Nations, states, and nation-states

On a personal level I didn’t quite believe in nations. In my lifetime they had disappeared (Czechoslovakia), appeared (Timor-Leste), failed (Somalia). My own nationality was largely an accident of history; born in London and raised in Boston, I held U.K. and U.S. passports on the basis of laws long overturned by 2002. My Ghanaian father lived in Saudi Arabia, my Nigerian mother in Ghana, both citizens of countries that hadn’t existed when they were born. That we were all somehow meant to derive our most basic sense of self from nations — these expandable, collapsible, invent-able things — struck me as absurd.

Before beginning grad school, I used the words “nation,” “state” and “country” interchangeably, e.g., the United Nations is comprised of member states, with countries elected to councils. The terms, I learned now, were discrete. A nation was a cultural and linguistic entity, a state a political and geopolitical one. The idea of the modern nation-state — a sovereign state governing a cultural nation — was just that: an idea, 350 years old and showing its age.

In a precious few states, one ethnic group still comprised more than 95 percent of the population (Iceland, Japan and Malta, to name a few). In the rest, the “nation” of nation-state fame had to be invented. To arrive at this imagined singularity in the face of the complexities of history — civil wars, shifting borders, myriad languages, varying complexions — required the privileging of the culture of certain nationals over others’.

In a way, I’d always understood this. From an early age it was clear to me that, despite the passports I held, no one using the terms “British lass” or “all-American girl” had me in mind. If history created nations, power created national cultures.

– Exerpted rom Who Am I? Who Are You? When We Speak of Nationality, What Do We Mean? by Taiye Selasi