The “family” has been so critical in the stories we tell ourselves and others about ourselves. Even the discourse of the American Dream and the words on Lady Liberty’s feet make promises of social mobility that can enrich families. However, we have often failed to delve deeper in the “family” that frames our national story. We have not attended to how the construction of “family” at various times aligns with national history, politics, and various sorts of violence. In fact, from the very onset of earlier colonial history and the newly formed United States of America, we have seen how nation, citizenship, and rights are based on social constructions and maintenance of certain types of “family.”
As Thanksgiving Day marks the survival and sustenance of the settler-colonial family on Native land, the surviving white families played an instrumental part in creating what would be the taken-for-granted version of the emergent national family. Breaking bread and taking part in Thanksgiving existed alongside and at the same time with the settler extermination of Native nations, communities, and families. The expansion of the frontier constituted one key method for this type of genocidal national family formation.
With food in their bellies and military might on their side, the white settlers established frontier posts on their move westward. At the frontier posts, the symbols posted at these posts give us eerie, painful, and murderous goals of the white national family. On posters were advertisements for the death of Indigenous communities. White settlers could bring in the heads of indigenous adults (be it men, women, or two-spirit individuals) and Native children for money. The heads of men brought in the highest value, but even Native children’s death was profitable. Forming the new nation meant the massacre and disrupting of Native families, Native communities, and Native nations.
Part of the constitution of the newly formed national family, American family, was the delineation of the black family before, during, and after independence from British colonial rule. Converted into mobile and transferable property, enslaved Africans were torn from their families, their children, their parents, and their communities. The slaver holders’ values on family, one of white supremacy, mass profit and exploitive working conditions, and the genocidal expansion of the frontier, were enforced at the moment of enslavement and the generational transference of slavery.
Toni Morrison’s Beloved paints a reflection of the historical experience of slavery and its violence upon the black family, including black children. Enslaved black children were “children” only in language and not in the everyday conditions of living. They were not given the rights, times, or spaces to be children, like their white counterparts. Black children became disposable and were equated value based on their relationship to the master and the master’s demands. If they experienced life as a child, it would threaten the very system of white supremacy that demanded and enforced childhood as a white, upper-class trait. Rape, death, and exploitative living conditions were their experiences of black childhood.
Moving from the time of slavery to the time of Jim Crow and the “New Jim Crow” (see Michelle Alexander’s book), the devaluing of black children and the decimation of the black family continues to be a critical part of affirming the U.S. national family. On that fateful August 28, 1955 day in Money, Mississippi, 14-year-old Emmett Till was brutally attacked, disembodied, violated, and left dead in the water as a sign—a sign of slippery, unstable boundaries between family, life, and death. Emmett Till was accused of whistling at a white woman thereby breaking the codes of the national family. His whistle signaled a violation of that blurred the racial distance and violence needed to maintain racial segregation and the racial family. Emmett was gruesomely mutilated, and the white Mississippian society robbed the Till family of their son, brother, and loved one.
Such depriving of life and the robbing of black families of their kin was instrumental in maintaining the murderous tenets of our nation’s family. The white woman and the white family had to be safeguarded and kept pristine through the ravaging treatment of young black children and their families. So many black families in the last 4 years have lost their children to state-sanctioned murder. The police force in various parts of the United States have been implicated in the killing of young black children. Trayvon Martin. Stephon Clark. Tamir Rice. Jordan Edwards. Antown Rose.
We see this continual violence upon the black family with our “war on poverty,” “war on drugs,” and “war on terror” that have created and expanded the prison-industrial complex as the proper home and family for black, Latino, and Southeast Asian communities. As we have the emergence of the category of “risk” and policies around “at-risk” children, these acts engage with deep anxieties in American society about the lives of children. Thus, policies put in place to protect “at-risk” children aim to protect them from drugs, gun-violence, and other types of vice, but are often coupled with other acts of white power.
The moral campaigns are met with contradictions in the racist implementations of these policies. Victor Rios, in Punished, and Ruthie Gilmore, in Golden Gulag, give us a glimpse of the birth-to-prison pipeline that impacts black and brown communities. The expansion of the prison-industrial complex and the heightened incarceration of black and brown communities for minor charges continues to disaggregate family members. The jail then becomes shorthand for what our society sees as the correct “home” and “family” for poor black, brown, yellow, and red people.
To go back to the case of the indigenous community, white settlers were active in another campaign aimed at saving, rescuing, and rehabilitating Native children. While the indigenous parents and elders were seen as the national problem and antithetical to the maintenance of the national family, there was an anxiety and commitment regarding the place of Native children. “Kill the Indian, save the man.” Such a short phrase. Such a long history. This motto represented the U.S. government’s and the Bureau of Indian Affairs stance and position in the case of Native and First Nations children. State power ripped native children from their families. The Bureau of Indian Affairs alongside the consolidated U.S. military, in the late 1880s, removed Native children from their families and inserted them into Indian boarding schools.
Matthew Gilbert, Audra Simpson, Andrea Smith, Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, and a few other scholars have clearly depicted the violence of white settler families on Native communities. While parents and elders struggled and managed adversity in reservations, the boarding schools’ motto was one about “culture” and assimilation. It was a clear statement that the U.S. government did not value Native cultural practices and identity. The Native family and its cultural practices had to be destroyed, annihilated, and tossed to reform Native children into the cultural values of the anti-Indian, frontier busting, and militaristic national family.
Thus, removing Native children from their homes was one method to kill, culturally, the “Indian” in hopes of saving the “human being.” National policies toward Native communities demonstrate the national values that correspond with the complete defiling, devaluing, and destruction of Native families. Such violence, both material and symbolic, illustrates how Native American, depicted in mainstream narratives as the “noble savage,” could never freely construct family; their organization and kinship was not recognized in western settler language as “family.” The “Indian,” both symbolically and corporeally, had to be killed for the sake of the white family.
Indigenous and African American communities were not the only ways to endure, face, and manage white supremacist state violence. As borders are highly porous and artificial, U.S. family values were enforced violently at the border and against a wide array of immigrants, refugees, migrants, and asylum seekers. While the continuing violence to the communities of color within U.S. borders (African Americans and Native communities) endured, the very realm of immigration proved instrumental in consolidating the boundaries of the U.S. national family. Not only did the construction of the national family dictate how we treat those within our borders, it also set the stage for the very first immigration laws (which were against the Chinese) and the delineation of who could enter into the national family. The border and the nation had to be maintained and consolidated through the expulsion, disruption, and detainment of certain people. Who could be ingratiated into the white national family also tells us about who then is to be violated, victimized, and marginalized.
With this I want to move onto the specific cases of the Japanese American family. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the U.S. entered World War II. As troops mobilized to enter the war theater in Europe and East Asia, a domestic war took place as well. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, with the aims of protecting the national family, signed Executive Order 9066, which put into effect the internment of Japanese Americans to concentration camps in remote places in the United States. Not only were Japanese Americans removed from the national family through such an executive order, camp administrators strategically worked to estrange, dismember, and separate the Japanese American family. In the camps, as Christina Chin and Samuel Relagado have shown, the second generation, known as Nisei, were called to patrol their own family and serve on the global war stage. The Nisei, positioned as more “American,” stood in counterpart to their parents and the first generation, Issei.
We are not far removed from our past. We have not passed our past. Our past is our present. As we watch and catch videos and photos from the U.S.-Mexican border, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency coupled with federal police and local police prying apart the hands of children and their parents, this is not unusual. We have proof that this is another manifestation of how we sustain the national family. Thus, the escalation in the present time must not be seen as exceptional but rather as another indication of the shifting national fabric and how populations are handled through the discourse of the family. It is not the same type of violence, the violent attacks are not uniform and equivalent.
Rather, it is shifting, it is unpredictable, and yet it is foundational to how the U.S. national family is maintained. The enforcement of these cruel policies and the corresponding Trump executive order indicate very clearly that the national representation of the family is also materialized in the policies that call for violence, despair, separation, destruction, and death for families of color, immigrant families, and refugee families. The national family, through its many contradictions, tears other families apart at the border and illegally moves, transfers, and smuggles children across borders. Instead of consistently and uniformly protecting children as a population at great risk and a highly vulnerable group, we toss aside our civil and human rights obligations.[i] We are traumatizing children and infants.
Our nation’s very founding on family was built on a contradiction: in order to secure white, upper-class, Christian family values, there must be systematic disenfranchisement and devaluing families for so many others. I am ashamed, disgusted, but not surprised. This is our nation’s history and our nation’s particular alignment with family. At this time, so many communities of color are asked again and again to join the national family as salvation. However, the obligation to the national family is a commitment to the principles that drive our domestic and foreign policies: we are asked to desensitize and use violence to destroy and separate other families. The values that drive our country are those of violence, exclusion, and death. Xenophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia, and anti-black racism are the ideological signposts that structure the nation and the codes of citizenship.
The national family makes promises that requires us to always wait for a future that never really arrives. The nation is no longer a viable family unit for our communities of color, our working-poor communities, and our queer communities. Our loyalties to the nation and its family values will kill us all.
For families of color, their integrity never quite matters. Their needs are never quite important enough. Rather, communities of color and the working-poor are asked to destroy their conceptions, their models, and their loving families in place for belonging the national family. They are asked to dismiss their families, both blood and non-blood, to supposedly find solace, intimacy, and integrity in the nation as the new family unit.
In order to find justice, we cannot expect the nation and its family heads to lead us to the promised land. The national model of family is one that is white, upper-class, Christian, cis-gendered, and heterosexist; its many derivatives cannot secure rights and types of living that can empower us all. However, we, as communities of color, the working poor, and queer communities can push and sustain a version of family that is not managed, regulated, and conditioned by the nation. Rather, it is time for us to reclaim our families, to reconstitute our families, to implement our family values, and let our commitment to justice and equity for all constitute the most important family values that stay unchanged. Our present has to be a family centered on justice, inclusion, rights, and community sustaining contradictions. It would be a version of family built not on power and exclusion, but rather one built on love, collaboration, and giving.
Stan Thangaraj earned his PhD in socio-cultural Anthropology and is an Assistant Professor at the City College of New York. His passion is for research and activism that looks at the intersections of race, gender, sexuality, and citizenship. His book, Desi Hoop Dreams (New York University Press, 2015), looks at the ways that South Asian Americans in Atlanta, mostly Pakistani Muslim Americans, managed their marginalization from the national fabric post-9/11 through the quintessential American sport of basketball.