Disrupting Nativism (Part One)

We must confront the nativism, xenophobia, and racism that youth in our “diverse classrooms” experience head on.

I began writing this article in June 2016. At that time, I was interested in the language of the public sphere that framed the US as a “nation on edge,” a “panicked nation,” and a “jittery nation.” Security threats of terrorism, mass shootings, policy brutality, violence at election rallies, and broader social unrest and protest—all of these events seemed to contribute to an imagined collective national and cultural identity that felt broken, ruptured, or at the very least threatened. I was critical of this popular narrative, yet I also felt an intuitive sense of impending calamity. Today, after the presidential election and in the run-up to the inauguration of Donald Trump and his cabinet, I situate the claims I make below with even more political urgency. We are past the stage of isolated events that create ripples of awareness in mainstream consciousness here and there—we are in an era of normative state-sanctioned violence, and the nativist blowback feels like a heightened continuation of the immediate post-9/11 environment.


As anthropologists and educators, I argue that we center the immigrant student/student of color body as the site of ideological and material contestations over the limits and boundaries of US citizenship and identity—as well as the site of national citizenship-making. It is our duty to value and understand the experiences of our college students in our current political context. In doing so we are better able to shape our pedagogical approaches when teaching foundational anthropological classes, harness the possibilities of anthropology as intellectual activism, and work within both old and new traditions of decolonized and critical anthropology. Following other critical scholars of the university writing in the context of a post-911 world, our working assumption should be that the “US university has become a particularly charged site for the debates about nationalism, patriotism, citizenship, and democracy” (Chatterjee and Maira 2014). In the context of increased nationalist and nativist political repression for minoritized students, how might the anthropology class create openings for solidarity, dialogue, and the freedom to imagine and create alternative political communities? What kind of global and local toolkit is required to do this?

The class and the context: UC Merced

I currently teach at the University of California, Merced (UCM), the newest addition to the UC system. The campus is situated on donated land in the rather conservative agricultural heartland of the San Joaquin Valley, often called “The Other California.” Established in 2005, this UC possesses many of the challenges of the growth model of a neoliberal university without the big government funding that other post-war UCs have benefitted from. Indeed, this is “ground zero” of the neoliberal university—a glimpse into the future of what may become the fate of many universities subject to aggressive neoliberal restructuring. The ravaging impact of these economic policies and processes are often masked by the clean lines of modernist California architecture and gleaming classroom buildings on the brand-new campus. The fuzzy outlines of the Sierras and Yosemite Valley, sometimes gray, purple-blue, and snow-topped, can be made out in the distance from my office window. Rolling fields of almonds, grapes, and other fruit trees provide bucolic, comforting contrasts to the infrastructures of the agro-processing and prison industries in the Great Central Valley. Descendants of indigenous native communities, Gold Rush-era White settler migrants, agro-industry elites, and other ethnic migrant labor populations reside in the small towns and farms in the region.

In contrast to the developmental dreams of the new university, the southern side of Merced itself is impoverished and experiencing small-scale White flight and gentrification. Earlier, Merced was hit hard by the 2008 financial and housing crisis, forcing many long-term residents to default on loans and abandon their homes. Residents are hopeful about the prospects for the town with the university investment; after all, Merced is in the Valley: the hinterland of wealthy Coastal California; “Black/Brown” California. Significantly, the university has come to house a student body that is overwhelmingly first-generation (60 percent), working-class (60 percent), and of color (about 50 percent are Latinx and UC Merced is a designated Hispanic Serving Institute). There are also significant numbers of Hmong and Punjabi Sikh students on campus and some of the largest populations of undocumented and Black students in the system (proportional to the relatively small student population). Students are very aware of their marginalized place in the UC system at large and the marginalized place of UCM in the ranked hierarchy of UCs. Over time, I have become more attentive to the ways in which the neoliberal development ethos of the university is legitimized alongside the visible appearance of students of color and the multicultural celebration of UCM’s “diversity.”

Keeping these broader structural dynamics in mind, I suggest that teaching at UC Merced means teaching with a pedagogical vision for “thinking the university” in line with the shifting demographics of the US and in a context in which the humanistic social sciences and humanities are severely under-funded and under-resourced. This past year, the number of Latinos in California outnumbered Whites in the state, and the UC system is under more pressure to house in-state minority students in the context of their dwindling numbers at resource-rich UC Berkeley and UCLA. Many of the students in my classes, in fact, are either Latinx or mixed-race. Thus I often think about how to center shared histories, cultures, and traditions in a global, transnational world in my lesson plans without recourse to the reductive racial identities of the US census.

Integrating cultural anthropology with political and postcolonial theory requires many lectures. Indeed, it is never and only White students, but students of color, who must undergo processes of unlearning colonialism and racism.
 I taught “The Anthropology of Citizenship” for the first time in fall 2015, when Trump’s immigrant xenophobia was rather fringe and just beginning to become more central to our national political discourse. I begin the class by asking students to think about who a citizen is, and what citizenship means. Their perfunctory answers are, “it is a status that you are born into, it means being part of a nation, it means you have to pay taxes to get certain benefits, it gives you the right to vote and to serve in the army.” Clearly, students know how to regurgitate the idea of citizenship as a social contract in the nation.

I then ask students to think about citizenship and political community in a broader and freer way. Can citizenship be evoked in relation to local communities, cities, universities, corporations, global organizations? Can one be a citizen of all these things at the same time?

We also consider the relationships among citizenship, identity, and belonging. Can one feel like an American without having legal citizenship? Can one have legal citizenship but also be excluded from being American? Why is studying the nation from an insider-outsider perspective important? Suddenly, students are introduced to the uneasy terrain of deconstructing abstract ideals of universal democratic citizenship.

Studying citizenship through the lens of anthropology is critical for university students today. I do teach excerpts from the civic republican traditions of Aristotelian thought as well the social contract theorists (Hobbes, Rousseau, and Locke). But we read these canonical works with an eye to laying bare the contradictions and tensions in their thought. I keep alternative democratic cultures and the students in my class in mind. Thus, we discuss the relationships among politics and culture, race and civilization. Indeed, liberal “citizenship” in the idealized civil society was only bestowed upon and given to the “civilized” in the colonies—European settler colonials, usually in the urban centers of colonial activity. And civilization was always constructed through the lens of racial, ethnic, and cultural hierarchies (with Anglos or Europeans on top and people from non-Western places at the bottom). The nation and the idea of liberal citizenship was exported and practiced in the rest of the world through political-economic and cultural projects of imperialism and colonialism, through anti-colonial struggles, and through nation-state building in postcolonial societies. Each of these societies were and continue to be engaged in experiences of democratic reform. Nonetheless, mainstream ideologies suggest that there are some parts of the world that are capable of liberal democracies and “fully-developed” citizens, while the rest can only lag behind in their efforts to attain freedom or a democratic society.

Students respond in different ways to this deeper and rather alternative reading of citizenship. By situating citizenship in the tradition of liberal political philosophy, political thought that was forged in the context of profoundly unequal global and historical processes, they are struck by the elusive, exclusive, aspirational, moral, and (profoundly) constructed character of “citizenship.” As we move forward in the class, we examine how other non-Western societies imagined their own political communities, boundaries, and senses of belonging. We explore contemporary debates on the possibilities and limits of universal citizenship in societies with legacies of settler colonialism. We also examine the politics of “difference” and whether or not liberal democracies should recognize and respect cultural difference (i.e. does participation in liberal democracy require “cultural death” for communities deemed different?) We work to understand how inequities create divisions between those who can access the rights of citizenship and who cannot—despite the formal conventions of legal or juridical citizenship. By examining the impact of globalization, we explore the lived realities of elite, border-crossing, expatriates and the more precarious experiences of undocumented migrants.

Integrating cultural anthropology with political and postcolonial theory requires many lectures. Indeed, it is never and only White students, but students of color, who must undergo processes of unlearning colonialism and racism. However, the lectures are grounded in short weekly readings and two ethnographies of citizenship that are discussed with lecture material. I ask students to write several short response papers to readings over the semester; in these papers they must at least identify and expand on an interesting quote or passage from the reading. Short papers remind students that their very existence in the US today has meaning and that writing is a form of agency—especially when conversation on difference and the possibility of inclusion is foreclosed or morally prescribed through media, institutions, and other technologies of nation-building. I remind students that their existence is a political act and that they embody the very sites of contestations over citizenship, boundaries, belonging, inclusion, and exclusion. Their claims to living a flourishing life, and not merely a life of survival, are the litmus test for the idea of universal humanity.

Creating space for these claims in the classroom is especially important when students are minoritized and devalued via diversity discourse in the neoliberal university. Working-class students of color, many of whom have intersectional identities, are not usually understood by the basic premise that they are meaningful to the intellectual and public life of the university. Professors can approach students at a Minority Serving Institute with a deficit mentality, focusing on what they lack rather than what they bring to the table. Professors can also be hierarchical, possessing students through ownership pronouns, teaching students in a top-down and unidirectional fashion, without acknowledging that they may be able to learn from the students themselves.

Click here to read part two.

Anneeth Kaur Hundle is assistant professor of anthropology at University of California, Merced. She can be reached at akaurhundle@ucmerced.edu. Her website is http://www.ucmerced.edu/content/anneeth-kaur-hundle.

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