Fear the unknown: The unwelcoming faces of America

Beatriz Verneaux, A&E Editor

As long as people become entitled to a land, there’s no room for newcomers.

Since I emigrated from Brazil, I have been harassed by several demographics in this country. Recently, a coworker asked me what is the difference between racism and xenophobia. Not too long after that, a Swedish coworker received a comment on his social media telling him to go back to his country, illustrating my thoughts that regardless of a person’s skin color, there’s always the possibility of discrimination. There is, however, a big layer of xenophobia that comes from racism and ignorance.

The day my mom told me I would move to the United States I figured it would be a challenging experience and I was certainly scared. I was however, not aware of the amount of inequality and mistreatment I would receive from U.S. born folks.

My first day of high school was in a renowned public school in the heart of Chicago; and was traumatic to say the least. Kids laughed at my inability to pronounce words correctly and I didn’t know half of the things said to me. My history teacher scoffed at my lack of articulation and immediately became impatient when I didn’t understand the rules and guidelines, which caused kids to laugh even harder.

Someone asked me where I’m from and I said ‘Brazil.’ No one knew where that was, so I had to show then on a map. More laughter, and questions followed such as “Is it true people in Brazil act like monkeys?” and “Is it true that Brazil doesn’t have roads, and everyone jumps from tree to tree?”

It’s been nearly 10 years since that day, but I still cry when I think of how humiliated I felt and how little support I received from anyone other than my parents.

You’d think this is the kind of talk children entertain. I was 20 years old when my co-worker asked me the exact same questions, and every time he saw me he’d replicate monkey sounds whenever I was around and pull up demeaning photos of Brazilians.

I have been asked about how much I charge for sex work, since the narrative about Brazilians is they migrate only for that reason. I have been asked why do I look “kind of white, but also not black” if Brazilians are all mixed race between white and black people (with no in-between, no comprehension of the wide range of immigration waves in the 500 years since Brazil was exploited, aka “discovered”).

But none of this hurts me as much as having my physical safety compromised due to my country of origin. I’m told I am stealing American jobs and I need to get beat up because of it. I’m called “dirty immigrant” while getting touched in parts of my body I don’t want to get touched, and more than once, I was sexually assaulted by men who felt entitled to my foreign body.

People are entitled to explore the Earth, to try again in another place, to contribute with skills, knowledge, culture. There’s a huge misconception about foreigners. I wonder if it’s rooted in the fact that this country was forcefully taken by British and Spanish terrorists who killed and violated native folks, brought men and women from Africa, and continued to enslave and abuse others who have dared arriving in this land.

I say terrorists and I mean it. People invading lands, destroying and misusing resources, and acting with violence towards those who occupy that space are, in my opinion, promoting terror and genocide.

In that case, racism and xenophobia may intersect at times but aren’t inherently linked. Even minorities who suffer from systematic oppression such as poverty or racism, fear the threat of those coming from far away lands and taking over opportunities.

All I know is xenophobia is a form of violence, starting out with microagressions. Either by mocking a friend’s accent, or not showing empathy or interest to talk about someone else’s upbringing in a different land, or asking about that person’s family, values and the friends they might have left behind. Xenophobia is present in the lack of emotional support for folks who miss their home, who want desperately to share a part of their history but are either met with disinterest or exotification.

Out of spite, I became an English teacher. I teach English for fellow foreigners, folks who need survival skills to blend in to what’s considered standard English in a country with 50 states and a wide amount of accents and dialects.

Now, more than ever, I feel my blood boil when I watch my students or friends going through episodes of prejudice and violence because they happened to be born elsewhere and relocated to a different country.

Who do you include in your social life? How diverse is it, and if it is diverse, what are the boundaries in terms of respect and how are you humanizing that person who came from far away?

In case you have friends who are from different countries, I suggest having a heart-to-heart with them. Ask them how you can be more culturally conscious, or how you can participate and celebrate their culture in a respectful manner. Invite them to get to know your culture, too. Exchange information and be open to research on your own too. Loving people requires putting effort to understand their essence.