I keep looking up syllabuses online, using google to search for things like “race and u.s. immigration syllabus” or “refugees and american cultural studies syllabus.” I want to find the right books, ones that will help me theorize the connections between imperialism, racism, immigration, assimilation, gender, etc. I work with refugees; in fact, I often work with white churches, trying to help them work with refugees. I should also say I work in the South.
A week ago, I woke up at 7 am in a panic. I had a day off and I wasn’t stressed by the amount of work I still had to do. I was stressed by the kind of work I was doing. I thought to myself, “my job is to help white southern churches establish paternalistic relationships with refugees.” I had been listening to Timothy Tyson’s __Blood Done Sign My Name__, a memoir set within a larger portrait of the history of racism in North Carolina. At one point in the book, he describes white middle class Christians who felt good about themselves and their charity as long as the African-Americans displayed the appropriate gratitude. They gave, out of their abundance (“blessed to be a blessing,” some might say). They gave in a way that made them feel better about themselves while simultaneously masking the violence that structured white-black relations (and also produced the wealth, the blessing, out of which they gave). The white benefactors could feel good about being on top because they were generous and were “well liked” by their black servants. The charity actually served as an attempt to restore the fact of mastery (“they” depend on my kindness) while hiding its violence. It was a violent charity, so to speak, and I woke up fearing I was producing a new form of it, no longer with African-Americans but with newly arriving, dark skinned refugees.
My response was not surprising: initial shock, and then, research. I could see that race, immigration, assimilation, American culture, Christianity, gender, and imperialism were all somehow tied together. I knew that one could not talk about refugees without talking about the history of American immigration (which cannot be understood apart from race, gender, and imperialism). But I wanted help in seeing how it all worked together. I wasn’t seeking knowledge to gain simple mastery; I wanted to know because I wanted to help others–and myself–to move beyond it. I didn’t want my work with churches to become another form of violent charity. But perhaps I’m still a bit too much of the academic, thinking that books are the solution to everything.
On this past Friday, a little over a week after my terrifying realization, I was driving an Iraqi refugee home. He often helps me move heavy furniture (though he refuses, as do I, to move any more of those $10 dressers we found). We’ve become friends–he’s now been to my apartment and met “my family” (he laughed, likening our dog and our cat to “tom and jerry”). On Friday, as I was driving him home, he asked if we could stop by a Mexican bakery. Apparently, Mexican bread is pretty similar to Arabic bread and he wanted to pick up a few roles. We pulled into the parking lot; I advised him before he stepped out to make sure he didn’t walk into any potholes filled with water. I sat in the car while he ran into the store, obviously hurrying, either to make sure he made it in before the store closed or so as to minimize the inconvenience for me.
He came out of the store with a couple of bags of bread; I thought it was a bit excessive (he doesn’t live too far from the bakery, he could certainly come back in a few days). He got into the car, tied one of the bags closed, and then pushed it by my backpack in the backseat: “This is for you, Tim.” I have worked with him enough to know not to argue. He is on food stamps and cash assistance, still waiting for us to help him find work. Yet every time I come to pick him to help me move furniture, he insists that I first sit down and drink juice. If I refuse, he will insist.
I wanted to offer him money but I knew that would only insult him. I thanked him for it. And I thought to myself, I am so stingy, I am so dominated by fears of scarcity that I would never think of doing that. Both my wife and I work, and I would probably debate whether to spend a couple of bucks to buy someone bread just to see if they like it. I have to force myself to offer my favorite teas to guests instead of being thrilled to share with them something that I love. It’s not just a deficiency in the “spiritual gift” of hospitality. My imagination has been thoroughly shaped by ideas of scarcity and self-preservation.
Though it is enormously frustrating, I don’t know how much time I will have to read all the good books I found. However, that one interaction with my refugee friend taught me a lot about immigration and assimilation. Though I don’t know how race, gender, and imperialism shape the way we think about immigration and assimilation, I pray that my friend will resist all our efforts to make him a “self-sufficient” individualist. I pray that he will continue to disrupt the ways in which we–at least I–so often live in the mode of fearful self-preservation (a fear which is, I think, connected to forms of mastery, for fearful self-preservation only makes sense if I am still under the illusion that my life, and the world around me, are in some way under my control). I needed that witness; I needed to be given a few Mexican rolls that apparently taste like Arabic bread (and tasted to me a lot like standard dinner rolls). It was an act of charity that had no trace of violence; and for that, and for the rolls, I am grateful.