Negative media stereotypes harm perception of immigrants

Credit: Paola Mathus/ Credit: Paola Mathus/
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The 2016 election season, with Donald Trump’s discussion of walls and bans, brought immigration issues into public consciousness. His more recent executive order attempts at a Muslim ban have held them there. Although this is a debate about immigrants, immigrants and their families are largely not given a voice in it. This week, I sat down with three different first-generation Carnegie Mellon students to discuss the representation of immigrants and the children of immigrants in the media.

A common theme of these conversations was about how American immigrants are an especially hardworking group of people. Jai Ghose, a junior math major with parents from India, said that while growing up his parents especially emphasized the importance of working hard because they were immigrants: “for a lot of [immigrants], they’re like, ‘We have to work this much harder to get this.’ They didn’t have the same support structures [as other Americans].” Ghose strikes on an important point — a new immigrant coming to America has to entirely start over in a country where they probably don’t know many people and may not even know the language but have to assimilate to American culture and find a way to support their families anyway.

Another student points out that an immigrant’s ability to be happy and successful in America largely depends on their ability to remain connected to the culture of their native country. He says that his Colombian mother remains in constant contact with her sisters in Colombia and they visit each other often. The student’s father, on the other hand, is from Cuba and has had far less opportunity to remain connected to his homeland. Because of America’s complicated relationship with Cuba his father could not return to Cuba for visits, which was especially difficult when his mother died and he was unable to attend her funeral. Even calling Cuba was not usually an option as the Cuban government has driven up the prices of incoming phone calls from the U.S.

The student says that while his mother is overwhelmingly glad she came to America and now fully considers it her home, his father’s feelings about having come to America have been much more complicated. The student relates his father’s experience of being cut off from his homeland to the experience of being cut off from one’s mother: “It’s like, oh, you can no longer speak to your mother. She’s there theoretically, somewhere faraway, but you can’t just talk to her. You have no communication with her. That’s a hard thing to do... and with the aspect of culture, it can be kind of shocking... foods and things you’ve grown accustomed to for your whole lifetime suddenly change.”

Despite all the challenges that immigrating to America necessarily entails, immigrants overwhelmingly succeed. As Madeline Kim, a Tepper first-year with Korean parents, notes, “[Immigrants] are more likely to attend college... and they actually add economic prosperity to America. They bring more jobs — they might start a new company or might otherwise open up new opportunities.”

Ghose’s and Kim’s parents came to America for education while the third student’s parents came to America to work. These cases are fairly typical, as most immigrants (both documented and undocumented) come here to get jobs and support their families, yet the news media routinely portrays immigrants as entitled and criminal. These negative portrayals have severely negative effects on politics and worsen subconscious biases against immigrants and refugees.

The students expressed that the rampancy of two-dimensional stereotypes has pervaded their everyday lives. Ghose and Kim both grapple with the effects of the stereotype that Asian people are smarter. This seemingly positive stereotype has, nevertheless, distinctly negative consequences in real life. Ghose commented that people always assume he’s good at math and will randomly ask him to help them with their math homework, but he wishes that people would see him as more of a complete human being. “A lot of people are hardwired [to stereotype me], so I have to always make a good first impression to show that I’m more well-rounded as an individual,” he said.

Similarly, Kim told me about a teacher she had once who would constantly talk about how her Asian students were so smart and then would grade them more harshly than other students. Growing up Korean in a small, predominantly white town in Alabama, Kim encountered many people making false assumptions about her, most with the implication that she was somehow different or foreign because she was Asian. For one thing, people would assume that she didn’t speak English or didn’t speak it well, even though she has lived in America her entire life. Or, despite the fact that she got an almost perfect score on her driver’s test, people would assume she was a bad driver before even getting in the car with her. These stereotypes are seemingly little things, but when they are taken as reality and repeated frequently, it can have a dehumanizing effect. Like Ghose, Kim wishes that people would see her as more of an equal human being to them: “As cliché as it is, we’re not all that different,” she stated.

As a Hispanic person, the third student has to deal with stereotypes of a very different nature — Latino men are often stereotyped as criminals. He told me a story about how one time he was buying mayonnaise at Giant Eagle but didn’t know which kind to buy, so, as any other college student would, he called his mother. Because he speaks to his mother in Spanish, he said that many people in the grocery store gave him weird looks like they were assuming that he was conducting gang activity. It’s ironic that even such an innocent conversation could be perceived as malicious simply because of stereotypes surrounding the Spanish language.

These stereotypes don’t come out of nowhere: they are drilled into people’s heads over decades through movies, television, and skewed news stories. Asians are portrayed as a model minority while Hispanics are demonized. The students I spoke to all agreed that a more holistic representation of immigrants in the media is needed. They seemed to feel that the biggest issue with current media narratives is that they don’t capture the full range of experiences and personalities. Negative or stereotypical portrayals are acceptable as long as positive portrayals and well-rounded characters also exist. More recently, however, good media representations of immigrants and first-generation Americans have started to crop up. The students listed Master Of None, Fresh Off the Boat, and recent episodes of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit as examples of media that portray immigrants as complex human beings with both strengths and weaknesses, expose microaggressions, and highlight characters’ cultures without making their cultures be their defining character traits. Notably, two of these shows were made by first-generation Americans.

As the student of Colombian and Cuban heritage said, “Immigrants are actual human beings who are trying to make a living, who are trying to feed their children... [to not have accurate media representation of them] is dumb, because we’re a country built on immigrants.” Immigrants founded this nation and have made it the country it is today, the least we can do in return is recognize them in our American media and give them credit for their work.