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The Notion of Race Through the Prism of Personal Experience

The concepts of race and ethnicity and their perception in the modern US context have long been considered an emotionally challenging topic for discussion. Immigrants who come to the US either as an escape or in pursuit of their American Dream face an unprecedented level of biases and prejudice towards them. As a result, many of them continue to live “in the shadows,” as they deal with the fact they will never feel like a full-scale part of the American community, as they will always be the ones who, however, assimilated, talk and behave differently.

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The idea of living “in the shadows” is described by scholars as a phenomenon of social policies adopted by the national culture in order to pay less attention to the immigrant diasporas in the state as long as they do not assimilate with the target culture (Robinson and Scott). For this reason, regardless of how some immigrants go out of their way to adapt to the American culture, the social and cultural gap will never be bridged once and for all.

Currently, there are more than 200,000 Bangladeshi Americans in the United States, but no more than two decades ago, the indicator was four times lower and constituted no more than 50,000 people. In many cases, Bangladeshi immigration is motivated by the pursuit of a happier life for one’s family and socio-economic stability. Despite the steady development of the nation, many Bangladeshi residents are tempted by the idea of securing a better future for their loved ones once they move to the US, as this country is an explicit manifestation of a cosmopolitan nation.

My family was no exception to this regularity, so at some point in their life, they made a decision to change their lives completely and move to the US. It seemed especially tempting at the time, as the US has always presented itself as a major development partner of Bangladesh. However, it has become evident over the first years after the immigration that the expectations from starting their lives over in the US might have been too high.

When talking to my aunt, it has become evident that the element of “otherness” would always remain an emotional and physical burden on the Bangladeshi community and immigrants in general. One of the things I wanted to learn during the interview was the experience of my aunt in terms of living in the US with no ability to communicate fluently in English. In her answers, she reflects on how she would be terrified to go to a local store to buy some groceries:

I would come into the store and make sure that I knew everything I needed beforehand and kind of anticipated the questions the teller might ask to avoid them. I would be so nervous if someone tried to interact with me because I would not know what to answer, so I always came out as rude or unfriendly, which is jarring for this culture.

Indeed, the phenomenon of language is, by all means, one of the most significant determinants of assimilation. According to the research, proficiency in the language is a decisive factor in one’s opportunities for occupation and economic integration into society and social welfare (Imai et al. 916).

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The adoption of language is, in fact, a primary provision of an assimilation theory. According to García and Schmalzbauer, the notion of assimilation theory stands for the process of immigrants’ adjustment to the socio-cultural environment in regard to the mainstream culture in the area. However, as far as the American context is considered, while the white English-speaking community remains prevalent in most communities, the increasing diversity rates make assimilation to white Americans rather irrelevant. As my aunt mentioned during the interview, “it almost seems like people who come to the US have to speak fluent English even before moving to the country, as it would be easier for everyone.” However, she claims:

…when I moved to the US, there were no resources to help me with the language. I mean, if you want us to speak English for your own convenience, how do you expect us to learn it with no support?

It becomes evident from the interview answers that the prejudice towards the immigrants, although implicit, serves as a severe barrier in terms of healthy self-actualization of the Bangladeshi population in the US, as well as of the other ethnic minorities across the state. Such a misconception presents a challenge to the process of social identity formation in the cultural context. Indeed, when people struggle to integrate with the American community due to linguistic barriers, they tend to feel left out of the socio-economic environment and have limited access to health care and employment opportunities.

As a result, they struggle with economic stability and have no ability to enter more well-to-do social classes, meanwhile contributing to the already existing stigma of poor immigrant economic status and lower education rates. The social identity theory stands for the process of one’s self-identification and development through the lens of a community member rather than an individual (Burke). Hence, from this theory’s perspective, immigrants are prone to perceive themselves through the prism of how the community defines them, and this definition is frequently overwhelmed with stereotypes and stigmatization. In the interview, my aunt admits the amount of pressure she experiences as an immigrant unable to speak English fluently:

It is like you live under this constant pressure of proving your worth to somebody you should not. As a Bangladeshi woman, I constantly feel the need to apologize for not speaking English as well as US-born people. In fact, when I go to my doctor’s office, I need a translator to communicate and talk about my concerns. A part of me understands that I do not have the opportunity to learn English because of my age and the cost of hiring a good tutor. Nevertheless, I still feel ashamed of asking for help because I feel like they expect me to show respect for their country by speaking perfect English.

The only thing that helps immigrants in the US, according to my aunt, is the opportunity to reach out to a wider community of immigrants who share her concerns and understand what she is going through on a daily basis. The immigrant communities, in their turn, often feel like they’re reaching out to the immigrant community comes out as an intention to isolate themselves from the overall social context.

As a result, many US residents live in a narrative bubble that states that immigrants are unwilling to assimilate and become a part of American culture in the first place. As a result, there exists a severe gap catalyzed by the distortion of the narrative contexts of these communities. According to the narrative theory, every person makes a decision based on one’s perception of a coherent historical narrative that makes sense to them. Hence, when living in a binary opposition of social contexts, Americans and immigrant communities have a polar perception of their environment, as something immigrant communities see as a barrier to integration may come out as a lack of effort for the US residents.

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However, while language proficiency is, by all means, an important contributor to one’s establishment as a full-scale US resident, there is never a guarantee that assimilation will be successful. According to my aunt, even the ones who speak proper English still find other reasons to be considered as the ones “living in the shadows.” Hence, the perception of immigrants in the US, in fact, goes far beyond one’s ability to adjust to the environment.

The socio-cultural gap between the immigrants and native residents traces back to the centuries of subtle discrimination and stigma that promotes the perception of immigrants as the ones that should be thankful for having shelter and a new life in a country they ran away to when escaping the horrors of their motherland. Hence, the amount of prejudice and labeling in society when it comes to immigrants serves as a severe obstacle in the way of immigrants’ self-actualization. To eradicate this flawed tendency, learning a language and giving up one’s culture will never be enough, so it is necessary to think whether such a sacrifice of one’s cultural heritage is even worth the outcome.

Works Cited

Garcia, Angela S., and Leah Schmalzbauer. “Placing Assimilation Theory: Mexican Immigrants in Urban and Rural America.” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, vol. 672, no. 1, 2017, pp. 64-82.

Hogg, Michael A. Contemporary Social Psychological Theories. Stanford University Press, 2018.

Imai, Susumu, Derek Stacey, and Casey Warman. “From Engineer to Taxi Driver? Language Proficiency and the Occupational Skills of Immigrants.” Canadian Journal of Economics/Revue canadienne d’économique, vol. 52, no. 3, 2019, pp. 914-953.

Robinson, Petra A., and Jennifer L. Scott. “Immigrants and the Politics of Belonging: Learning in the Shadows.” New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, vol. 170, 2021, pp. 33-43.

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