After the 2016 U.S. elections, like many immigrants, I felt targeted, vulnerable, and discriminated. This was primarily due to the negative rhetoric surrounding immigrants and a surge in assaults against minorities from various cultural backgrounds, religious affiliations, and sexual orientations. While the perpetrators of violence and hate share the bulk of the blame, I feel that immigrants could also do more to overcome the feelings of otherness.
I was stunned by the hatred and bigotry that surfaced in Donald J. Trump’s America. To me, the United States had always been the land of opportunity and a place where people of all colors and backgrounds could happily coexist.
What I did not understand at the time was that racism in America has been implicit for a long time. Racism does not die, but it evolves with changing social norms and political interests. It manifests itself in actions such as widespread incarceration of blacks, surveillance of Muslims by law enforcement, and mass deportation of Latinos. These actions are justified under the guise of homeland security, protecting the border, or, even better, fighting gang violence.
The media’s portrayal of stereotypes exacerbates racism. First, there is hardly any representation of minorities in the media, and existing depiction is marked by typecasting people of color: black gangster, Muslim terrorist, Latino criminal.
There are numerous examples. The spy thriller TV show Homeland, for instance, portrays Muslims as one of two ways. They are either terrorists or collaborate with U.S. agencies. Similarly, the recently released film Peppermint is a quintessential stereotypical story with a white female protagonist and a Latino gangster. In both examples, Muslims and Latinos are proxies for American media’s idea of today’s evil.
Racism is further reiterated by the tone the current U.S. president has set for our national discourse, which has led to the prevailing divisiveness in the country, but to be fair, all of us share some blame.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 31, 2018
Living in Bubble
We all live in our own bubble and often don’t make an effort to reach out and create a space to talk about inconvenient truths. We haven’t reconciled with or learned from America’s racist past.
I have lived here for over a decade now, but for the most part, only interacted with people similar to me. Most of my friends are either Pakistani Americans or Indian Americans. Culturally, I feel comfortable interacting with South Asians.
Over the years, I have lived in predominantly white communities, yet I did not form any strong friendships. I was able to make a few friends, but those are culturally or religiously similar to me, with only a few exceptions.
Maybe this was my way of protecting myself from discrimination in post-9/11 America. I did not want to answer difficult questions about my religion or defend my own identity as a non-European Muslim woman and an intersectional feminist. I no longer believe this approach works.
People who don’t know me or immigrants like me have strong opinions about who we are and why we chose to make America our home. Our narratives are defined by the media or the government, and in both cases, those stories are heavily colored or have a hidden agenda. Whether Fox News or MSNBC, I cannot relate to either when it comes to depicting my truth.
Negativity Against Immigrants
I often think that maybe if I had reached out to people who are different, they would not be so skeptical of my racial, cultural, and religious identity. Much of the negativity against immigrants appears to stem from a lack of knowledge or interaction on a personal level.
This is probably true for other immigrant communities too, who live in their own silos. However, the cost of leading a sheltered life is much higher for some communities. These communities are already deemed as “the other” because of their skin color, accents, and traditions and are perceived as not meeting some implicit criteria for being a “real” American. The slogan “Make America Great Again” is a testament to what some Americans envision the U.S. should look like: white, homogenous, and unapologetically racist.
So, the question is, how do we, as immigrants, convince the rest of America that immigrants are not terrorists, rapists, or a burden on the economy?
I can no longer afford to sit on the sidelines and go on with my business as usual. To bring about a change, I need to present counter-narratives to the negativity surrounding the term immigrant. I can start by reaching out to my neighbors, by inviting them over for lunch or dinner. I can expand my social circle by hanging out more with parents at my kids’ schools. I can volunteer in the community.
However, there are numerous examples of people currently doing this but still face discrimination and bigotry. I believe, therefore, that we need to move beyond pleasantries and small talk.
We must reach out to our neighbors, colleagues, and others with the assumption that we will have to answer tough questions without taking them personally. We should be ready for unpleasant conversations, and we should be able to engage with others on topics we would normally avoid.
Yes, we will get offended, but that is okay. The goal is to carve our own space in America and to take charge of our own stories. I want to be able to talk openly about various layers of my identity without having the burden of proving something to someone.
Media will have to play its part too. If you want to talk about a Muslim, Latino, or any other minority in films, on TV, or in the news, let them lead the conversation. There are plenty of Muslim, Latino, and black writers, directors, newscasters, and experts in America whose knowledge of their cultures, religions, and ethnic backgrounds is more than adequate.
For all this to happen, we as immigrants have to get out of our comfort zones to build an America that is great for ALL Americans, a place all of us can call home.