New Stereotypes for a New Era

A recent class discussion got me thinking about the concept of the “good immigrant” and the “bad immigrant.” This is a helpful dichotomy to keep in mind in today’s public discussions—from immigration reform to the Syrian refugee crisis. It’s one thing to promote the “nation of immigrants” concept and remember that the founding fathers were just a few generations removed from early colonists. But that concept doesn’t go far enough. It doesn’t address race, and it doesn’t address the hatred and fear that make Americans want to close the border.

Alan Kraut’s “Doing as Americans Do: The Post-Migration Negotiation of Identity in the United States” digs into the history of the way the nation has thought about, legislated, and treated immigrants.[1] Groups such as the Irish, German Jews, and Italians faced prejudice and hardship for a few generations but were accepted into society and the economy far more quickly than Asian Americans and African Americans. The distinction is race—some were unable to “blend in” to the dominant culture because they did not look white.

In 1924, the U.S. Congress passed immigration legislation barring anyone of Asian lineage from immigrating to the United States.[2] According to the prevailing national sentiment of the time, an Asian American was a “bad immigrant.” The concept of the “Yellow Peril” moved across the country from the 1870s onward. In a statement characteristic of the issue, Horace Greely said, “The Chinese are uncivilized, unclean, and filthy beyond all conception without any of the higher domestic or social relations; lustful and sensual in their dispositions; every female is a prostitute of the basest order.”[3]

The idea of “good immigrant” vs. “bad immigrant” made me wonder how far that prejudice has shifted today. I would argue that in today’s national mindset, Asian Americans are considered “good immigrants.” That is not enough, however. Today, Asian Americans face a new set of stereotypes—albeit ones informed by the surviving prejudice of the old days.

If you want to learn about these stereotypes, take a look at writer and activist Suey Park (@suey_park). Park has dedicated herself to fighting this prejudice, making her voice heard with Twitter hashtags such as#NotYourAsianSideKick and the controversial #CancelColbert, launched after a misguided tweet attempting racial satire. Her writings and Twitter feed try to push back against the stereotypes that have defined and controlled Asian American women.

Americans have seen different nationalities and races as posing varying levels of threat over time. There were worries about disease, poverty, anarchy, communism, religion, alcohol, and violence. Though the targeted groups have changed, the basic concepts of threat remain the same. I can only hope that education, activism, and time break down today’s prejudices as they have helped wear down those of past decades.

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[1] Kraut, Richard, “Doing as Americans Do: The Post-migration Negotiation of Identity in the United States.” Journal of American History (2014) 101 (3): 707-725.

[2] US Department of State Office of the Historian, “Milestones: 1921-1936.” https://history.state.gov/milestones/1921-1936/immigration-act

[3] Yang, Tim. “The Malleable Yet Undying Nature of the Yellow Peril” http://www.dartmouth.edu/~hist32/History/S22%20-The%20Malleable%20Yet%20Undying%20Nature%20of%20the%20Yellow%20Peril.htm

Image source: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/dec/17/not-your-asian-sidekick-asian-women-feminism

 

One thought on “New Stereotypes for a New Era

  1. You raise a good point, and one that’s too often left out of the mainstream discourse. The stereotype of a Model Minority can be damaging and limiting just like the more overtly negative stereotypes, albeit in different ways.

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