“Aren’t you grateful?”
I don’t remember when I was first asked that question, but before I was out of grade school I’d learned to expect it. It usually came after someone found out where I’m “really from”—by which they meant Iran, where my father immigrated from. Not Cincinnati, where I was born.
I never knew how to answer. I knew only that the question made me queasy.
Because I was grateful. For things like snow days. And field trips. And when friends’ moms would get us chocolate drumsticks at the pool.
And I also knew that none of that was what I was supposed to say. The way that people avoided my eyes when I answered honestly—or shifted uncomfortably, or reminded me how great it was that I had medicine and freedom and electricity—told me as much. What I was supposed to say, I realized, was something like I’m grateful for the opportunities I have here. Or I’m grateful to have a safe home.
But I couldn’t. While there was truth in those statements, they seemed like lies.
It is only as an adult, looking back, that I realize why questions about gratitude left me feeling so queasy. These weren’t conversations in which someone wanted to get to know me. They were hostage situations, and the ransom was payable as reassurance. It didn’t matter that I’d never been out of the United States, or that I was so young I could count my age on my fingers. The people asking—teachers, friends’ parents, sometimes even my own white family members—felt calm and safe only if my gratitude affirmed for them that the rest of the world was the shithole they’d always imagined it to be, and the US of A really was as great as they told themselves it was.
Encounters like these are just one way citizens like me are taught that our presence in the United States is precarious, contingent on someone else’s approval. Most of the other methods for imparting that lesson are far more violent. Concentration camps. Illegal deportations. Murder. Indefinite detention. When Americans bother to notice the abuses this country inflicts on its marginalized citizens, those crimes against humanity understandably get more of their attention. But as Moroccan American immigrant and novelist Laila Lalami argues in her 2020 essay collection, Conditional Citizens: On Belonging in America, these overt forms of violence shouldn’t be cordoned off from everyday encounters like the ones I described. Rather, those small, uneasy moments are windows into the oppressive power dynamics that structure US citizenship—dynamics that Lalami follows all the way to the country’s roots in genocide and enslavement.
Take “Assimilation,” Conditional Citizens’ fourth chapter. It begins with Lalami stuck on a plane next to a white man who’s eager to explain that “the problem” with the Koreans in his neighborhood is that “they don’t assimilate.” From this uncomfortable scene, Lalami’s inquiry spirals outward: to the “yellow peril” stereotypes that fueled anti-Asian immigration laws more than a century ago; to US-run boarding schools that zealously fulfilled Richard Henry Pratt’s genocidal charge to “kill the Indian, save the man”; to mass deportations of Mexican Americans in the 1930s that swept up not just immigrants but hundreds of thousands of native-born US citizens; and to at least half a dozen other horrors of the United States’ recent past.
In these histories of racism, xenophobia, and genocide, which most Americans never learn about, Lalami locates precedents for present-day conditional citizenship. Old stereotypes fuel current hate crimes. Concentration camps have returned for those deemed unassimilable by fearful white Americans. And ICE’s denial of passports to brown US citizens born near the Mexican border continues well-established patterns of injustice. Framed by this context, Lalami’s encounter with her casually racist seatmate doesn’t read—or doesn’t read only—as an indictment of his individual character. Instead, it opens a window into a vast and abusive system, one whose ugly contours Lalami comprehensively maps.
And yet as much as I want more people to know the histories that Conditional Citizens weaves together, reading them gathered in this way left me feeling a familiar kind of stuck. Lalami’s determined marshalling of facts and arguments reminds me of the times I did the same to push back against the assumptions of those who asked what I was grateful for. During those conversations, it never made a difference how strong my case was that the rest of the world wasn’t one big shithole, or that freedom in this country wasn’t as free—or as freely shared—as Americans often thought. I, too, had facts and arguments, sometimes even the very same ones Lalami writes about so compellingly. But those facts and arguments rarely changed hearts or minds. Instead, arguing with someone’s disappointment that I wasn’t the right kind of grateful left me with a sinking sense of emptiness as my facts crashed into the stubborn reality that a birth certificate from Cincinnati couldn’t make anyone reimagine where I was “really from.”
All of which leaves me wondering: What does this mean for books like Conditional Citizens that want to challenge this country’s abusive status quo? What can even the most eloquently written book do in this regard, when the fact that babies are being held in concentration camps doesn’t stop babies from being held in concentration camps? When cops can give transparently flimsy justifications for executing Breonna Taylor in her own home and still not get charged? When a president can campaign on banning Muslims and the Supreme Court still won’t rule his Islamophobic bans unconstitutional?
And when none of this is truly new? Each awful headline from the last four years, Lalami shows, has precedents from ten, thirty, one hundred, and two hundred and fifty years ago. But the fact that many of these horrors were openly denounced, both in their own times and later, didn’t keep US history from repeating itself.
So as conditional citizens, are we forever doomed to lob facts at the unyielding border walls erected by those who feel entitled to question us? Or is there another way to tell our stories, one that doesn’t leave us stuck inside arguments with abusers who respond only to force?
To imagine other kinds of narratives, it helps to revisit how US citizenship has worked. Birthright citizenship—the doctrine that says that anyone born inside US borders is automatically a citizen, regardless of race, gender, or where their parents are from—hasn’t always been the law of the land. As UCLA professor Carrie Hyde points out in Civic Longing: The Speculative Origins of U.S. Citizenship, before the Fourteenth Amendment was ratified, in 1868, the boundaries of citizenship were confusing and unpredictable, determined not just by ancestry, birthplace, and a patchwork of state laws, but also by “the landscape of loyalty.” In the pre–Civil War era, loyalty often functioned as a citizenship trump card. It didn’t necessarily matter who your parents were or where you were from, as long as you convinced those around you that you were “the right kind” of American. Were you on the side of the rebel colonists or the British? Of the settlers or the Indigenous peoples they were violently dispossessing? Of whiteness or something else?
Or, rather, what side did your neighbors think you were on? Disloyalty was seen as dangerous. So, would you go along with what those in power wanted, or were you a threat?
Conditional citizens know that, Fourteenth Amendment or no, this way of thinking has never disappeared. It’s why I get asked questions about gratitude, even though I was born here, to a father who was a legal immigrant from Iran and a mother who was “natural born” and white. These questions don’t have anything to do with what’s on my paperwork and are only loosely about what I look like or how my father immigrated. At their core, they’re a way of asking where my loyalties lie.
The demand that someone different say something reassuringly familiar doesn’t have to be made consciously for it to work. If I comply and perform the right kind of gratitude, no one’s feathers are ruffled. Usually no one but me even notices what’s transpired. But if I don’t comply? Things get uncomfortable. Maybe an argument starts. Maybe a neighbor turns icy and complains to the landlord about my music. Or maybe she’s now on the lookout for what’s different about my language or my holidays or my food. And perhaps over time those little resentments build and build, until she finds herself on a plane, saying to her seatmate: “The problem with Iranians is that they don’t assimilate.”
The power dynamics of this everyday dance are what define how citizenship gets lived. And, as Lalami details, they follow grimly predictable race, class, gender, and religious lines—to see how, just ask the only question that matters when it comes to assimilation: Who gets to do the judging?
But that question can also open toward a different possibility: What if our narratives gave less power to those who judge us?
Two recent books show what such storytelling might look like for Americans who—like Lalami and I—are of Southwest Asian or North African descent. Dina Nayeri’s 2019 book The Ungrateful Refugee: What Immigrants Never Tell You turns the tables on would-be judges. Blending memoir and long-form journalism, the book weaves Nayeri’s story of fleeing Iran as a child with those of other Iranian refugees—those who, unlike her, did not have the good fortune to make it to Oklahoma, then to Yale, then on to a prestigious and well-compensated professional life. Through its searching depictions of how trauma, memory, and identity all resist the false binaries that immigration officials and a suspicious public rely upon, The Ungrateful Refugee dismantles the prejudices and self-deceptions that con Westerners into believing they can distinguish deserving from undeserving immigrants. Is a desperate man stowed away in a truck a worthy asylum-seeker or a self-serving “economic migrant”? The question Nayeri’s reporting keeps coming back to is: Who are you to think you can judge?
But the fact that Nayeri is telling this story at all is the most emphatic indictment of the asylum process she endured. After all, if you are a refugee—especially one like Nayeri, who goes on to live a prosperous life—you are supposed to be grateful. You’re not supposed to complain about what your saviors put you through. Do people just like you get sent to detention or back to their deaths, instead of being given papers? Doesn’t matter. Is the country that’s saving you also the one that’s destabilizing your homeland, triggering a mass exodus? Doesn’t matter. Were you granted asylum only to encounter virulent racism and xenophobia? So what? Your job as a refugee is to reflect back gratitude for your savior’s goodness, regardless of how that makes you complicit.
Nayeri walks away from this contract, choosing instead to look with a critical eye at those who judged her deserving while demonizing so many others. In doing so, she gives a warning to all immigrants seduced by the lure of model-minority status: just because someone judges you worthy, it doesn’t mean they have good judgment.
In her memoir, Love Is an Ex-Country, Randa Jarrar takes an even more radical tack: she leaves the judges behind entirely. Born in the US to Egyptian and Palestinian parents, Jarrar has been repeatedly attacked and abused for her zestful ingratitude. (Even if you don’t know her fiction—which you should—you might have heard about her infamous tweet eulogizing Barbara Bush as “a generous and smart and amazing racist who, along with her husband, raised a war criminal.”) In her memoir Jarrar refuses to defend herself with facts and arguments. Instead, she simply narrates her experiences as a lover, a daughter, an immigrant, a mother, a conditional citizen, and a traumatized human, taking the reader’s understanding and unconditional acceptance of her as a given.
This acceptance—this love, really—is the price of admission to a cross-country romp through the homes and embraces of Jarrar’s past lovers and abusers. The journey takes readers into old apartments, far-flung hotels, BDSM dungeons, and the Arab Room at the Ben Gurion Airport, with each stop giving a different glimpse into how Jarrar has been made unsafe or shown she didn’t belong. As the memoir unfolds, readers see how she’s been wounded by this abuse, and also how those hurts have slowly—sometimes incompletely, with help from the balm of her hard-won self-acceptance—healed.
Her depiction of this healing is so full of life and gentleness and awkward hilarity that it’s easy to miss that it’s also political. But through her intimate look at how she’s moved past abuse, Jarrar stakes out a radical approach to self and citizenship, one that hinges not on someone else’s approving judgment but on her own self-love. Finding this self-love requires letting go of attachments to one’s abusers, whether they are individuals or nation-states, and to the self-judgments abuse teaches. Judgments that say, You’ve gotten exactly what you deserve. Don’t ask for anything better. Shut up and be grateful for whatever safety and acceptance you have.
In rejecting this perspective, Love Is an Ex-Country imagines a different kind of citizenship, one that rests on unconditional belonging. The gatekeepers of this new country aren’t judges who tell you what to be grateful for—they’re you. You can choose to enter by accepting Jarrar—and yourself unconditionally, as her memoir invites you to do. Or you can refuse. But if you do, you’re the only person you banish.
Reimagining citizenship as beyond the reach of hostile judges isn’t a new idea. Indigenous and Black writers, especially, have been doing it for centuries. But Jarrar takes this kind of reimagining to new places by keenly chronicling the everyday ways that the unhealed wounds of abuse can bind even her most mundane bodily movements as an Egyptian, Palestinian, queer, fat, femme, Muslim, Arab American.
Take her depiction of the cramped middle airplane seat she’s assigned to after Israel refuses her entry, preventing her from visiting family in Ramallah. The scene is tense not because her seatmates are openly racist, as Lalami’s is in Conditional Citizens, or because they’re aware of the detention she’s just endured. Rather, it’s tense because she’s a large woman booked between two large men, and all three are left, as plane passengers often are, with insufficient space and armrests.
At first, Jarrar shrinks accommodatingly, folding painfully in on herself. But a few hours into the flight, she reconsiders this self-effacing conditioned deference, deciding that, despite the many cruel judgments her abusers have shared about how her body shouldn’t claim space, she has as much right to an armrest as anyone.
When a seatmate awakens to find the armrest occupied, he retaliates by elbowing her repeatedly. But she holds firm. And when he persists, she addresses him:
“I get it. I really get it,” she says. “But I am keeping this armrest. I am not moving. I will keep my arm here for the rest of the flight.”