The Robert College Turks seemed to have been amused by the level of outrage and despair among their Clinton-supporting friends in the United States. I experienced a version of this myself after the election, when, after a week of watching me cry, my friends seemed to say, OK, enough. Pull it together. A former Robert College student I contacted, who is living in the U.K., told me about the stories he’d heard from his Turkish friends in the United States. “They were bemused by the fact that students of our age group—and even professors—were so shocked and upset,” he said. “All these people were crying and bawling and saying, You can’t possibly understand what all of this is about!” The Turks found it funny—kind of, but not really—that Americans would say this to them. In fact, it was the Turkish political experience—more than their own knowledge of American society—that seemed to prepare Turks for the possibility that Trump might win.
One graduate I spoke to grew up in a lower-middle-class family near Izmit, a city outside of Istanbul. He had been a scholarship student at Robert College and eventually ended up at Princeton for graduate school. He still lived in New Jersey, and he expected he would stay for a while, but he was vehement about not wanting to raise children in the United States, despite being primed for success in America. “I wasn’t surprised by Trump’s win based on my understanding of Turkish politics,” he said. The idea that “elites assume that their notion of what is reasonable is shared by a reasonable amount of the public” was one he knew well.
He saw a parallel between the American political situation and the Turkish, in which decades of ignoring or repressing marginalized groups in society had empowered populist leaders. “It took people in Turkey a while to understand that wearing the hijab is not a terrible thing,” he said, referring to the strict laws, now repealed, against wearing the headscarf in state institutions in Turkey. “Many of those who thought of themselves as the most Europeanized liberals were against the hijab. This created political capital for Erdogan.” The Turkish students believed the central cause of Trump’s election to be economic. Both the inequality and the racism in the United States had shocked them, but it wasn’t Trump’s election that brought them that news. “I basically tell my family America is just like it is in the movies,” one said. “A society built on racism.”
I met another former scholarship student who graduated from Yale, in an upscale Istanbul mall called Kanyon. (It’s shaped like a canyon.) At lunchtime it is filled with well-to-do Turks who work in corporate towers nearby. It’s a place where you’re likely to see midriffs and men in pink button-downs. This Robert College graduate wore a beautiful blue oxford from Zara. “Compared to Europe and the racism there, I think America is still a much better place,” he said. He paused. “Granted, it’s not Canada,” he said. “No one is Trudeau.”
Trump’s Muslim ban was disturbing, but did not directly impact their lives. The bar for deterring a Turkish student from going to college in the United States was high even before Donald Trump. (On September 11, one graduate said his first thought was, “Oh my God, I hope it wasn’t Muslims, or we’ll never be able to go to college in America.”) Many of the students I spoke to went to Robert College during the George W. Bush presidency, when the invasion of Iraq was wildly unpopular in Turkey. They knew that Islamophobia was emerging in the United States, but neither the gruesomeness of the war, nor the ugliness the terrorist attacks had provoked in America stopped anyone from going to college there.
One reason seems to be that Turks do not typically suffer from anti-Muslim racism in the United States in the same way Arabs or Pakistanis or other Muslims do. Turks occupy a strange place in the American collective imagination. Many Americans don’t know where Turkey is, or whether Turks or Arabs live there. They are not sure if Turks are Muslim; they don’t recognize their last names, and though you will meet a lot of Ahmets and Mehmets in Turkey, rarely do you meet a Mohammad. Most important, many Turks look “white,” and many Turks think of themselves as white. American airports don’t fill Turks with dread.
It occurred to me that Donald Trump’s inexperience and ignorance might not have shocked Turks because they had been exposed to American ignorance, nativism, and narcissism in the Ivy League. The Yale student noticed that Jewish kids there could say they were “culturally Jewish,” but he didn’t think he could pull that off as a Muslim. “What can I say? ‘I am culturally Muslim, but I don’t practice?’ ” he asked me. “Americans don’t understand what that means—Oh, you don’t bomb things?” He thought Americans were self-centered. “They don’t really care about the rest of the world. I don’t see any dedication to becoming a global citizen. Only America matters there.”Donald Trump’s inexperience and ignorance might not have shocked the Robert College graduates because they had been exposed to ignorance, nativism, and narcissism in the Ivy League.
I began to feel that these Turkish students had not changed their perceptions of America because of Trump, as many liberals back home might like to assume, but because they had lived in America. There they discovered that even the most educated people were isolated from the rest of the world. “People in the U.S., especially in our age group, have a very different sort of mentality than other people in our age group in Turkey or in Europe,” a student at Oxford said, noting the widely held perception that Americans know little of world history, geography, or politics. “There is a sense that the American young person is very inwardly oriented, in terms of their sense of themselves and their world.” Trump couldn’t make these foreigners lose faith in America, because they had already been disappointed by the American people.
At Robert College the students were exposed to an ethos that celebrates individualism, privacy, ambition, and self-expression. “I wouldn’t say there is any propaganda about America being great,” said a student who ended up at Brown. “But you are exposed to Americans and their ways of thinking. So it depends on how much you’re interested in American literature or American liberalism. Do you buy into that vision, a more Marxist-leftist vision, or a more nationalist-Kemalist vision, or an Islamist one?”
These students are largely the children of Kemalists, leftists, liberals, and nationalists, with a handful of Islamists or Erdogan sympathizers, as well as some Kurds. Some come from famous industrialist families, and some are the middle-to-lower-class children of civil servants. Before Robert College, their exposure to and affinity for American culture varied. Typically, it is the wealthier classes who travel to the United States and Europe and embrace Western values. The lower economic classes have less access to the West and may regard the United States with a kind of cultural condescension. As the student from Izmit explained, these Turks aspired to be European, so they “liked shitting on the Americans the same way the Europeans do. It’s like ‘Look at these upstarts, they have the empire, but they don’t know what to do with it.’ ”
Still, the student body divides between the Amerikaci and the Turkiyeci, or those who long to attend college in the United States and those who do not. Class sometimes determines which path the students favor. “Among the scholarship students, there was an anti-American sentiment,” one student recalled. “It’s about the accent. There was a group of people who would consciously speak English with the Anatolian accent so as not to associate with the United States, but then there were some who spoke with an American accent. They wanted to be bankers, and they knew all their lives that they would live in the United States.”
The decisions these kids were making seemed based on an acceptance or rejection of a kind of global elite status. For some, the acceptance of that status—and the decision to go to an American university; the decision to act like wealthy, Westernized Istanbul Turks—in some way could mean the diminishment of a deeper Turkish identity. But that very same reason—the perception that an American degree can propel someone to global elite status—could also compel other scholarship students to attend an American university.
“Look, I am not from a big-name family here,” the student I met in the canyon mall said. “You can go to the U.S. and if you go to Yale, you can get a good job. In Turkey things require connections.” America is more meritocratic than Turkey—at least for Yalies. Robert College graduates like him thought the reasons for going to college in the United States were obvious. “I mean ... it’s America,” he said and laughed. “It’s America! It’s big, it’s prosperous; it’s free. It has world-class institutions, and it’s meritocratic, and it has the American dream.”
Another wealthier student, however, whose parents had in the past been sympathetic to Erdogan, and who often took their son for trips to the United States, said that it was during his time at Robert College that he grew critical of America. “When I was younger, we felt a bit more free in the U.S. People weren’t judging us, people wore whatever they wanted, nobody cared about what other people did in any aspect of their lives,” he said. “At Robert College, I started thinking critically about things in general. I started criticizing my own country, the U.S., the EU, everything.” The United States, and particularly its policies in Israel, Iraq, and his own country, disgusted him. He ended up staying in Turkey for college and was content.
This news has been published by title No One Is Coming To Save Us From Trump’s Racism
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