‘The border is everywhere’: excursions in the politics of identity

However hard people try, the undoing of borders seems inevitable; the fragility of boundaries, obvious.

Indeed, the ‘literal’ (physical, geo-political, national) border is, in many ways, merely a proxy for the control of a cultural identity, the boundaries of which are feared – by some – to be fluid and insecure. The ‘nation’, as such, is increasingly an ambiguous model for understanding the movement of peoples around the globe and indeed highlights the disconnect between national belonging and geographical location. Historian Alison Bashford explains that national borders aim to “regulate and control movement” rather than simply act as an impassable wall; she suggests that the notion of a “net that screens” is a more accurate interpretation.[1] To this end, globalisation and post-modernist impulses were compatible; each undermining the old, tribalist tendencies at a local level, and encouraging a deconstruction of familiar and static binary identifications.

And yet, despite the extent to which these inclinations played with the subversion and transgression of boundaries, rejecting artificial oppositions and embracing pluralities, the search for a ‘true’ self – a way to belong – has remained. Acknowledging the fluidity of identities has not ended the personal search for a meaningful sense of belonging or community, based upon commonalities. While this is most visible in anxieties around physical borders, there is a newfound reclaiming of identities that do not fit tidily within old social categories or post-essential identity subversion. Ambiguous in its simultaneous appearance of reactionary and innovative ways to affirm identity, the desire for an authentic identity in an otherwise fragmented world has become more apparent. A search for authenticity, and a reaffirmation of cohesive identification, has come to redefine cultural belonging.

In exploring some of the ways in which the borders of national cultural identity are formed as particular discursive constructions, we can follow Yen Le Espiritu’s argument that “[t]he process of differential inclusion…is not about closing the physical national borders but about creating borders within the nation. In this sense, the border is everywhere”. [2] A similar idea is at work in what Robert Chang calls a “figurative border” where “[f]oreign-ness is inscribed upon our bodies…” [3] Also useful is Aihwa Ong’s articulation of cultural citizenship: the “everyday processes whereby people…are made into subjects of a particular nation-state.”[4]

As a discursive category then, the border is a highly arbitrary marker of belonging, one located within the specificities of a highly-nuanced socio-historical milieu. Discourses of a fragile border are exemplified through references to pollution, disease and illegality; discourses of a cultural border oscillate and are far more changeable.

Three recent articles from the New York Times exemplify this oscillation of identity in the United States; this reaffirmation of belonging. They reveal some of the ways in which this trend towards new borders manifests, teasing out how we can see old cultural borders being recreated in contemporary ways.

The first detailed a wave of plastic surgery being undertaken in New York that predominantly focused on highlighting so-called ‘ethnic’ traits, rather than trying to change physical features to assimilate into a more western American look. In a rejection of whiteness-as-belonging, applicants for the surgery longed to re-create an ‘authentic’ appearance, to align more with the cultural parameters of their homelands:

As the demand for surgical enhancement explodes around the world, New York has developed a host of niche markets that allow the city’s many immigrants to get tucks and tweaks that are carefully tailored to their cultural preferences and ideals of beauty. Rather than striving to fit in to their new country, many immigrants reshape themselves to their home culture’s trends and tastes. “My patients are proud of looking Hispanic,” said Dr. Jeffrey S. Yager, who speaks Spanish and has tripled the size of his office since opening it in 1997 in Washington Heights, a largely Dominican neighborhood in Manhattan. “I don’t get the patients who want to obscure their ethnicity”.[5]

This desire to reaffirm a sense of origin, through their body, can be read in a number of ways, but most salient is the ambivalence that both rejects the local for a ‘local’ identity elsewhere, whilst conforming to an ‘authentic’ ethnic appearance that is, by definition, artificially created. While the doctor sees this as pride, there is an ambiguity that straddles the earnest desire for belonging, through the conscious playing with the corporeal.

A second piece discussed the circumstances of Mohamed Mejri, a Tunisian immigrant living in Virginia, who had been refused the issue of a new driver’s license, based upon the recall of his work permit (allowing foreign nationals, including asylum seeker, refugees, and students to work in the United States)[6] With seemingly little recourse, Mejri’s legal belonging in the United States altered, in a way reminiscent of the primacy that licenses took in last year’s debates over illegal immigration (and the passing of SB1070 [7]) in Arizona.[8] The legalities of belonging coalesced with an adherence to an invisible cultural divide, denoting the lack of agency in certain situations; circumstances replicated en masse through complex deportation, visa, and re-entry laws in numerous countries.

Third, another article described the fluidity of cultural borders for Latinos; culturally and ethnically diverse yet still categorised as a ‘race’ on census forms. Negating the complexities of religion, class, national origins, the fluidity of ideas of ‘race’ and ‘whiteness’ within the category of ‘Latino’, and notwithstanding ways in which these very categories are gendered and sexualised, census forms’ racial categories cast strict and static lines of cultural belonging, which, on closer inspection, are wholly subjective. As the article details:

A majority of Latinos identify themselves as white. Among them is Fiordaliza A. Rodriguez, 40, a New York lawyer who says she considers herself white because ‘I am light-skinned’ and that is how she is viewed in her native Dominican Republic. But she says there is no question that she is seen as different from the white majority in this country. Ms. Rodriguez recalled an occasion in a courtroom when a white lawyer assumed she was the court interpreter. She surmised the confusion had to do with ethnic stereotyping, ‘no matter how well you’re dressed’.[9]

Here, then, class, a socio-economic regulator that informs belonging in an ethnic group, in fact solidifies the borders of ‘race’, and, as the many scholars of ‘whiteness’ have demonstrated, such regulation is historically and geographically situated; as the article continues: “…many Latinos — like Irish and Italian immigrants before them — drop the Latino label to call themselves simply ‘white’… Most of this ethnic attrition occurs among the offspring of parents or grandparents married to non-Mexicans, usually non-Hispanic whites.” [10]

In these three cases, the body, defined and understood by appearance, a driver’s licence, and a census form, are markers of belonging (or not), sites of cultural contestation, negotiation, and definition. Cultural citizenship is an oscillation between power and powerlessness; the sincere desire to belong may not be to your country, and your choices to decide where and how you ‘fit’ may be limited.

These examples, highly typical of recurring pieces in the media, leave us with some open-ended questions that reflect the ambivalence of borders that both limit and define, and are both inflicted and chosen. Central to the construction of discursive borders of identity are artificially created binaries that require constant regulation and attention. Could the driver’s license, and the body – whether appearance or categorisation – be sites where the border is constructed, through the compelling need for identifiable difference? Can it be that the border is not always about entry into an element of cultural belonging/the nation, but (as seen with the plastic surgery) a way of defining against it? Could these attempts to define and create certainty of identity be exposed as necessarily futile, as the multitude of borders reveal themselves in more and more settings?

We can also gauge the extent to which borders and boundaries delineating two distinct – and not so distinct – entities, ever really succeed, or if the constant efforts belie the lack of a boundary to begin with? As recent rhetoric decrying the failure of multiculturalism in Europe, and a reinvigoration of the continent’s traditional (and static) cultural-national borders has seemingly demonstrated, scrambling to recreate a border – any border – in the face of change, is a futile method of repressing the possibility that the differences are within, and have always been. So, indeed, perhaps we can question if the concept of a singular defining border – in any context – is itself a misrepresentation by giving the impression that there are, in actuality, two entities able to be kept apart? When instead there is always an engagement, symbiosis or transformation that occurs by mere proximity to this strange construction called the border.

Perhaps, in a reactionary turn from a fragmented, post-modern understanding of identity – whether nationally, culturally, individually – one which undermines any border, any boundary, there is a reclaiming of something that is a reconstructed essentialism. Seeking to be the creators of a new-old ‘core’, that transcends local and national borders, whilst concurrently reinstating them. Reading cultural borders in a meta-modern world, therefore, could lend itself to trying to reclaim a hopeful core identity without irony or fluidity, but also without the essentialism. As cultural theorist Ian Baucom wrote in 1999, “…the patent inventedness of a phenomenon does not prevent it from having a very real affective appeal, from seducing, from convincing its beholder to forget that it is a piece of counterfeit, or to worship it regardless…not that the language of origins, essences and authenticity is the true language of the world, but that it is the language most people enjoy speaking, the language that seduces people’s affections… “[11]

The post-modern dissolving and playing with transgression of boundaries may have left us with no where to go, and while we work towards how to authentically incorporate something coherent back into our identities, perhaps there will inevitably be a shift back to something that appeared solid in the yearning for something real – even if we have to create it.

(Photo credit: Matlocks923)


1. Alison Bashford, Imperial Hygiene: A Critical History of Colonialism, Nationalism and Public Health, London and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004, p.124.
2. Yen Le Espiritu, Homebound: Filipino American Lives across Cultures, Communities and Countries, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003, p.211
3. Robert Chang, “A Meditation on Borders”, in Juan Perea (ed.), Immigrants Out!: The New Nativism and the Anti-Immigrant Impulse in the United States, New York and London: New York University Press, 1997, p.249.
4. Aihwa Ong, “Cultural Citizenship as Subject-Making: Immigrants Negotiate Racial and Cultural Boundaries in the United States”, Current Anthropology, vol. 37, no. 5, December 1996, pp.737-738.
5. Sam Dolnick, ‘Ethnic differences emerge in plastic surgery’, New York Times, 18 February 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/19/nyregion/19plastic.html?pagewanted=all
6. Sabrina Tavernise, ‘Caught unawares by an anti immigrant mood’, New York Times, 17 February 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/18/us/18license.html?pagewanted=all
7. Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act, Arizona Senate Bill 1070, Arizona Legislature, www.azleg.gov/legtext/49leg/2r/bills/sb1070s.pdf
8. Randal C Archibold, ‘Arizona enacts stringent law on immigration’, New York Times, 23 April 2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/24/us/politics/24immig.html?_r=1&ref=us
9. Mireya Navarro, ‘For many Latinos, Race is More Culture than Color’, New York Times, 13 January 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/14/us/for-many-latinos-race-is-more-culture-than-color.html?_r=2&hp
10. Mireya Navarro, ‘For many Latinos, Race is More Culture than Color’, New York Times, 13 January 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/14/us/for-many-latinos-race-is-more-culture-than-color.html?_r=2&hp
11.Ian Baucom, Out of Place: Englishness, Empire, and locations of Britishness, Princeton University Press, 1999, p.189.