Borders and Identities

A small fence separates densely populated Tijuana, Mexico, right, from the United States in the Border Patrol’s San Diego Sector. Construction is underway to extend a secondary fence over the top of this hill and eventually to the Pacific Ocean.

For the last several months, borders have been at the forefront of politics and culture: Donald Trump infamously promised to erect a wall with “a big, fat, beautiful door” on the border separating the US and Mexico, while European nations have been grappling with their own border problems in the wake of the Syrian refugee crisis. Even recording artist M.I.A. added to the conversation when she dropped a new song entitled “Borders” earlier this year, with the first lyrics being “Borders — what’s up with that?” Borders are being explored and debated from both semantic and pragmatic perspectives, and as many miles of borders there are, there are just as many, if not more, opinions on their existences.

Borders, like the entities they encompass — whether that means nations, political structures, or states—are only real in mutual agreement, and imaginary in most other senses. Their physical structures only exist because of accords that often arbitrarily separated groups. The rise of the modern nation-state — popularized by Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points after World War I — has conflated the idea of borders with the idea of a nation, creating boundaries between countries based on shared characteristics. Though this seems like a valiant goal and one that should reduce conflict, in recent times it has only exacerbated pathos-laden rhetoric by setting up “us versus them” dichotomies and legitimized physical and abstract borders. The creation of national identities, then, is not a cause but a result of borders; these wrought identities are oftentimes inherently exclusionary and politicized, as with many of the almost arbitrary lines that carve up Africa and the Middle East.

"Borders are instated to demarcate who and what belongs by creating the emblematic other, an identity that lies in opposition to what the state warrants itself and its people as."

Within American contemporary discourse, it seems inevitable to bring up Trump’s wall idea when confronting the ideas of immigration. Trump says that as president, he would “[build] a real wall” because “[p]eople are pouring across [the US-Mexico border].” This idea seems benign in itself; after all, immigration is a problem with which every bordered country must grapple. Closer inspection, however, shows an alternate side to the story. In the speech in which he declared his candidacy for president, Trump maintained that “[when] Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best.” He then gestured to the crowd and said, “They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us [sic]. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”

The two ideas have gone hand-in-hand for the rest of the campaign: erecting the wall to keep the criminal-immigrants out and to protect some kind of American integrity. Trump has thus tapped into a politically rich pathos to create a “pure” America decimated by outside influences. Only by stopping the influx of foreigners, he claims, will the country be purified again. Borders are central to this identity creation. The physical border of the “wall” serves as an embodiment of the difference, real or imagined, between the US and Mexico. In recognizing that split and exaggerating the differences between the two countries, Trump forces the bifurcation of the two to the foreground of the argument. He centralizes the notion of essential differences that stop commingling of cultures — an act that is symbolically arrested by borders.

When Trump stated earlier this year that the US should ban Muslims from entering the country and when leaders of various European countries restricted the immigration of Syrian refugees, the identity of the nation in question is constructed through the creation of these non-physical borders. Rather than building walls on the ground, barriers are built around the image of the nation by constituting what it is not. Trump and the European leaders billed Muslims and Syrian refugees as dangerous in the wake of the Paris attacks perpetrated by ISIL. The fear that Muslim refugees and travelers could also be terrorists plotting to target American and other Western cities was fueled entirely by xenophobia, and so metaphorical borders were drawn between cultures; Muslims were construed as a threat to the existences of Western nations and were barred from entrance. Thus, an identity is formed as states define what they are by who constitutes them. Rather than a physical nation, the states that banned refugees, and the extreme notion that Trump took, created national identities based on a set of values that they incorrectly perceived as not being shared by Muslims.

This phenomenon is also present elsewhere. Borders are often drawn for malicious political reasons that poison the geography with turmoil in later years. Africa, during the Scramble for Africa from 1881 to 1914, was invaded, occupied, divided, and colonized by European powers influenced by New Imperialism. The European countries drew colonial lines based on arbitrary divisions rather than respecting longstanding boundaries based on ethnic, linguistic, and other commonalities. After this period of colonization and annexation by the Europeans, African nations began to regain independence while maintaining colonial lines, and consequently, in most African nations, around 45 percent of the population belongs to a group partitioned by the national border. This partitioning, a bordering created for the identities of the colonizers rather than the people enclosed within the lines, has left scars of turmoil as various identity groups have been forced to navigate their selfhoods in discordant locales. Thus, the created national identities — vestiges of colonialism — are at odds with traditional cultural demarcations with which many Africans identify.

The problem of borders becomes far more relevant when considering that the characteristics that color the perception of America— freedom, inclusivity, diversity — are not unique to America; nations all over the world share these characteristics. But what does make something quintessentially American is how it is set up in oppositional duality with “un-American” values. The same holds true for characteristics of many other nations. Borders are instated to demarcate who and what belongs by creating the emblematic “other,” an identity that lies in opposition to how the state envisions itself and its people. Borders, then, are just as much about what a nation isn’t as they are about what a nation is. In an age of globalization and world connectedness, borders are becoming more and more politicized as some see them as obsolete and others see them as necessary for the protection of state integrity. In either case, the problems of borders will continue so long as they are used to divvy up peoples and parse out identities based on assumptions and arbitrary characteristics.

About the Author

Britt Edelen '19 is a Staff Writer for the Brown Political Review.

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