How I Learned to Hate Immigrants
This past year the issue of immigration and accepting refugees has been pretty central in Canada, with the Syrian refugee crisis front and centre. Of course immigration is tied to Canadian identity, and a lot of people have strong opinions for and against accepting new immigrants and refugees. That’s not what this post is about.
This post is about reflecting on my own perceptions of immigrants and refugees.
It might surprise a lot of people to learn that for a long time in my life I hated immigrants. At times it was an obsessive, consuming hate. Other times it was a hate that just kind of lingered in the background. But I can’t deny that it was always there.
The word “hate” is pretty chilling to write in this context, and it was only after some careful reflection that I chose it. No, my hatred was not the matured, seasoned and fundamental hatred you would normally associate with xenophobia. But it was definitely vile. It was under-informed, raw, fresh, saw-toothed even. And incredibly damaging for both me and the people it attacked.
Have you ever noticed someone’s knockoff Western clothes with slightly misspelled logos and a not-from-here marketplace smell, and sneered as you walk past, ‘fucking fob!’ ?
Have you ever returned someone’s pleading, acceptance-seeking gaze with ice in your pupils and sandpaper on your tongue, barking at them ‘get out of my face, ref!’ ?
If you were anything like me, you might have. In my teenage life, I used the slurs “ref” and “fob” as commonly as homophobic slurs. But it’s not like I was some uniquely hateful child — these slurs directed to people new to the country were very, very normalized where I grew up. They were short for “fresh off the boat” and “refugee” and were accompanied by adjectives like “fobbish” and “reffy” to describe actions and things that were obviously from Outside Canada. It was only when I moved away from home did I realize that this form of bullying was not common or normal in other, whiter places.
Huh? Yeah, you read that right. The majority of the students who engaged in this hateful bullying were either people of colour, immigrants or refugees themselves, or first generation born in Canada, like I am. Most of the time xenophobia is depicted as a view held by old white Canadians whose families have been here for many generations (à la Don Cherry). But in my case, and I’m sure it resonates with some other people of colour reading this, the face of xenophobia could not be more different.
Why was xenophobia so rampant among the children of immigrants and refugees? How was this environment fostered?
Q: How Did My Brown Friends and I Learn to Hate Brown Immigrants?
A: We Taught Ourselves
Our parents, our hardworking, head down, and in some ways naïve-to-our-world immigrant parents, certainly didn’t. If my parents could understand half of what I was saying when I was growing up, they would be appalled. If they ever came to the realization that at my age, they would be the targets of my hatred, they would also be very hurt. Can you imagine? Picking on your own parents just for who they are? Sadly, I can.
There was no stereotypical old racist white person who taught us to hate immigrants. There were very few old racist white people in our immediate lives, and honestly the few that were present, were largely irrelevant to our little grade school society.
The hatred came from within, but where in a child’s heart can such a strong hatred come from? The desire to belong. A strong overwhelming desire to disassociate ourselves from our new classmates who looked so much like us but acted just differently enough to make us uncomfortable. Their haldi stained clothes, roti and daal tiffin lunches, and mustard oil-soaked hair was all too familiar. Yes, we understood all of those things because we knew them intimately. What we didn’t understand is why they were so proud of them. It didn’t seem to bother these kids that they smelled like the food they ate or that their parents couldn’t really speak English.
No, we were not ready to accept that we were any of those things. And to make that clear, we hated. and hated. and hated. We wouldn’t want to be mistaken for one of our recently immigrated peers. They represented precisely what we hated about ourselves.
The problem is that this is the half of the answer that everybody is ready to accept. Not a lot of people want to hear the other half I’m about to drop right now. The other half is ugly.
A2: Society Taught Us
There’s a common metaphor used to teach about oppression of marginalized groups that visualizes different types of oppression as icebergs. With xenophobia for example, the tip of the iceberg that you see above the surface is the interpersonal discrimination people face, such of my examples of slurs above, because anyone can see me call other people names. The systemic (built into laws and policies) and cultural (built into norms, values) xenophobia is much larger but is hidden underwater, and only experienced by the people who hit it. But there’s a much more insidious form of discrimination that is hard to place on that iceberg: when you discriminate against yourself.
When we loathed those kids who had so much in common with us, it was because our society taught us to hide away certain parts of ourselves because they were shameful. Our parents’ clothes? Shameful. Our religious rituals? Shameful. Our home-cooked food (well, everything but butter chicken)? Shameful. But I’m willing to bet that more than 50% of students at my school were first or second generation immigrants who could relate to these experiences. What were we so ashamed of? These parts of ourselves were shared by the majority of us and yet they still felt abnormal. That’s the power of internalized xenophobia.
In high school, I had teachers who took attendance and pronounced their students’ names with Canadian accents, even though they knew the correct pronunciation from speaking the same language. We would never dream of wearing clothes from India unless it was some special cultural event like a talent show where it was ok to not be Canadian for a day.
But internalized discrimination does more than make you a bully or feel shame about aspects of your identity. It can have impacts on things as tangible as your test scores:
“A recent study found that African-American students who were asked to identify themselves by race when taking a standardized test consistently scored lower than other black students who were not asked to specify their race.”
— Read more about it from this amazing resource.
This is the ugly truth of internalized discrimination, and the ugly truth of our society.
Addressing Some Counter Arguments
Some people might say that this story is all well and sad, but children naturally tend to pick on things that are different from themselves, and this is just a normal part of growing up. This definitely does hold some truth, because as we age we learn to appreciate the aspects of ourselves that we rejected as youth. A lack of perspective definitely contributed to my xenophobic behaviours as a youth, but still, it’s not the full answer.
What explains the kids who had emigrated just a year ago from India and were already picking on the new students who had just come that year? They had a lot more in common with them than the 2nd generation kids like me.
If it was simply a case of differences, why was my experience of attending a majority white, been-here-for-generations Canadian school completely different? I don’t think many of those students even knew the terms “fob” or “ref”, let alone beat other students up because of their accents. There was definitely still xenophobia there but it was much more implicitly woven into the fabric of the school culture, and less explicitly reflected between individual students.
Even if xenophobia in youth is simply about differences, the question becomes, why the focus on this difference in particular? It was by far one of the worst insults to be called a ‘ref’. Why was that difference in identity so socially crushing in my majority-brown school?
Some would argue that recent immigrants had their own miniature cliques where second generation kids weren’t included, where they would have their own discriminatory practices, for example make fun of my broken Punjabi. I think the flaws to this argument are pretty similar to the flaws in the logic of arguments that liken “reverse racism” to racism experienced by people of color. Sure, they could make fun of my Punjabi, but at the end of the day, when we were answering questions in class and writing essays and job applications, did Punjabi or English matter more? There were no systemic barriers to support their exclusion of me. It wasn’t as big of a deal. I had no shortage of English-speaking friends to include me. If anything, it’s a social survival tactic to join up with other kids who are excluded if you’re being outgrouped like those recent immigrants were. I don’t blame them.
When it comes down to it, its clear to see that this internalized hatred drove me apart from some of the people who were most like me. That’s the way discrimination is. It works to divide and cause infighting and separation. It destroys communities from the inside. It makes your despise your parents. Ultimately, it makes you despise yourself.
At the same time, I take responsibility for my actions. I can’t be sorry enough for the things I did. I have deep regret for the insults, slurs and attacks I made on ex-pats from other countries who came here so courageously, just like my parents once did. What seemed for so long to be a good way to hide my insecurities and gain some social capital among friends was actually cyclically reinforcing those same insecurities in others. I was perpetuating the hatred that had made me insecure in the first place. It was wrong.
So what can I do now? I can kill that cycle. I can be proud of my parents and their differences. I can eat my cultural food everywhere, speak my languages everywhere and wear my from-an-Indian-marketplace clothes everywhere. I’m going to flip the script and beam when I’m called “fobbish” or “reffy”. I’m going to love myself.