Belonging. To Be. To Long for. To long to belong in a space where one feels safe, wanted, normal.

Is to belong to be normal?

Who is normal? Who decides? Who sets the norm?

for you, for me, for us.

But for us to exist, there must be a them.

does belonging axiomatically require exclusion, boundaries, insiders, outsiders, us versus them?

Belonging. A word in every culture; a word whose definition is rarely questioned. You know it when you feel it. When you feel dignity, equality, respect — you belong.

The affective component of belonging, however, can blind you to the material consequences of (not) belonging — though the two cannot be disconnected.

So what do we mean to belong? More importantly, what do we want it to mean?

In law, we look beyond the affective. The most reductivist definition: citizenship.

Your passport officially declares that you belong to this nation, this geography, this culture, this people.

The piece of paper is frail and meaningless.

unless you and I are not just citizens of the same state, but also equal citizens.

So long as we are equal, we both belong, right?

Equal but Separate schools,

Equal but Separate neighborhoods,

Equal but Separate experiences in the same nation.

With the same passport, the same citizenship.

So we both belong. wrong.

But we all have the same rights under the law, don’t we? The U.S. Constitution applies to all of us. The law protects all of our civil rights.

Isn’t that enough to belong, for everyone in the same geographical space defined by artificial borders be a collective “us.”

NO — a resounding no — cries George Floyd when he begs for his life as the White police officer murders him under his knee.

NO — a resounding no — cries Eric Garner when he begs for his life as the White police officer chokes him to death.

NO — a resounding no — proclaims the Muslims who cannot see their spouses, mothers, fathers, and children banned from setting foot on U.S. soil,

banned from soiling our soil with their very presence

NO — a resounding no — say the Black and Brown children in public schools under-resourced as compared to white children across the country.

But, maybe just maybe, if you behave yourself the way we want you to, just maybe we will grant you the permission to belong,

Conditionally, Revocably

The first rule: English only.

We are a reasonable people, for we make exceptions to our rules. In this case, only upper middle-class people of European origin may speak other languages — that makes them competitive in the neoliberal, global capitalist economy in the 21st century.

But no Spanish for Mexican Americans.

No Arabic for Arab Americans.

No Urdu for Pakistani Americans.

No Hindi for Indian Americans.

English only, or else you have betrayed this nation. You have decided you do not want to belong, so you can’t blame us for making you part of them.

And while we are on the topic of blame, how dare you come to our country — the land of the free, the home of the brave — and criticize it.

Our criticism is constitutionally protected dissent, patriotic.

Your criticism is treason, disloyal. Your decision that you do not want to belong.

We let you in, and this is how you thank us — by speaking these foreign languages we cannot understand, eating these foreign foods that we cannot digest, wearing these foreign clothes distinguishing you, and using foreign names we cannot pronounce.

This is how you thank us? By threatening our identity, our hegemonic culture, as we define it.

If you want to belong, you cannot be different. From us.

We can be different among ourselves, because there is no question that we belong. But you must constantly persuade, convince, prove that you belong.

Everyday, with every word, every action.

Assimilate, emulate, copy, be the same

as US.

We don’t care where you came from, for we are proudly a nation of immigrants, but we most certainly care how you behave, look, talk, eat, and live now that you are here. Now that you want to belong here, with us, you must accept us as superior, smarter, more beautiful, more civilized.

America is the land of Belonging.

To Be. To Long for opportunity, the pursuit of happiness.

But can you belong without dignity? Without respect?

Can you belong when legal rights apply only to some in practice?

Can you belong when your very skin color reminds the powerful of your difference?

Belonging is identity.

This poem was presented at the University of Cincinnati’s 2021 Inaugural Morelli Colloquy’s Belonging and Difference: Interdisciplinary Perspectives

Sahar Aziz is author of the book The Racial Muslim: When Racism Quashes Religious Freedom (2021)

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