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(Re) imagining the diaspora: solidarity beyond nationalism

mapofethiopiaby Tiyya B.

It only takes a brief scan of few diaspora based websites to recognize the ethnically charged discourses surrounding the Ethiopian diaspora.

The highly divisive nature of much of diasporic discourse on affairs concerning Ethiopia makes it extremely difficult to engage in dialogue across ethnic lines in any productive manner. For those of us with deep connections to these communities, these discourses are not only alienating and paralyzing but also threaten to rob us of any sense of agency. This is an attempt to curve out a space for critical dialogue that would enable for exchanges of ideas on a significant issue which impacts all of us in one way or another. In response to the highly divisive, ethnicized and politicized discourse on the Ethiopian diaspora, I propose an alternative framework for diasporic relations.

The Ethiopian diaspora in North America is largely a result of the economic, social and political oppression that has prevailed in the country since the end of the 19th century. It would be an understatement to say that the Ethiopian diaspora is a homogeneous community in any way as it is ethnically, religiously and culturally diverse. Relationships amongst various ethnic groups are wrought with tension since identities are constructed in oppositional terms, with clear demarcations of insiders and outsiders. Diaspora is a site of struggle over meaning, representation and sense of identity amongst Ethiopians. Whereas the Amhara language and culture had historically dominated the country, the diaspora provides a platform for resistant counter-narratives and identity construction for ethnic groups that had been subordinated to the hegemonic Amhara vision of Ethiopian identity. Given the dominant perspective from which it is constructed, the term “Ethiopian” itself is highly contested. For example, the largest ethnic group, the Oromos, intensely contest this identity, choosing to distinguish themselves based on ethnicity, common history of subordination, and language.

Despite the divergence in identities and interests, the Ethiopian diaspora has one fundamental commonality. Each ethnic group seeks to maintain genuine connection with the country, its population and is highly concerned about its future. Still, with so many oppositional identities, viewpoints and interests, the diaspora remains divided and unable to promote any real change in the country. Moreover, exceedingly politicized discourses overshadow the need for addressing broader and immediate humanitarian and social issues rampant in the country. Divisions within the diaspora are also exacerbated by extremist and separatist nationalist appeals, which seek to gain uncritical support and loyalty. This makes any attempt at a collective and crosscutting social and political movement impossible. On this basis, I will make a case for social organizing beyond nationalism by discussing the limitations of ethnic nationalism as a basis for collective action and alliance.

My discussion on the limitations of nationalism is not meant to completely dismiss its importance as a source of political, social and cultural resistance. In places such as the U.S. where the convergence of racial and class inequality can create a hostile environment, nationalism provides a safe haven for immigrants. Specifically, for historically marginalized groups, where the loss of identity is more immediate, and the pressure to assimilate exacerbate this fear, nationalism provides a protection in the illusion of a cohesive community. Nationalist sentiments promise to enable us to hold on to this sense of unified ethnicity, as elusive as this may be. In this sense, nationalism becomes a form of resistance against a culture that seeks to simultaneously homogenize and “other” us.

On the other end, diasporic nationalism alienates individuals and communities from broader collective and societal relations. It creates micro countries within a community, and enhances imaginary lines that divide them. All of these divisions, not only make it even more difficult for immigrants to find a sense of belonging within the larger society, but also hinder the possibilities for immigrant communities to organize in solidarity around common oppressions that they must face in the new context and their mutual desire to contribute to the homeland. And finally, the conflation of these new divisions, with old and often conflict ridden ones brought from the former homeland, can create barriers for transformative collaboration between different ethnic groups coming from and often in dispute over the same geo-political space.

A significant limitation of nationalist organizing is the discouragement of critique and dissent within diasporic political organizations. The need to present a strong and unified front leads to an environment hostile to questioning and critical dialogue. By virtue of its dependence on the past as a frame of reference, this type of organizing falls susceptible to suppressing critical reflection on the history, identity and future of this community. Supporters are expected to blindly conform to the way in which the past has been presented by dominant fractions of these national groups. Critical dialogue amongst insiders or between insiders and outsiders becomes difficult to sustain in such a context. The suppression of critical thinking and dialogue encourages blind support of goals and policies set by few elites.

Closely related to the first, a further constraint to social organizing within nationalist projects is the issue of accountability. Because the norms and values of the groups are so strictly defined, members struggle to find a healthy balance between compulsory conformity and disloyalty. Personal accountability to the goals of the group compromises individuals’ own sense of critical judgment around the issues that concern the nationalist cause. Anything that falls outside of these perimeters is highly discouraged and in some cases even forbidden. Those who step outside of these parameters face potential exclusion. Within this rigid context of collective action, injustices committed within and outside of the group might not have a platform for being addressed. Furthermore, within this setting, individuals become confined to merely supporting the status quo.

Finally, a significant limitation of nationalist organizing is the restricted framework through which identity is articulated. In order to create a unified identity, simplistic notions of ‘us’ and ‘them’ are created, leading to the formation of strict boundaries of insiders and outsiders. This demarcation poses two sets of challenges. Within the national community, it isolates individuals who do not fit into the ideals of what members of these communities should be and act like. In addition, it can suppress important differences between members of these imagined communities. This can partly explain widespread fragmentations and conflict within Ethiopian diasporic organizations. Externally, by creating such a demarcation, nationalist politics alienate others who might share common interest and concerns, or might desire to support the specific interest of these communities, but do not fit the necessary criteria to belong to the group.

Previously discussed issues of accountability, restrictive identities, and discouragement of dissent pose important limitations for social and political organizing based on a nationalist project in the diaspora. While nationalism might provide a sense of empowerment and belonging to immigrants, as a platform for organizing it hinders the potential for creating a wider constituency for fostering meaningful social and political change both in the diaspora and in Ethiopia. It is necessary we move past national consciousness as the basis for our actions. In the forthcoming part II of this article, I will map out an alternative vision for solidarity, which is imperative for transformative and democratic social and political change.

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*Tiyya B is a graduate student studying International Development. She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .