Refusing refugee status and questioning its implications

The term “refugee” in the wake of Katrina exposes a need for debate and the “whiteness” of society.

Refugee? Evacuee? Displaced? Survivors? The battle over words is almost as fierce as Hurricane Katrina itself. For once, Bush gets it right. “The people we’re talking about are not refugees Ö they are Americans, and they need the help and love and compassion of our fellow citizens,” the president declared.

But his logic is, well Ö slightly off. The survivors are not excluded from refugee status based on the very fact that they are Americans. Americans can be refugees if they flee to another country. However, since the victims of the hurricane are Americans crossing state borders rather than national boundaries, they are internally displaced peoples. Survivors, if you will.

The 1951 United Nations’ Convention on The Status of Refugees states explicitly that refugees are people who, owing to “well-founded fear of being persecuted Ö is outside the country of his nationality.” The United States agreed to this definition when it acceded to the 1967 Protocol Relating to The Status of Refugees. I wonder where columnist William Safire of The New York Times Magazine got his simple equation of “a refugee is a person who seeks refuge.” Duh. As if that isn’t a tautology.

Thankfully, according to an article in The Associated Press, a number of news media have already banned the term “refugee” in their coverage of Katrina survivors, including The Washington Post, The Miami Herald, and The Boston Globe. Ironically, the AP itself reserves the right to use the term wherever it deems appropriate.

So what’s the loud fuss over a single word? Who cares what we call people as long as they get help? Language matters. From a legal standpoint, language determines the confinements under which we live and the rights that we ought to enjoy. More broadly speaking, language also has the power to name. Names, in turn, constitute reality.

If you were named a nigger, a fag, an idiot and constantly referred to as such, you may start to internalize it, thereby actually becoming it. In the same sense, if we name the survivors of hurricane “refugees” when they are actually inside the borders of their home state, relief agencies and the survivors themselves may actually start acting like they are displaced people from outside the United States. Waiting for FEMA may be more like waiting for phantoms.

Although there is nothing inherently discriminatory about the term “refugee” as opposed to terms like “faggot,” there is a stigma attached to it. Sadly, refugees are seen as the other people who have come to our country for asylum. In other words, they are not American citizens.

Americans can be refugees abroad, but what kind of a message do we send if we are calling Americans within the United States “refugees?” We are, in a sense, denying them of their citizenship status. If the survivors of the hurricane were not poor, black people, I wonder if the term, “refugee,” would have been picked up by the media so quickly.

Hurricane Katrina, despite its deadly strike, has opened up a forum for discussing these issues. We must seize it readily. Why do we treat nonwhite American citizens as perpetual outsiders? I say “we” hesitatingly. I never know what to do in conversations that ask “How are we doing in the war?” because I never felt accepted as part of the “we.” I know that no matter how long I’ve been in the United States, I will always be seen as an immigrant, perhaps even a refugee. My facial features betray that I am a hyphenated American. Only white people can become “real” Americans.

The Hurricane awakened Americans to the “Third World” within the “First World.” It alarmed people not only with its prowess of destruction but also with its revelation of destitution as a universal phenomenon. The swing hit home. No longer can we perceive poverty, sickness, and despair as distant problems relegated to those “dark” places of the world. It is time to be humble and to recognize some of the more deeply embedded problems unearthed by this disaster.

Associated Press Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll commented that the until the several hundred thousand people “forced to seek refuge in more than 30 different states across America” are able to return home or settle down in their news communities, they will be refugees. Her words are misleading.

As the University and the state of Minnesota prepare for survivors, I hope that we will treat them as what they are: the internally displaced who need, very badly, our immediate support.

Diana Fu welcomes comments at [email protected]