Recently, I drove too close to another car in a parking lot while looking for a spot. Before I could apologize to the other driver, an Indian man, he rolled down his window and yelled “Go back to China!” I was partly amused, but mostly annoyed. He was definitely an immigrant or a descendant of immigrants like I am. What gave him the right to spew vitriol at me?
Sometimes our annoyance with foreigners emerges in the stress of the moment. When my friends and I visited the Palace of Versailles, a few Chinese tourists infuriated us by cutting in line after we’d been waiting for three hours already. The fact that we had Chinese roots didn’t stop us from excoriating the bad manners of Chinese people. I took great relish in thinking, I have proper manners because I’m American!
When we don’t understand foreign customs (like the reason Chinese tourists cut in line is because they’re used to surviving in a densely populated, competitive society), it’s easy to make generalizations about a whole group of people. We evolved with instincts to prefer members of our own group of race or class over others, which take conscious effort to undo. Despite years of social movements, many people are still not convinced that diversity and globalization is desirable. Even then, dynamics between countries changes constantly, creating new animosities between people.
I’ve heard about several excuses for xenophobia, which look familiar in the Trump era:
1. Immigrants encroach on our space. We were in this country first, and they’re taking our rights, jobs, and tax money.
2. Foreigners disrupt our way of life.
3. Things aren’t going well in our lives, and we need someone to blame for it.
People have strong reactions and emotions based on their personal experience, rather than research that suggest immigrants have an overall positive effect on the economy.
Despite globalization, many parts of the world don’t have communities where people of different races intermingle. Understandably, immigrants tend to cluster together so they can connect with people similar to them. I’ve heard stories from my Asian friends who’ve travelled to the Midwest and were told “you’re the first Asian person I’ve met!” This is a barrier to an ideal situation where we build tolerance to each other by surrounding ourselves with and befriending people of other ethnicities.
Xenophobia is also influenced by public perception, in which media plays an important part. The news can be sympathetic to young children being separated from their parents at the border, or it can show Chris Rock mocking young Chinese kids at a diversity-themed Oscars ceremony. It can also facilitate the dreaded spread of fake news.
Many articles and think pieces already highlight the role of echo chambers on social media, where algorithms limit our exposure to other points of views. It’s hard enough exchanging candid conversations with people we love, and it’s even harder to confront strangers who will judge us mercilessly. Confronting our own beliefs is excruciating, but it’s imperative for growth and self-improvement.
As we challenge our own and others’ beliefs, we should remember that racism exists on a spectrum. Nuance is key to a lot of discussions about race, but many people on both the extreme right and left refuse to hear a word from anyone who disagrees with their ideologies, or merely agrees on a more moderate level. We should start with listening to the people whose minds we are attempting to change instead of alienating them.
We all have unconscious biases to overcome. But whatever ill feelings we have in our head about foreigners doesn’t excuse cruelty or making people feel less than human. In fact, we should practice understanding foreign cultures and giving them the benefit of the doubt. As Kumail Nanjiani proclaimed in his SNL monologue, “An informed racist is a better racist!” Admittedly a rational, well-reasoned racist might be even more insidious than an uninformed one, Nanjiani makes a hopeful point that having more information and exposure to other people’s experiences will help cultivate empathy.
If media can fan the flames of xenophobia, it can also heal us through art. We need more well-researched movies like Coco and Moana that show the beauty and warmth of other cultures. We need more books that show the humanity in different stories. Art shows us what we have in common, like family, love, and a desire to belong somewhere.
In How to American, Jimmy O. Yang says he’ll always feel like an immigrant, even after getting his American passport. I was born in California and still feel uncomfortable calling myself American, knowing that a vast majority of the country would see me as a foreigner. But I won’t be intimidated by people who don’t know me, because my continuing existence in this country is a demonstration of America’s welcoming values and diversity. I’ll ignore the driver who wanted to exile me to China. I’d rather be at home, here in America.
This post is part of the Alphabet Project, where I write an article for each letter of the alphabet. It was inspired by Ash Huang’s Alphabet Meditations.