The Imaginary of Shared Experience

I’ve been reading Susan Ostrander’s Citizenship and Governance in a Changing City.

Susan and I work together through The Welcome Project, a great Somerville organization, featured in her book, which seeks to build the collective power of immigrants in Somerville.

I must admit it’s a little weird to read a sociological study of my own community, but it’s been an interesting undertaking nonetheless.

Also, spoiler alert.

I’m really taken with what Ostrander calls the “immigrant imaginary” and the “working class imaginary.”

Essentially, she argues, there are these narratives we tell ourselves, ways we present ourselves, that while perhaps not inaccurate…are also not quite accurate. That disconnect creates a dissonance in atmosphere – an environment that’s simultaneously welcoming and ostracizing.

The immigrant imaginary, for example, manifests itself when we describe the U.S. as a ‘nation of immigrants.’

It can be tremendously welcoming to proclaim that the United States has always been built by immigrants, that immigrants have always been a core piece of our national identity, and that immigrants should always be welcomed as an integral part of the community.

But there’s something disingenuous about that as well.

While I must admit to having been relieved when my mother called to tell me I could tear up my (imaginary) Mayflower Society membership, many parts of my family have been here for generations.

I had relatives among the founders of Hingham, MA. I’m related to Mary Todd Lincoln. Even my Somerville roots run deep – my cousin 100 years ago served as the superintendent of Somerville Public Schools (Source: my mother).

So, to compare my ‘immigrant experience’ to the modern immigrant experience lacks a thoughtful understanding of the issues currently faced, and – perhaps worse – masks those issues under a pretense of commonality.

Ostrander also describes a similar “working class” imaginary, which I personally find particularly compelling. Having grown up in a working class family, I very strongly identify as a working class, though common measurements would generally categorize me as middle class.

I am not sure that there is anything wrong with this disconnect – with seeking understanding and common ground through different, but similar experiences.

But I do thinking it’s something of which we all need to be self-aware.

When you claim membership within a group, how does that self-identity impact those who are around you?

In what ways does your self-perceived group membership impact the way you think or the way you present ideas? Is it clear to your audience where you’re coming from?

Is it possible that, in trying to create a welcoming environment you are unintentionally creating a space where genuine inclusion is not possible?


One thought on “The Imaginary of Shared Experience

  1. pzdj

    I wish I’d figured a chance to talk with you about this, but maybe in a smaller group?
    And if Alain and I can get our book group to read the book, maybe you could come?
    This was a wonderful week! Thank you for your part in making it possible.


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