Returning to America in 2017 after eight years away, I felt pride that at least the United States, unlike so many other countries, is attempting to address serious issues like police brutality, racial injustice, poverty and discrimination based on race, class, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality. In so many other countries of the world, these are taboo topics. Citizens remain willfully blind and closed to even discussing them.
And despite all the anti-immigrant rhetoric from some quarters of American society, we remain better than most countries, even in Europe, in providing opportunities for immigrants to assimilate. Muslims in America, for example, fare far better than Muslims in Europe because they are economically integrated into the larger society.
Living outside the United States, traveling on three continents (North America, Europe, and Asia) over eight years, I heard or read bigotry expressed against nearly every religion, ethnicity and nationality:
Muslims, Catholics, Jews, Arabs, Palestinians, African Americans, Christians, Turks, Kurds, Americans, Mexicans, Armenians, Germans, Greeks, Brits, Africans, Chinese, the French, Roma (gypsies), the poor, the rich, and homosexuals, to name a few.
Just goes to show the world is still full of tribal people who assume their tribe is superior to certain other tribes. And despite incredible advances in communication, the humanitarian barriers among people are still pretty high.
People still seem to relish detesting or feeling superior to “the other” — groups of people who they in most cases don’t know well, if at all.
These often violent conflicts make the much-lamented loss of civility in America, marked by endless domestic feuds and shouting matches on cable television and social media between liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats, seem like late-night college bull sessions.
America may be ideologically divided, but from afar, American cable television seems like it is obsessed with what Sigmund Freud called the “narcissism of small differences.” He called it “a convenient and relatively harmless satisfaction of the inclination to aggression.”
In America, making generalized, negative statements about religions, races, ethnic groups, social classes, or sexual orientation, even about “women drivers” or “male hairdressers,” are considered “insensitive” jokes, politically incorrect, or God forbid, racist or sexist — not something a polite person would say in public, whatever he might think in private.
America’s original sin, or birth defect, was slavery and the racism that led African Americans to be classified as three-fifths of a person. Ever since the U.S. legally acknowledged that sin by passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the country has struggled to overcome racism and bigotry. We learned in the 2016 election cycle that a surprisingly large number of whites are terrified that they will soon — within a generation or two — be a minority in America. They have started to publicly declare their allegiance to the white race, or have defiantly joined a subculture promoting white supremacy or a belief in racial superiority.
This, in turn, has sparked a cultural obsession among some Americans, mostly liberals, to self-righteously point out lingering racism and bigotry where-ever they suspect it festers. This hyper-vigilance of course just makes people who claim to harbor no racist opinions feel defensive. Round and round they go, with accusatory, tiresome claims and counter-claims of racism and reverse racism.
And yet, in many countries abroad, the American ideal of the melting pot, that “all humans are created equal,” and “we are one nation,” has never fully taken hold. In much of Europe, the Middle East and Asia that I have visited, your last name, tribe, the economic or social status of your parents, grandparents, or even great-grandparents and where they were born, along with where you were born, is likely to determine your own economic and social status and ethnic identity.
Over the last eight years living outside the US, I have heard racist, sexist, nationalistic, and judgmental statements about various nationalities, ethnicities, religions, and tribes routinely in public or semi-public.
No person, ethnic group or ideology is immune from bigotry. I found myself from time to time thinking bigoted thoughts. For example, on a crowded ferry, I observed a French woman acting very selfishly, sprawling out on three seats, oblivious to the needs of a half-dozen people who had no place to sit at all. I thought of Mark Twain’s statement that the evolutionary scale is upside down. Actually, humans are at the bottom of the scale, he said, and below man, “there is nothing, no one — no one except the French.”
Now, if I actually knew a lot of French people, I might revise my opinion instead of using this and other trivial examples of French rudeness to harden my impression of French people and not allow any positive experience of them to enter my consciousness.
As an American expat, journalist and educator living in Abu Dhabi, UAE with a multiplicity of nationalities, and a “local” population of only about 15 percent, I noticed that stereotypes abound, both positive and negative. Abu Dhabi offers a wonderful opportunity to get to know people from many different cultures and experiences because English is widely spoken. I became so much more internationally-minded since moving there.
And yet it’s too easy to peg and classify people I don’t know well based on nationalities. One falls almost unconsciously into stereotyped thinking:
Expat Brits are authoritative and aspire to manage everything. After all, they once ruled the world.
Filipinos and other Asians are good in service industries, retail, excellent cleaners, housekeepers, and nannies. Some of them buy “skin-whitening cream” because they have learned that to be white is to be prosperous and smart. Lighter skin has status in their culture and media.
Indians gravitate toward sales and the financial industry. They like to hustle.
Pakistanis and Afghanis, fleeing war-torn countries, tend to be laborers and taxi drivers, and sometimes a bit desperate.
I like to think of Americans as egalitarian, open-minded, fair-minded, generous, very hospitable, concerned with justice and civil rights. That’s not always the case. Some Americans AREN’T. They exhibit behaviors that reflect entitlement, elitism, narrow minds, and concerned with no one but themselves. There is a good side and a bad side to all of us.
On the road, the temptation to engage in ethnic stereotyping abounds: a driver who acts entitled, who races ahead of you, then slams on the breaks, or blocks neighborhood traffic while he waits (and honks) for a restaurant waiter to quickly deliver dinner to his car must be Emirati.
The speeding, weaving, reckless, rules-flaunting drivers are probably Indians, as they don’t obey traffic regulations in their own country.
The slow-driving, too rules-conscious drivers are likely Americans (like myself) because they come from a rich country that can afford a lot of traffic regulators and highway patrol.
If a pedestrian dashes in front of traffic, is hit and killed, I have heard that this is what depressed, deep-in-debt and hopeless laborers from India and other third world countries do because they want their families or children back home to at least receive the “blood money” drivers who run over pedestrians are required to pay.
High-caste Indians, the Brahmins, break in line and expect to be served ahead of you. Lower-caste Indians, the taxi drivers, call white Brits or Americans “boss,” a relic of colonial times.
Then you have to try to sort out all the differences between various Arab nationalities. Egyptians tend to be authoritarian managerial types, Lebanese are entrepreneurial and business-oriented, Saudis are wealthy investors. Emiratis, we assume, are very wealthy, investors, business owners with “wasta” (connections). The belief is that they call the shots and are treated far more gently by law enforcement and other authorities.
And yet the longer I stay here, the more my prejudices are shattered. I have met many self-effacing, considerate Emiratis; hard-working, honest Indians and Filipinos, humble Saudis, and to my embarrassment, arrogant Americans who treat their help like slaves.
I really have to fight against thinking in these stereotypes. And the more I’m aware of American stereotypes, and foreigners’ perceptions of Americans, some of which are quite valid, help me to know more about my own culture and its influence on who I am.
The longer I’m here, fortunately, the more people I meet who defy pre-conceived cookie-cutter notions of what they should be like: a savvy female Filipino engineer who deserves a salary as high as her European counterpart; a beautiful, fearless, independent-minded female Indian journalist; a highly-educated Pakistani computer scientist; an Afghani medical doctor, an Emirati who worries she doesn’t have any “wasta,” social connections or power and not much wealth, who works hard to make relatively modest ends meet.
All of them are simply attempting to make a good living, find meaning and purpose in life, and pursue their dreams.
And yet, it’s difficult to overcome all bigotries. I confess that I know almost nothing about Roma (gypsies), who were expelled from France, but I have difficulty understanding them. I hate to admit it, but in this case, I sympathize with the French.