“Where are you from?”
“I was born in Utah, but I mainly grew up in Florida---”
“Well, no, where are you really from?”
To live in the United States as a person of color likely entails experiencing a conversation similar to the one above at one point or another --- or constantly.
It may be a harmless question, often asked without ill intent, but the implications of these inquiries extend far beyond just innocuous curiosity. As Columbia professor Derald Sue explains, “the impact to the person receiving that persistent questioning is that you are not a true American, you are a perpetual foreigner in your own country.”
It may be a harmless question, but its malicious cousin “Go back to where you came from!” certainly isn’t. Further, when that statement is coupled with violent hate crimes and when that line of thinking is present everywhere from the workplace to the political sphere, it underscores the fact that the perpetual foreigner stereotype isn’t just a mild nuisance of a question. It’s part of a dangerous mindset that discriminates at several levels of society.
Fighting Another Virus: COVID-19 and Xenophobia
The spread of COVID-19 has brought along with it an alarming rise in anti-Asian sentiment in the U.S. According to CBS News, the Asian Pacific Policy & Planning Council has received over 2,100 reports of racially fueled hate incidents directed towards Asian-Americans between March and June of 2020. The attacks range from verbal harassment to physical assault, and in addition to these, there are likely thousands of unreported incidents, microaggressions, and struggling Asian businesses.
The perpetual foreigner stereotype and these recent incidents go hand in hand, fueling a rhetoric that says Asian-Americans are not welcome in their own country, and that innocent individuals are to blame for a global pandemic solely because they look a certain way. This is clear in the wording of the verbal attacks, such as “Next time, don’t bring your diseases back from your country!” and “ All of you should die, and all of you have the Chinese virus.” This type of scapegoating is not new. Such fear and hatred harkens back to several manifestations of the perpetual foreigner syndrome throughout history.
The History of the Perpetual Foreigner
In times of fear or crisis, the American coping mechanism has, for centuries, been predicated on othering and scapegoating. In other words, the groups affected by this rhetoric are viewed as an enemy to America, and therefore members of the group cannot be considered to be a true American no matter how long they have lived in the U.S.
Look towards the rise of Yellow Peril in the U.S. during the late 19th century. Widespread fear of Chinese immigrants led to the national Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, barring immigration from China for 10 years and withholding citizenship from residents who had already migrated. An entire group of people was, by law, forbidden from ever being considered American. Several decades later, as World War II ravaged on, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, forcing over 100,000 Japanese-Americans, the majority of whom were American citizens, into internment camps in order to “prevent espionage.” Encapsulating the notion of the perpetual foreigner, General John L. Dewitt reportedly stated “A Jap’s a Jap – it makes no difference whether he is an American citizen or not.” And post-9/11, American Muslims became objects of unjustified scrutiny and victims of prejudice, experiencing a spike in hate crimes and often targeted merely by the way they looked or dressed.
The Perpetual Foreigner in Politics
The lack of political participation of Asian-Americans compared to population size has long been a point of concern, and though several factors are believed to be contributing to this issue, the arena of politics is likely yet another area of life into which the perpetual foreigner stereotype seeps through. A 2018 study shows that a sense of belonging to U.S. society is linked to political participation, and invalidating the “American” part of a group’s hyphenated ethnic identity certainly accomplishes the opposite of encouraging a feeling of belonging. Furthermore, according to New America, only 31% of Asian Americans reported being contacted by political candidates or parties in 2012 compared to the national mean of 53%. Alienation and a lack of outreach perpetuates a negative feedback loop in which voter participation remains low, leading to the continued underrepresentation of AAPI in political positions.
Civic engagement, political representation, and the dismantling of harmful stereotypes are all crucial in knocking down the perpetual foreigner stereotype. At the broader level, fair political representation ensures that the voices of all communities are heard and prevents the history of discriminatory legislation and rhetoric from repeating itself. And on a day to day basis, being more mindful and broadening the preconceived notions we may have towards different groups of people is necessary to become a more accepting society.