Border Thinking

Border Thinking
Last month, I flew into Stansted Airport, in the southeast of England, where the disembarking traveller is met by an enormous black structure looming high above the large passport-control area. UK BORDER it reads, in giant letters. In fact, at this point one is geographically well inside the country, the coast having been crossed while still in the air. But the message is clear and ominous: you aren’t In until you’ve got past the police.
As usual, waiting in the queue for Others – non-Europeans – is nerve-wracking. As I wait, I worry. Do I still look enough like my passport photo? Do I look like a drug dealer, terrorist, prostitute or harmless tourist? Are my clothes wrong, is my hair okay? What will they think about how I speak English? Should I smile or rather demonstrate I understand the gravity of the situation? Which official will I get, the younger woman or the older man and which is better? And so on.

Holding my passport, I look down at the little white UK Landing Card and wonder, for the millionth time, why I am asked to tick one of two boxes, Male or Female. Apart from the pain this causes people who don’t definitely identify with one or the other, why do they ask this? Why do they ask for birth date and nationality, when all passports carry this information? I wonder where these cards wind up, in storage or dumped in the rubbish.

When it’s my turn, the official asks me for information she is already reading on my Landing Card, or on my visa. I answer, and then she repeats the questions, in the skeptical tone I have come to know so well. Finally she lets me through, and I have the sensation of having got away with something, even as I know I am not doing anything wrong. And every time I go through this it gets harder, as though they think that my continuing desire to be here were a crime.

No borders?

It is easy to complain about all this. It is easy to make border policy seem like a clear right-left choice between control and freedom, an oppressive device set up by our fathers, the men in business suits and military uniforms. From the border-keepers’ point of view, classifying and scrutinising travellers before they enter and while they are inside is essential to reducing risk and chaos for their own citizens. The project to make a European ‘union’ tries to celebrate diverse local nationalities, ethnicities and cultures while simultaneously identifying true pan-European values: enlightenment, humanism, rationality, progress. Inevitably this means that cultural systems arriving from outside may be viewed as inferior, backward or suspect – a repellent idea to many.

But to say ‘Let there be no borders’ is like saying let’s do away with traffic regulations, allowing unlicensed drivers to go as fast or slow as they want on streets with no stoplights, lanes or marked exits. To state the utopian goal is one thing; to figure out how to keep order afterwards is another. And to position ourselves as free of any necessity to differentiate ourselves from others by accusing the men in suits is to avoid the harder truth that we are all implicated in these oppressive cultures and that we often benefit from them.

In this case, the hard part isn’t the tedious queuing to be vetted by officials but what comes afterward. If national borders are abolished and everyone can enter, live and work in your country, will you be happy if they are selected for a job you trained to do? If newcomers accept lower salaries than you for the same job, will you feel fine about it? What if they are willing to pay much higher rent than you are or don’t mind living eight to the room? Or if they will put up with levels of injustice in the workplace that you wouldn’t dream of? In other words, do differences between us and others matter or not – or which ones do and which don’t?

Constructing our own identity involves differentiating ourselves from others. They wear this, I wear that. They believe one thing, I believe another. Our boundaries permit us to know ourselves. Later, we may realise we have cut ourselves off by too much distinguishing and have to work to come closer to those we have distanced. The push and pull between believing in ourselves and opening up to others is a constant job of work.

What do we mean by the border?

Talk about social justice often employs spatial language: the centre, the margins, the border, no man’s land. The social world is reduced to maps covered with lines drawn at political conferences where nations have divvied up the spoils, and with dots, the larger of which are imagined to be more ‘central’ than others.

These geographical metaphors ignore what we know perfectly well, that borders appear whenever we feel separate from others, when we feel invaded, or when we want to close the gap between us. This concept of border is far more interesting, complicated and difficult to police.

Of course, we do not all experience these border moments the same way. Some of us actively enjoy the confusion of mixing with cultures not our own, while others are driven crazy by it. Some of us don’t care about knowing and preserving our family’s genealogy while others find nothing more interesting. Sometimes these differences are expressed as the search for authentic identities – as in the case of those eager to have their DNA analysed in hopes of proving who they really are (viking? etruscan?). Others don’t care, or believe no such categories exist, preferring to think of themselves as part of a great blurred or hybrid universality.

Some like the idea of contact zones where people meet and influence each other. Others are fanatical about the need to keep ‘races’ separate, ethnicities pure, traditions untouched. I don’t believe either of these world views is going to prevail in the foreseeable future.

Beyond polarised thinking

A month after my arrival at Stansted Airport, I am standing at the border separating the US state of Arizona from the Mexican state of Sonora. I last stood here fifteen years ago, but the desert looks the same – beautiful, endless in every direction and impervious to efforts to absolutely distinguish one nation from another with a line. A classic contact zone where many languages are spoken – Spanish, English, Spanglish and many indigenous tongues – the whole Southwest region is claimed by some Mexican nationalists as land stolen by the US. Other activists in indigenous causes scoff at this idea, saying the area has belonged to native peoples since long before the European conquest and founding of a modern Mexican state.

Numerous identities vie for attention all over the region. Chicanos, with Mexican heritage but born in the US, distinguish themselves from Mexicans, who affirm strong differences according to whether they come from the north or south, the west or east, the city or the countryside. Both Chicanos and Mexican migrants are quick to disclaim anything in common with Central American migrants, who distinguish themselves by nationality. Some activists unite all these under the label Latino, while others use the term heard amongst many whites, Hispanic – and the differences are politically meaningful. There are African Americans and native Americans of many tribes, as well as those whose ancestors came from China and Japan. And every possible mixing has already occurred, according to everyone except a very upset White Power fringe. And they are not the only ones taking a racist line.

The variety is amazing, and although the media report continuous polemic and violence here, vast numbers of people move across this border every day in the course of their ordinary lives. The Tohono O’odham people, who have been here for 6000 years, live on a reservation cut in two when the border was drawn in the 19th century.

The only way to take it all in is to indulge in Walter Mignolo’s ‘border thinking’, making a conscious effort to overcome an easy opposition of dominant and dominated cultures.[1] One of the border’s most passionate proponents of changing our way of thinking, Gloria Anzaldúa, exhorted us to ‘break down the subject-object duality that keeps [us] a prisoner’.[2] It’s an exacting activity, feeling the melange with all its contradictions and not falling into an easy condemnation of any one group. I must try it the next time I arrive at Stansted Airport.


[1] See Mignolo, Walter. 2000. Local Histories/Global Designs: Coloniality, Subaltern Knowledges, and Border Thinking. Princeton University Press.

[2] Anzaldua, Gloria. 1987. Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. San Francisco: Aunt Lute.

5 thoughts on “Border Thinking

  1. Tony

    I don’t mind borders – in terms of classifying one country from the next. But if you’re an immigrant working your papers to be naturalized as an American (and espesially once you’ve been naturalized), shouldn’t you be considered an American?

    Mario Andretti for instance is labeled as the second American Formula 1 Champion in the record books. Rocky Marciano was considered the only undefeated American Heavyweight champion. Nevermind that their lineage came from Italy. Because they became American citizens, they are recognized as Americans.

    But that’s not the case these days. We’re all too concerned about “where I come from vs where you come from”. Border thinking transcends into a form of racism. For as long as that idealism remains, it will be hard for Americans to unite at a time of crisis.

  2. Ginger

    I don’t know, Tony… I see what you’re saying but Americans can unite in a heartbeat; we’ve seen it recently, and just consider the moments after 9-11… how quickly we drew together in crisis… and the collective memory connects us regardless of how we identify ourselves, our origins, associations, beliefs, etc…

    And this…
    “The push and pull between believing in ourselves and opening up to others is a constant job of work.”… so true, so real…

    This site is great, the ideas, observations presented… and absolutely beautifully and insightfully written…

  3. laura agustin Post author

    Tony, I think we agree and you don’t realise it. Border Thinking as a term means wondering about the meanings of borders, why states insist on their differences, why people are meant to have a single national identity when many don’t. It’s the OPPOSITE of Border Thinking that leads to racism.

    Ginger, thank you so much for your kind words.

    Best, Laura

  4. Del LaGrace Volcano

    I understand that border crossings are fraught with anxiety, even for people who are, or who can pass as gender normative, white and middle-class. I am intersex and intergender, a UK and Swedish resident with a US passport. I look like a M but have an F in my passport. I NEVER check either M or F on the landing card and I have never been challenged on this. Coming into the UK this time the custom’s officer recognized my name and was a fan of mine. I asked her why I was never challenged about the X I put in between the M and F. She said it didn’t matter to them! She then stamped my passport and shook my hand.


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