Put the labels away + ethnocentrism and immigration

If there’s one thing I’ve realized lately, it’s that I detest being labeled and categorized. There’s a reason I don’t put “Dreamer” or “Dreamie” in my self-description – it would limit me to writing only about that issue. It would define the persona of this blog; I wish to avoid narrow descriptions and definitions of the self. We are not all single elements; we are many things – we contain multitudes (thanks Whitman).

I do not want to be defined by what I am not: not an equal member of society, not a real person in the minds of many people across the United States.

I exist as a fragment of undefined details: I am a Mexican, and a criminal. I am illiterate and I stole your job. I came here to have children who would be my anchor babies. I invaded your country and stole someone’s identity. I don’t pay taxes.

Nor do I wish to be defined by political orientation. I could care less about conforming to a label. I don’t necessarily consider myself anything other than a liberal; that term is general enough to satisfy me.

Once you are labeled, you have to do things which maintain your status as an individual associated with that label. Despite ideas of individuality, Western culture is very much dependent on categorization and grouping. Individuals are at once feared and respected because they subvert the status quo.

I’ve been thinking about why people dislike immigrants and worry about immigration reform, and I can only come up with one or two reasons. Once we get past the anti-immigrant rhetoric of hatred and lies, the only plausible reasons are xenophobia and ethnocentrism.

Immigrants don’t cause trouble, except in the voting booth. They pay taxes, lower the crime rate in their respective neighborhoods, send their kids to school, and contribute to the cultural diversity evident in any major city in America. If immigrants don’t actually cause significant problems for most people, why are they so feared?

One answer is that behind all the allegations of criminality and assumptions of cultural origin, white people are afraid of losing power. How else would you explain the absolutely ridiculous assumption that every immigrant is from Mexico? Is there any logical reason for people to believe that immigrants come to America to have lots of children and to exploit the system? Why is foreign education undervalued in America, so much so that people with Master’s degrees end up cleaning toilets instead of teaching or conducting research?

Ethnocentrism explains everything. Americans have created a culture of judgment and comparison in which America is the best. This is why America has delegated itself as the enforcer of democracy and fixer of all things. The main aspect of ethnocentrism is entrenched racism. To believe that you are the best means to relegate others to positions of power beneath you. But what happens when more and more people from countries which you consider beneath you come to your country? What happens when white America is no longer white? What happens when, for the first time in your country’s history, the president is not a white man?

Well, for one thing, people become scared that they’re losing their power, even though the power they have is essentially nonexistent. What power do white Americans have now that they won’t have anymore because Obama is president? Voting districts have already been gerrymandered to hell anyway. Does collective power somehow diminish because there is an “other” in the most high-profile position of the developed world? That’s something to consider.

Note that I don’t believe that every American is racist. I believe that people like Lou Dobbs play on the inherently racist undertones of imperialism and ethnocentrism to scare the average person into believing that immigration is a negative thing. It’s funny to me that immigrants from Africa are not characterized as dangerous, at least not as dangerous as Latinos. I don’t really have a clear reason for why this is. Americans are certainly stereotypically afraid of African-American people, just as much as Latinos, if not more. Why isn’t Glenn Beck talking about Africans coming and taking American jobs? Well, I guess now that I think about it, it’s because that would be openly racist, and he’s not really racist, is he?

9 thoughts on “Put the labels away + ethnocentrism and immigration

  1. Yeah, it kind of sucks trying to have this conversation via cramped comment boxes! I'm not articulating anything as well as I usually would.

    I think the key distinguishing factor here is, you are an undocumented individual with integrity. I wasn't trying to contend that people who are paid cash CAN'T pay taxes, simply that some DON'T. Honestly, from what I know of the world . . . I don't have a ton of faith in individual integrity, regardless of citizenship status. We have U.S.-born citizens who dodge taxes all the time, even rich ones with plenty of money to spare. Undocumented cash wages simply make it even harder to enforce the laws. And even protect the immigrants themselves In some cases they are paid below the minimum wage, which is exploitation!

    Also, I'm not justifying discrimination, I'm just saying that acknowledging race exists isn't a sin. Like any living being, we register what we see and try to orient ourselves in our surroundings and toward those around us. Visual information is all we have initially. I think noting that someone is of a particular race is fine. What's important is to make you sure you get to know the individual if you are going to in any way attempt to communicate with them or have some sort of impact on them. For example: having been continually sexually harassed by a certain racial group and no others, honestly I can't help but get nervous inside sometimes if a crowd of a certain race approaches me. It's a defense mechanism, but I still ACT in a way that shows I get to know individuals one at a time. I would NEVER make a racial slur, treat anyone differently due to skin color, nor would I avoid intelligent conversation or friendship with someone based on how they look.

    Also, such a defense mechanism can apply to many things, non-racial but still visual. For example, I have been sexually assaulted twice. When I see a guy who looks anything like either of the guys involved in my previous experiences, I find myself on edge. I cannot help it, even though I know the individuals I'm looking at have done nothing wrong. In this case the same as one that involves race, what's important is for an individual to approach others as individuals, despite what inclination you might have internally. People can have internal impulses to make assumptions and not be “bad” people. What defines is how we can BEHAVE and make decisions that are intelligent and particular rather than biased.

    I think I follow your “irrelevant” statement now. Slight hyperbole.

    The overall points I was trying to make are: 1) Some assumptions are innocent. Just because someone assumes I'm Asian because I look Asian doesn't mean they will necessarily treat me poorly or differently. They might, they might not. Seeing that I look different, in and of itself, is fine. How they ACT and SPEAK defines them, just the same as it defines me. 2) I think anyone who wants to live here should be given a fair and equal opportunity to do so, and to earn a citizenship. And I think that anyone who lives here already should be documented. The system needs a complete overall so we can administer laws AND offer opportunities adequately.

    Sheesh. There is simply way too much nuance in this conversation for comments. Do you Skype?

  2. I think it's productive to talk about these issues. It's a shame we can't have this conversation in person. There's lots of miscommunication that can't instantly be resolved in a text box.

    As far as language is concerned – sure, it is important to learn English, but you're treading on thin ice there. What about a US citizen who was born here, but taken to France or Spain for the early part of his or her life, and came back to the US not knowing English? Still a US citizen, just not an English speaker.

    You should have said Latino 🙂

    I'm surprised that you justify discrimination and stereotyping by saying that you don't mind that these things have happened to you. Seems like you're internalizing these attacks and are accepting them as valid. It's as if I suddenly believed that I was a bad person just because I am an immigrant, because anti-immigrant activists have called me a criminal. Do you see how that works? You can't justify discrimination by saying that it's ok for you.

    What I meant by “language and skin color are irrelevant” is that in an ideal world, people wouldn't be instantly judged by how they speak and look. It's criminalization by association, without any proof.

    Um, people working cash jobs can still pay income taxes. It's called an ITIN. I'm going to pay taxes on a job I have now. My parents paid income taxes for years while they were undocumented. It's part of establishing “good moral character,” which is the most ambiguous term ever. Granted, not everyone pays taxes, but a lot of people do. It's not “undocumented people do not pay taxes;” the statement should be “some undocumented people don't pay taxes.” Getting paid cash doesn't mean you can't pay taxes…

    Your turn! 🙂

  3. And I DO feel it is important to learn the language when you decide to relocate to a new country. As you yourself have done, and quite brilliantly . . . My own mother struggled for years with people pretending they couldn't understand her, simply because she would drop the articles in a sentence, etc. So, would really like to point this out . . . I'm not posing as an uninformed opposition to everything you're saying. I could go into much greater detail about how I have been subjected to racism and ethnocentrism quite often throughout my life. I just see matters in a different shade of gray, and wanted to discuss them with you 🙂

  4. And sorry, I don't mean every undocumented immigrant does not pay income tax. I need to clarify that I'm referring to the ones who are paid cash under the table for labor around here.

  5. I don't “know” for certain in every instance, but there have been extensive issues with construction companies around here using undocumented labor.

    I should not have said Mexican, I should have said Hispanic. My apologies!

    Yet, as a half-Asian woman, I don't feel that language and skin color are irrelevant. I DO know what it is like to have people assume that I am a foreigner because I look different. This doesn't offend me at all, I simply take interest in how this effects interactions. The surface doesn't tell the whole story, but with the pace of our lives . . . in many instances, it is the only story we get a chance to tell.

    Income tax, undocumented immigrants do not pay. Which is frustrating when an entire third of my own income goes to tax. Which is NOT to say I think the system is fair in this respect — because as you've pointed out, many undocumented immigrants are BARRED from as many opportunities as I have simply because they don't have some paperwork.

    Disclaimer: not trying to pick a bone, just pointing out that the answers to these issues are not black-and-white.

  6. Ok, how do you know they are immigrants? Did you ask them? That's really the only way to know that someone is an immigrant. You're assuming they're also undocumented immigrants. Again, how do you know this? How do you know they are Mexican?

    Language and skin color is irrelevant. You cannot assume that someone is a foreigner because he looks different from you.

    Undocumented immigrants do pay taxes. Sales tax, income tax, etc. This is why deporting every undocumented immigrant is actually not cost effective.

  7. I think you bring up some really key issues . . .

    The sad fact of the matter is, in my area the Mexican immigrants do cause a lot of problems. Violence, vandalism, unregistered labor that has put many citizens out of work in certain industries, vast strain on the public school system (toward which they do NOT pay taxes), etc. I have personally been sexually harassed and even stalked through stores by Hispanics on several occasions, and honestly this has never otherwise happened to me. I'd be interested to discuss this with you in further detail sometime . . .

    That being said, I am 100% for vast immigration policy reform. The trouble is that the disrespectful people just come here and wreak havoc and our law enforcement does little to stop them, while well-intentioned individuals — such as yourself — find that they don't have sufficient legitimate avenues for becoming citizens.

    Sad story: a very sweet man from China works at a restaurant down the road. He has been in the states for several years, trying to bring his wife and child here. Due to a lot of red tape, this hardworking man is unable to bring his family here. He contributes to a successful small business and is a law-abiding resident who simply wants his family to enjoy the land of opportunity.

    Reform is definitely needed on a number of levels, clearly. This country isn't the land of opportunity so much as it is the land of slipshod policies.

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