Growing up watching “Mean Girls,” I found it funny when Ms. Norbury, the calculus teacher played by Tina Fey, finds out she has a new student from Africa in her class and she promptly turns to the African-American girl in the room and says, “Welcome.”
“I’m from Michigan!” the girl answers.
Back then, I thought the movie was exaggerating the American attitude toward people from other countries.
But it wasn’t an exaggeration.
I’m an immigrant from the Czech Republic. I’ve got a harsh accent, and I pronounce certain words incorrectly. But before I open my mouth, I pass as an American because I am white and blonde.
“It’s not easy to identify all of the ingredients in the great American Melting Pot,” Business Insider wrote in 2013.
This couldn’t be further from the truth. America is really not a melting pot at all. People keep these ingredients well identified. Sure, the United States was created by immigration, yet it somehow still enforces stereotypes about who is — or is not — American based, quite frankly, on the way people look.
Such categorization can make people who consider the American soil their home feel like they don’t belong. It’s an example of profiling and making embarrassingly wrong assumptions. In the age of globalization and geographic mobility, people need to stop basing their idea of citizenship and Americanness on the outward appearance.
Jannatul Ferdaus, a Temple University junior pharmaceutical sciences major, was born in Bangladesh, but she moved to the U.S. when she was 3 years old and became a naturalized citizen.
“In seventh grade, we had to stand up for the Pledge of Allegiance,” Ferdaus said. “When I stood up, this girl who was actually a minority herself, African-American, said to her friend, ‘She is not American, but she got up for the Pledge of Allegiance.’”
Ferdaus felt hurt because she knew, as a Muslim woman, wearing her hijab is what made people invalidate her citizenship, she said. She ignored them and continued saying it.
“America is not a melting pot,” said Asmaa Mohammed Abdullah, a senior psychology major. “It’s more like a garden salad. A melting pot would include many ingredients that melt or blend together to create a new homogeneous mix. Much like America, a garden salad requires ingredients that coexist, but are still separate.”
Abdullah recounted several instances when people thought she couldn’t possibly be American. Most recently, in her apartment building, a man began explaining how the weather is different here during the winter than in other countries.
“I explained to him that I understand because I was born in Bucks County, [Pennsylvania],” Abdullah said. “He was surprised and said, ‘Really?’”
Abdullah feels proud of her heritage, background and origin, she said. She doesn’t feel overly offended when people assume she is from another country.
“What does make me feel frustrated and mad is when people assume I am not equal to them because of my origin,” Abdullah said.
Ji Sun Chong, a dance instructor, was born in South Korea and immigrated to the U.S. when she was 5 years old. It creates a disconnect when strangers ask where she is from based on her appearance, she said.
“I am not drawn to further connect with someone who has distanced me and labeled me in their minds without taking into consideration my own identity,” she said.
The U.S. will be “minority white” in 2045, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. I can only hope prejudice based on appearance will go away then.
“It’s very ironic considering that by America’s history, Native Americans aside…we are literally a nation of immigrants,” Chong added. “Somewhere along the way, this idea of who really belongs and who is American gets warped and abused and racialized.”
I am not saying that people should not ask about ethnicity. We should stay curious. Our origins make us unique individuals.
But we should be more mindful about the way we ask. Don’t make anyone feel like they don’t belong. Then, and only then, can the U.S. call itself a melting pot.