Unlearning Racism Newsletter – Week 12: Debunking “Birtherism”

WEEK 12 – AUGUST 19, 2020

Hi friends,We want to thank you all for your participation in Sunday’s dialogue about the racist double standards in language and violence. We are eager for your feedback about how we are doing as facilitators and about how this group feels as a whole, so if you could take a few minutes to fill out this survey, we would be so, so thankful.  

We tuned in to an Antiracist Teach In with Bryan Stevenson and Ibram X. Kendi Monday night that was everything we’d hoped it’d be and more. It was hopeful while being honest, it outlined structured and attainable goals while being idealistic, and it gave us so much room to grow. Something that particularly stuck out to us was when Bryan Stevenson talked about how often after tragedy, we hear a refrain of “never again.” We say “never again” to the Holocaust, “never again” to 9/11, “never again” when someone who isn’t one of us is the bad actor. But, Stevenson noted, “we’ve never said “never again” to racial inequality.” 

This summer and beyond, we want to be leading that chant in our own lives. Never again to enslavement, to Jim Crow, to excluding people based on the color of their skin. Never again to looking the other way when we hear racist language or see racist violence unfolding before us. Never again to choosing willful ignorance and ignoring someone else’s pain. Never again to “I’m not racist but…” or “I’m just not a political person.” Never again. 

We are feeling so energized after Sunday’s conversation and the Teach-In and we are so excited about the jumping-off point that these conversations provide us with when thinking about the double standards of race in politics. This week, we’re saying “never again” to birther conspiracies that manifest about Black and immigrant political candidates. No matter where our personal politics lie, we are making a commitment to stand up against “birtherism,” as we would all forms of racism.


Birtherism is the incorrect (and racist) belief that doubts or denies that certain (read: Black or POC) public officials are natural-born U.S. citizens, thus implying that they would be ineligible to hold public office. This belief was prevalent throughout former President Barack Obama’s time in the White House, with fringe Republican theories (lies) about whether or not his birth in Hawai’i and his mother’s Kenyan heritage disqualified his service. 

The birther theory traces back to 2004 when Obama’s political opponent for a race in Illinois questioned his “legitimacy” as a candidate. It continued toward the 2008 election when Clinton supporters questioned Obama’s “fitness” to be president. But in recent years, much of the birther “theorizing” (reader, we mean telling lies) has come from Donald Trump himself

Modern birtherism has already emerged in the six days since Biden announced that Kamala Harris would be his running mate in this election, and we thought it was important to make note that wherever you stand ideologically in regard to this election, birtherism is racism. 

Within hours of Biden’s election, a conservative law professor wrote that “some” are “questioning” whether Harris might be “constitutionally ineligible” to be vice president because, should she have to step into the presidency, she might not meet the Constitution’s Article II requirement that this country’s chief executive be a “natural born” citizen. Jenna Ellis, who holds herself out as senior legal adviser to the Trump campaign, quickly embraced this “controversial stance” (read: blatant lie), retweeting a link to the article and later declaring Harris’s eligibility an “open question.” It’s probably safe to assume that Trump’s reelection campaign is on board with this line of inquiry, reminiscent of Trump’s leadership of the “birther” movement when it was first launched against Obama.

Why are “birthers” coming for Kamala Harris?

Much like at least half a dozen US-presidents, Harris is the daughter of two immigrants (a mother from India and a father from Jamaica) but was born in Oakland, CA. The difference? Harris is a woman, and a Black South Asian woman at that. Her American-ness is called into question, much like President Obama’s, by virtue of the melanin in her skin, rather than her birthplace, her culture, or her citizenship. This double standard is amplified when remembering recent history’s candidates: Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), who came in second to Trump in the 2016 GOP primary, was born in Calgary, Alberta, and Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the 2008 nominee, was born on a naval installation in the Panama Canal Zone. Going back in time a little further, Mitt Romney’s father, George Romney, was born in Mexico, a fact that did nor arise during George’s brief run for president in 1968, nor was it an issue when his son ran for president in 2012. 

Why is this such a problem though? This seems almost silly?

Trump’s demands for Obama’s birth certificate were completely unfounded, but polls showed that 25% of Americans, and nearly half of those who self-identified as Republicans, believed the lie that Obama was not born in the United States. While there is no grain of truth to either fantasy, these “fringe” ideas that leaders  have real life outcomes. Under Obama, there was a visceral reaction against his position of authority that it sparked hate crimes against racial and ethnic minorities, beginning as soon as he was elected. There are real, tangible consequences of “birther” conspiracy theorizing, particularly to other communities of color. 


Word we are learning

What is xenophobia?
The fear and hatred of strangers or foreigners or fear of anything that is strange or foreign to what one perceives as “normal.” Scholars often break down xenophobia into two subcategories – xenophobia that is cultural in nature and entire group xenophobia.

Cultural xenophobia is where people with xenophobic tendencies are against the objects and elements of a culture such as clothing or language (we often think of “Indian Boarding Schools” that attempted to strip Native children from their Indigenous language, clothing, rituals, and general sense of culture as an expression of white leadership’s cultural xenophobia).

Entire group xenophobia manifests when an entire cultural group is not considered part of the broader society. Entire group xenophobia often results in explicit violence and hostility and even result in genocide (following our prior example, the subhuman treatment and disregard for sovereignty of Native people during the colonization of the Americas resulted in multiple decades of genocide by weaponizing smallpox to kill off 55 million Native people. This xenophobia toward Native Americans also bred the Indian Removal Act of 1830). 

What does xenophobia look like in daily life?

  • Feeling uncomfortable around people who fall into a “different” group (for example: feeling weird around women wearing hijabs or who are speaking a different language)
  • Going to great lengths to avoid visiting certain “parts of town”
  • Refusing to be friends with or to date entire groups of people solely due to their mode of dress, religion, first language, or other external factors
  • Difficulty taking advice or direction from a supervisor or teammate who does not fall into your same racial, religious, or ethnic group

Why is this such a problem, though? Aren’t I allowed to have preferences without being accused of being “xenophobic?”

Much like other arms of white supremacy culture, xenophobia is often taught to us inadvertently and early in life, through the guise of safety or preference. Whether it’s intentional or unintentional, we exclude ideas and people that we are taught to see as “other” because they are unfamiliar to us. For many of us, the norms we were taught as children were often white, Christian, heterosexual, able-bodied middle-class ideals, without regard or reverence for other experiences. We’re not saying that there is inherent xenophobia in being white, Christian, heterosexual, able-bodied, or middle class, but it is xenophobic to treat anything that doesn’t fit into those categories as inherently flawed or to try to measure people who fall outside of those bounds by the standards of whiteness, of Christianity, able-bodiedness, heterosexuality, etc.  Whiteness isn’t inherently correct just because it’s what we (as individuals, as a nation, and frankly, in most of global society) have allowed to hold the most social value. If our preferences exclude any and all experiences that feel “foreign” to us, it’s worth evaluating whether some of those preferences are really rooted in a fear of what’s different. If we fear other cultures strictly because they are different than we are, we are vulnerable to viewing their pain and their joy as less important than our own.

What can I do to combat xenophobia?

  • Broaden your experience and your worldview. Choose to be exposed to cultures, foods, identities that are different than your own and encourage those you love to jump on board with you
  • Become more aware of your unconscious biases. When you notice yourself thinking something that perpetuates a stereotype or generalization about a whole group of people, jot it down and find media to combat that belief. We’re so fortunate as to live in a world where there are many, many, many tv series, books, podcasts, and movies that show us different kinds of people as protagonists. Seek experiences that will humanize those against whom you might harbor some biases.
  • When you hear someone else stating something that sounds rooted in xenophobia, ask them, “how do you know that? What information do you have that supports what you just said?” or say something like “I think I’m hearing you say something that’s based off of a stereotype. I would love to learn more about this with you” and then hold them to that learning. 

Phrase we are unlearning 
“Go back to where you came from”

Why are we unlearning this?

It’s xenophobic. It implies that anyone who voices disdain for the way that they have been treated is the problem, rather than the painful treatment they have endured. And the very idea that we don’t have any more room for people who don’t look like us is a “long, ugly strain in American history.”

What’s the history behind the idea of people “going back to where they came from?”

This sentiment can be traced (at the very latest) to 1798, when the US passed a series of laws known as the Alien and Sedition Acts, aimed at making citizenship more difficult for immigrants and deporting them easier for US authorities. This legislation was constructed to grant officials the authority to remove immigrants saying anything against the U.S. government. Jennifer Wingard, a professor at the University of Houston says that government officials were “starting to see different political parties and different politicians arguing for different ways that the government should be run. And it just happened that politically, they could try to maintain and try to withhold the status quo by putting it on the backs of immigrants.”

The Alien and Sedition Acts began a pattern that would resurface with new waves of immigration and new perceived threats, ranging from the Great Famine in Ireland and the Spanish-American War to the Great Depression and the attacks on Sept. 11.

This statement plays to the fear that somehow America is getting “too full” and that the mixing of ethnicities and races diminishes this nation’s value. And, it often comes with a particular irony when spoken to Black Americans, many of whose ancestors were kidnapped and transported against their will, across the ocean, and then forced to reproduce in order for their enslavers to have a larger workforce.


This week, we want to encourage ourselves to dig into our pockets and get comfortable sending money via venmo, cashapp, paypal, etc. directly to folks expressing a need when we see it. Seriously. “If you’re a beneficiary of systemic racism,” Dale Murphy tweeted a couple weeks back, “then you will not be able to dismantle it at no cost to yourself. You will have to put yourself at risk. It might not always result in being physically attacked, but it will require you to make yourself vulnerable.” Direct cash transfers are one way that we dismantle systemic racism by redistributing our wealth (even in the form of $5 increments) to people experiencing a need. They are easy, they are kind, and they grant the person receiving the money the autonomy to use it for what it is that they need, in a way that most 501(c)3 organizations would not allow. And there is a LOT of need right now. 

We know there will be people who read this unsolicited advice to give directly and feel reeeeally uncomfortable. And we push those people, especially, to explore the place from where those feelings of distrust and need for control of, or at least explicit knowledge of, the use of one’s donation emerges. We aren’t knocking the existence of nonprofits so much as we want to challenge the belief that only by way of a third party (an organization where you donate your money and someone else gets a portion of that money for one reason or another) can we donate.  Charities can be great, but they are one way to put cash in the hands of people with needs, not the only way

So this week, we challenge you to deposit $$$ in someone else’s venmo/cashapp/PayPal when you see a link posted (sometimes if we can’t afford it right then, we just bookmark it for our next payday OR the next time we’re pouring ourselves a cocktail that would cost a lot if we were at a bar, but we’re not at the bar because COVID, etc.). If you don’t know where to start, here’s a great article on the topic and here are some links to ways to support some people who need a little extra $$ in hand:


The US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has proposed a new rule that would deny transgender, intersex, and non-binary people access to shelters and public housing programs. This rule comes alongside a wave of evictions related to coronavirus layoffs and a lack of stimulus money to support families and individuals across the nation. Transgender, intersex, and nonbinary folks are some of the most vulnerable to violence, particularly when they are unhoused. Black, Indigenous, and other people of color who are transgender, intersex, or nonbinary are particularly vulnerable to violence, and this violence is only exacerbated when they are forced to live on the streets. 

This week, we’re asking our readers to submit a public comment on the Federal Register about this needless, discriminatory act that will disproportionately and needlessly harm Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and people of color who identify within the LGBTQIA+ community. HUD is legally required to write a response to each unique comment before they can implement a Final Rule, meaning that the more comments they receive, the longer it will take them to put this dangerous and discriminatory rule into effect. The comment period will run through September 22, giving us a little under 60 days to submit comments from as many people as possible, so tell your friends to make a comment, too! 

And if you need a script, here’s one you can reference (thanks Able SC!)


Primary Resource:

Supplemental Resources:

  • The Birthers are Back 
  • Cardi B in Conversation with Joe Biden – Elle Magazine with the political commentary we have been craving. This is not a novel take but Cardi B is an incredible political commentator. She’s clever and compassionate and cares about her community. She knows how to leverage her own cultural capital to ask hard conversations. Say what you will about her music but in the arena of anti-racist work, she is a role model for us as we learn to boldly demand what we want to see from our leadership. 

Other Resources We Loved:

Alright everyone, no dialogue this Sunday but we’ll be back week after next and can’t wait to see many of you there again! Until then, we’ll be writing postcards to those of you who sent us your addresses (and will continue to send postcards this fall to anyone who sends us a mailing address!), watching Atlanta (Emily’s late to the party but okay, wow, so good), and reading Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman’s Big Friendship.

Take good care until we show up in your inboxes again next week. And if you want, tell your friends about this newsletter and ask them to join in this anti-racist journey, too.

In solidarity,
Ellie and Emily

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