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Sunday, October 2, 2011

Perpetual Foreigner

When was the last time you heard the term 'White-American'? What about 'European-American'? 'Caucasian-American'?

We often hear identifiers such as Asian-American, African-American, Native American. In the United States, 'whiteness' is considered the default (see: Growing Up White and 'Normal') and so saying 'White-American' seems redundant. White people are presumed to be American, while others must reaffirm their citizenship against perpetual questioning.

Asian Americans actors must often
pretend to have poor English
One of the most prolific targets of this distinction is Asian-Americans, whose 'perpetual foreigner' status remains immutable. Having grown up in the USA, many Asian-Americans will nevertheless still routinely receive misguided complements like "your English is so good..." And many generations of living in the USA does not grant immunity from the inevitable questions: "So, where are you from? No, originally? I mean, where's your family from?" It seems answering 'St. Louis' is never a satisfactory response.

As is so often the case, these sorts of comments come from well-intentioned people trying to spark conversation and show their interest (see post: 'Does Intent Matter?'). But such words betray the underlying otherization, and reveals our tendency to consider 'white' to be the American default. When we ask 'where are you from?' we imply 'because we know you couldn't be from here,' or worse 'you certainly don't belong here.'

Of course, it isn't just Asian-Americans that struggle against the 'perpetual foreigner' stereotype. It's because of our tenancy to grant assumed-citizenship only to white folks that the demands for Obama's birth certificate were so particularly hurtful (see post: Birthers, Trump, and Obama). As immigration debates escalate, those in the Latino community are constantly subject to assaults on their American identity, and are even required to carry proof! Indeed, Native Americans' history with the US government is almost entirely about this tension in one way or another.

The 'perpetual foreigner' meme can become physically dangerous when taken to its extreme (See post: Japanese American Internment). Beyond not being considered fully American, people of color can be otherized to the point of being not fully human. We see the manifestations of this tendency is their use as props in advertisements (links NSFW), as caricatured sports mascots, and as Halloween costumes (see posts: That Mascot Doesn't Honor Anyone and Halloween Costumes). When we lose our compassion for each other as fellow human beings, objectification and dehumanization facilitate violence and the devaluation of life.

We like to say the United States is a melting pot (or, a bit better, as a salad bowl), but in reality we do a poor job of embracing our neighbors as part of this American identity. 

What would it look like, if we were to take Ephesians 2:19 seriously?: 
"You are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God's people and members of God's household"

What does this verse mean to you? Do you have to reaffirm your 'Americaness' because of repeated assumptions to the contrary? Or when people look at you, do they assume that you are a legal citizen?


  1. Interesting point.  Especially since there is no reference to Black or African Americans.
     I think this is especially true of of those with Asian background.  They seem to more likely want to be identified simply as American. 
    It is kind of funny to me that I have had "African Americans" ask me if was of German background.  I take no offense.  i think it is simply a conversation starter. 

    I heard a Pastor say that he is not a Black Christian but a Christian who happens to be black or a Christian Black.  Christ comes first.  Culture comes after Christ. 

  2. Thanks for commenting!
    I agree that Christ comes first. Of course, that doesn't negate the importance of culture, which will still be very salient to identity. And rightly so! God gives us the beauty of this variety.

    It's great to learn and ask about eachothers' backgrounds. The offense comes when the  answers/identities aren't accepted at face value, or assumptions are made as to someones 'true' identity. Has your citizenship or loyalty often been challenged?

    "Especially since there is no reference to Black or African Americans." "those with Asian background...seem to more likely want to be identified simply as American."  I'm not sure what you mean by these sentences.

  3. It seems to me that there are people who may have been in this country longer than my ancestors (1860's) yet this still insist on being called "African-American."  I have never heard of anyone wanting to be called Asian-American. 
    The article is about not stereotyping people.  Good point.  But do we stereotype ourselves? 

  4. I think we can fall prey to the ingrained prejudices that pervade common culture. I distinctly remember thinking certain careers were not an option for me (orchestra conductor) because I was a woman, and only later realizing that I was stereotyping myself.

    You have mentioned a couple of times about people insisting on being called this or that. There are a lot of complex issue at play there. There are definitely people that prefer black to African-american, as well as many other characterizations for other racial demographics. It is important to respect how each individual self-identifies. We see these issues come up with the census, for example. 

  5. This post has stayed with me all week.  I think of my Greek-American grandparents who came over in 1940 and were welcomed into their new community.  I wonder if they would be as welcomed today. 

    I think of times they were asked where they were from and what that might have meant to them.  I hope it was asked in friendly tones.  I know probably some of them weren't.

    I've asked people where they were from because I wanted to hear their story.  I've decided I need to rephrase that question so it isn't misinterpreted or better yet stop asking the question. If I listen long enough the story will come out without asking.

  6. Great thoughts! Thank you for sharing them! Your last paragraph is particularly insightful (though really all of it is!)

  7. I've heard "European American" before. White racist/nationalist groups use it. It would have been a good "neutral" term, but David Duke ruined it for everyone.

  8. ha! Right! You bring up a good point: many times the baggage of our racial history painfully encumbers otherwise innocuous terms/situations/conversations.

    I think this phenomenon is actually a source of a lot of discord. White folks sometimes think they are making an innocent comment (or even a 'complement'!), but are too unaware of the racial baggage to realize that in the context of our history it's inappropriate. Then, that ignorance itself can become more offensive than the comment at hand, leaving the person of color receiving the comment hurt/frustrated and white person indignant at the offense taken! All because there are lasting consequences to corporate racial sin that continues to infect normal/everyday things--like the term 'European American.' 

    Long response to a simple, but thought-provoking point. Thanks Alex!

  9. Comedian Eliot Chang offers a hilarious sampler of some of the phrases related to the 'Perpetual Foreigner' phenomenon:


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By Their Strange Fruit by Katelin H is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
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