventional historical narrative. He backs up his gutsy point with solid research.)

Case in point: the controversy surrounding the hypothetical admittance of Puerto Rico as a state, which, with its current school system and organization, would be a Spanish-speaking state. Seem like we have the same qualms with this concept that we did a hundred years ago--not along the lines of race, but along the lines of cultural assimilation and American nationality; really, we're still very much talking about what it means to be American and what things you must inherently give up from your old country when you chose to reside in another.

Tim Schultz, a lobbyist with the group U.S. English, spoke to PRI corespondent Patrick Cox recently on this subject, in Cox's World in Words podcast (which shows up regularly here). He made some interesting points throughout the interview, but on the subject of Puerto Rico, all I kept thinking about was how much his statements harked back to the rationale of more than a century ago, when we could not fathom the idea of having non-whites and non-English speakers as a majority in any state in the United States. It would mean a completely new voice added to our national congress, which was abominable back then. But in 2010, Congress looks a bit different; so the issue today is not ethnicity as it is language--that hugely significant linguistic identity, and the problem of citizens whose primary language is Spanish as somehow bad for our country, and certainly bad for our national unity. Both of those notions are fraught with cracks, as the country's past can attest to: it's not had an easy relationship with its immigrants, but it need not be said that the immigrants who've fought their way in over the centuries have benefited our larger "identity."

To Schultz, it in unconscionable to have any American kids going through school never learning English, which he feels would be the case in Puerto Rico if it became a state. Under the current federal education laws, children have to take standardized tests in English within three years of entering into a public school in this country; this is an incentive for students from non-English family backgrounds to learn the language quickly. As a territory, Puerto Rico is exempt from that law, he points out, and he argues that this sets an unhealthy precedent were it to become a state. I have to pause here to wonder, if it did become a state, wouldn't that exemption be called into question? If Puerto Rico became a state, there would be many things about their now-standing status that would change--tax exemptions for one--and it is a bit premature to suggest that we would just overlook this language issue upon seriously admitting Puerto Rico as a state.

He cites their economic troubles as an incentive for Puerto Ricans to learn English if admitted. "They're going to fall completely behind economically," if they do become a Spanish-speaking state, he says. He argues this based on the fact that if incorporated now, it would be the poorest state by far. Again, these are far-reaching hypothetical issues, and I think many Puerto Ricans could argue against him on this, while still others would agree, and would certainly expand their English language skills. After all, as Schultz also says, there are immigrants and Hispanics who agree wholeheartedly in English as the language of the U.S.

The main resolution his organization seeks is ensuring that the incentives exist for immigrants to learn English. As he said to Cox: "English is more important for American now than it ever has been, because we live in a globalized, information-age economy. And we're all connected more than we ever [have been]," Schultz says. I would agree, and add that the incentives are quite similar no matter what country you're educated in.

If Spanish rises to a sort of co-official status with English, Schultz says later on, "It's not that everybody would suddenly become bilingual; it's that Spanish speakers would less and less need to learn English to survive in the United States, and that creates a sort of second mainstream, if you will, a sort of second linguistic mainstream, in which Spanish speakers would become, you know, doing worse economically, and frankly, probably a lot less likely to self identify as Americans."

There it is again, this pernicious, pervasive tendency to define things in terms of nationality, and national identity; the reality is, without veering too far into postmodernism here, that there are millions of Americans who identify themselves as such while also holding Chinese heritage, Mexican heritage, Indian heritage-- and for many, their appearances and family languages will ensure that those identities remain with them as well. The hyphenated nationality (Chinese-American, Italian-American, even African-American) is synonymous with being American, even when we're born and raised in the U.S. So it is a funny thing, nationality, and our preoccupation with it.

"Come see Tribes of Genuine Ubangi Savages: From Africa's Darkest Depths!" and how National Geographic is like the circus

The boobies in National Geographic have always bothered me. The magazine's founding creed is based on "the increase and diffusion of geographic knowledge," and has certainly aimed to share the world with its readers since the National Geographic Society was founded in 1888. (Its more recognized creed is to share "the world and all that is in it.") The magazine is a cultural icon whose logo is widely recognized, and the organization has expanded to include the television channel, magazines specifically for travelers and children, and a film production company, in addition to the society-funded projects by scientists and explorers that it has supported for decades.

But in many popular culture references, what people associate with the magazine are tribal women, scantily clad in natural clothing, with sagging breasts fully exposed. It is nudity, meaning people tend to look closely out of a combination of fascination with the human body and intrigue over this person so unlike ourselves. What has bothered me for years, ever since I began to read the magazine regularly and every time I have a conversation about the organization's work, is that most people don't even know the immense diversity in the reporting that is published in NGM. I remember a conversation with one of my classmates several years ago: when I told her I thought it would be an awesome job to write for the magazine, she advised me to learn "some African languages, like South African [Afrikaans]," so that I would be prepared for the kinds of assignments they fund. Beyond the obvious ignorance in thinking that this is the most important region or language in Africa, it infuriated me that this is still the perception of the publication.

The documentary film that accompanies the book Guns, Germs, and Steel is another educational victim of this exposure. I've had to watch it in two different classes (one a sociology and the other a historiography class), and both times I have been driven nearly mad by the amount of time in which Papua New Guinean women are chopping trees, breasts flopping all about. It distracts the viewer from the narration in the film, since it is such a cultural difference that it is still foreign and somewhat strange to watch these women do their daily work, enough so that it comes across as a distasteful amount of female nudity-- even if they are foreign to us, and in their natural environment.

And this week I had a significant revelation about these boobies, these irksome stays of cultural difference. For one of my classes, we read The Circus Age: Culture and Society Under the American Big Top, and it is worth buying for the historical images of circus advertisements and performers alone; however, it is also an amazing exploration of the societal underpinnings that were both reinforced and challenged by the rise (and then decline) of the Circus Age--including gender norms for men and women, human-animal relationships, industrialization and the railroads, and--most critically--imperialism and the creation of an American (read: white) identity.

You cannot talk about the circus in history without facing the sideshow tendency of finding "weird," "Oriental" and "savage" men and women to put on display, for the very fact that they had distinct physical or ethnic differences. The author, Janet Davis, actually has a background in South Asian studies, and is familiar (to my delight!) with Edward Said's theory of Orientalism (click that link, please--it's a video), which argues the simple point that they way we acquire knowledge about other people and cultures is not objective and is the result of larger realms of influence--like political or national interests, for example. We assume things about people in a certain country or region without ever having been there, or indeed, perhaps never having met anyone from there. Whole cultural identities can be created from several bits of information or by the skin color or appearance of a foreign person, and this built up notion of the "Other" has its foundations in an unconscious formation of "Us" as well. (I spent time with these theories while studying South Asia and India in particular-- see this post.)

This is the most important part of Davis's work on the circus to me, as the danger of putting "Oriental girls" on display, or making a showcase of the African women who practice the custom of stretching their necks, is that we "essentialize" entire cultures and civilizations into the one or two strange or mystifying things we know about them--and rarely are these representative of the larger culture. "Chinese people eat dogs": essentializing. "Hindu women are sexually overt": essentializing. "Muslims are religious fundamentalists": essentializing. Even the clothing worn by other people is enough to create an essentialized version of India, or of Vietnam, or Sudan. It blocks our ability to see beyond any of these sometimes obscure, usually misinformed "traits."

Never had I put the two things together: "native" breasts and Orientalism. Never, and it seems so obvious now, had I thought about the fact that the National Geographic Society began its study of the world in 1888, during the very era when Americans were embracing the notion of the "white man's burden," that the world was full of savages who, through a "proper" education could be "civilized" and made (willingly, of course) into modern men and women, like those in the United States. But the Society was very much a product of this larger interest in all that is foreign and curious outside our borders.

Just like the circus shows, National Geographic used the appearance of foreign--often tribal--women as spectacles for the expanding American consumer society. From Davis's book:

World's fair organizers, the publishers of National Geographic, and circus impresarios alike used nonwhite women's bodies to make educational claims. Racial "color" defined the degree of nudity that was deemed appropriate for display. National Geographic, for one, in 1896 first published photographs of bare-breasted black women. Euroamericans easily accepted such photographs of women of color as edifying, while topless white women were found only at seedy carnival cooch shows and nascent strip joints ... National Geographic first photographed topless white women in the 1980s--and then only from behind! (92-93)

I turned to my own copy of the tiny book of NG Society history that I purchased at their store back in '07 during a visit to Washington, D.C., and low and behold, there was the picture, from November 1896, of a Zulu bride and groom on their wedding day, the bride with fully-exposed breasts. The caption reads: "Flouting prudish conventions of the day, National Geographic dared to publish photos of cultures 'as they are.'"

I am not condemning the National Geographic Society and its efforts towards the "diffusion of geographic knowledge." While not perfect, it has also allowed millions of readers to experience a world beyond their armchair that they never would have seen otherwise; curiosity continues to draw readers, like myself, and has been a vital part of its success. So I am not denouncing its merit, nor will I cancel my subscription. I am simply finding an answer, in the social norms of the era of its inception--as well as the normative values that have continued through the twentieth century--to the question of the tribal boobies that have haunted my relationship with this piece of American popular media over the last seven-or-so years. The editors' decision to publish Zulu nudity was as much influenced by their desire to break social norms and push the envelope as it was by the desire to spread knowledge and educate their readers. But their decision was also fueled by the up-and-coming position of Americans in a world that was suddenly shrinking, where elephants might pass by your home as the circus came to town, and everyday families were faced with "Tribes of Genuine Ubangi Savages: From Africa's Darkest Depths" and "Oriental India: Living Groups of Strange and Curious People" and "The Most Startling Discovery of the Century: Princess Mu Kaun, Royal Padaung Giraffe-Neck Woman from Burma."

In a very significant way, topless tribal women in the magazine are still part educational, part human of "Other" who we gawk at. The way our world has continued to shrink, such groups are no longer as strange to our eyes, nor as numerous in disbursement, as the modernized world has crept into these civilizations, for better or worse. The point we've reached now, the publication's leaders will have to make a decision soon about whether it is the color of the skin that permits them to publish breasts; that is, if tribal people can be published topless because it is educational, at what point is the line drawn? Many women who look very like those in the pages of the magazine live in the modern world, yet at what point do they become modern enough to be removed from the "educational" list? It is not that I am a prude; rather, it bothers me that outdated essentialized views of permissible nudity have continued to be the standard long after racist ideologies of nationality have been condemned for their ignorance--at least on the surface. Those Papua New Guinean women are still considered foreign enough, and in their natural atmosphere, to fare on the side of education. But both times I've watched the documentary, I didn't agree.