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Diasporas—Amidst Empires and Nations

Since 1800, three great changes have remade the global socio-political order: the rise of nations, the collapse of empires, and the formation of diasporas. This essay argues that diasporas—not just nations and empires—are essential to the organization of the world.

I begin with nations and empires and a reminder of their relationship to one another. At the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo (which took place in 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic), 202 nations participated, representing the entire world. One hundred years earlier, at the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, there were only 26 participating nations. At the time, most lands were colonies with no recognition and ruled by just a few empires. In a dramatic shift over the last century, those colonies gained independence (and Olympic banners), while empires lost power and territory, ending up as mere nations.

The Formation of Diasporas

Beginning in 1800, migration grew as never before. As a result, migrants and their offspring had an expanded and significant role in world affairs, and diasporas began to form. Diasporas are less bounded and less precise than nations or empires. They lack governments or armies, yet they comprise many members sharing identity and culture. Not only do diasporas link peoples and cultures across national boundaries, but they build the ideas and practices of multiculturalism; challenge discrimination within nations; and spread cultural innovation. Early diasporas include the Jewish diaspora and the African diaspora. Diasporas emerging in the nineteenth century included those of Irish, Italians, Chinese, and Indian identity.

In the twentieth century, there were movements and campaigns of existing diasporas, but also new waves of migration, which led to new diasporas. These include the Palestinian diaspora from 1950, the Jamaican diaspora from 1950, the Cuban and Nigerian diasporas from 1960, and the Somali, Ethiopian, and Iranian diasporas from 1970.

From Migrant Community to Diaspora

Diasporas take shape over five main stages:

  1. Migrant settlement: Empires provoked movement of refugees, imperial settlers, or enslaved migrants to new lands. This led to the formation of migrant communities.
  2. Community identity: Migrant communities that survive for generations adopt an identity as
    • Descendants of a remembered homeland (perhaps to become a diaspora)
    • Settlers with loyalty to an imperial homeland (English in New Zealand)
    • A new ethnicity, or the identity of an existing ethnicity (Dutch in the U.S.).
  3. Precipitating factors: Historical events or disasters may cause a migrant community to deepen its identity. Examples of such factors include religious persecution of Jews; the enslavement and racial hierarchy of Africans; and violence against Chinese and Irish migrants.
  4. Diaspora organization: To become a diaspora, communities need to identify objectives, recognize leaders, highlight their culture, and protest discrimination.
  5. Later diaspora experience: New migrations may reaffirm a diaspora, or diaspora communities may become absorbed into national communities.

1850—A Turning Point for Diasporas

At the middle of the nineteenth century, the world was changing rapidly. There were economic shifts; new industries demanded workforces, and steamships now transported migrants. There was imperial expansion, as conquerors seized lands on every continent, generating more refugees, settlers from the imperial homeland, and forced laborers of African and Asian ancestry. And in Europe and the Americas, conflicts between and within new nations provoked migration.

As a result of these factors, Irish, English, German, and later, Italian, Greek, and Russian migrants flowed overseas and organized diasporas. Chinese and Indian migrants flowed in numbers equal to those from Europe but formed diasporas more gradually. The existing African diaspora became more organized around this time, as overseas slave exports from Africa fell sharply. Migrations of Black people continued, however, as both free and enslaved individuals moved within Brazil and the U.S., as well as Africa and the Middle East.

After 1850, diasporas had their own newspapers and literary traditions, often expressed in multiple languages, cuisine, dress, music, material culture, and parades and holidays. Each diaspora also had its individual interactions with empires and nations. For example, the Irish diaspora challenged the British Empire, calling for home rule and then independence; the Italian diaspora relied on nationalism to create an Italian empire; the Chinese diaspora supported the replacement of the empire by a republic; the African diaspora challenged the expanding ideology of racial hierarchy and segregation, with defensive campaigns for basic civil rights in Africa and the Americas; and the Indian diaspora contributed to the campaign for Indian home rule. Still in the era of empires, World War I enabled diasporas to contribute to the national independence of Ireland, Finland, and Poland.

1950 to Today—Diaspora Enters Our Vocabulary

World War II brought a second and greater impulse for the formation of diasporas. Decolonization in Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean, mixed with expanded civil rights in the U.S., provided new freedom to migrate. But this also created refugee crises and led to disputes within new nations. By 1970, the empires had lost most of their colonies, and new waves of migration flooded in multiple directions. As a result, one might say that the post-1950 diasporas were caused by nations and the remnants of empires. In this era, diasporas and their cultures became part of life throughout much of the world.

The term “diaspora,” in fact, was not used widely until the 1960s. (Before this time, there was never a clear division between migrant community and diaspora.) With the advent of the internet in the 1990s, it became possible to identify and share the label of “diaspora” between communities. Also in the 1990s, Brazil, Venezuela, Colombia, and Ecuador gave legal recognition to African diaspora culture and to those of Amerindian descent. In African diaspora culture, drums provided reminders of the variety and the sharing in African culture. The polyrhythmic beats from African drums encouraged elaborate dance steps and music that spread widely.

How is the World Different Because of Diasporas?

First, one may argue that empires have disappeared in large part because of diasporas. After all, the pushes for rights within each colony were reinforced by Pan-Asian and Pan-African alliances, which were supported by diaspora communities. Second, nations themselves have evolved because of diasporas, which foster multiculturalism and multiple cultural identities within nations. Third, diasporas facilitate cross-national communication in music, visual art, cuisine, dress, and literature.

It’s worth pointing out, however, that migrant communities do not inevitably lead to diasporas—and that diasporas may not last forever. For instance, the settlement of millions of Mexican migrants in the southwestern U.S. (one of the largest migrations occurring after 1950) appeared on the verge of creating a diaspora with Chicano identity, but ultimately became absorbed into a larger Hispanic identity that was already taking root in America.

Every diaspora has a unique, complex, and fascinating story—stories that could not be told in this blog post. But the story of diasporas overall—how they have changed the world and will continue to change it—is the key message. And as migrations continue, more diasporas will form. They will take on different identities and roles; they will enrich their cultural practices and push for social change; and they will certainly influence nations and groups of nations.

To summarize, empires were about domination, nations are about forming communities, and diasporas are about migration and social overlaps. One could say that diasporas are really about connections.

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