The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines discrimination as “the practice of unfairly treating a person or group of people differently from other people or groups of people.” Many potential international students worry about what treatment they will receive from Americans when they come to the U.S. If/because they look different or “foreign,” or speak with an accent, will they struggle to endure in a pre-dominantly white American culture? Many people and countries around the world have a preconceived stereotype of Americans and consider them all to be any or all of these things: bigoted, racist, loud, promiscuous, aggressive, and/or ethno-centric citizens. When your image of another person or culture comes mainly from movies, news reports or isolated examples, it can certainly color the opinions you form.
Remember, the U.S. came into being as a refuge or haven for people fleeing persecution, oppression and/or harassment in their home countries. These early settlers came from many cultures, traditions and backgrounds. The founding principles of these United States focused on providing freedom from tyranny and allowing individuals to pursue their own beliefs and lifestyles without government interference.
While these guiding principles still exist, obviously over the last 200+ years, Americans have developed and adapted their own standards and conventions of prejudice and equality. The Native Americans who inhabited this country before any settlers arrived from overseas experienced (and still experience to some degree or another) varying levels of mistreatment and discrimination at the hands of those who wanted/took over their lands. Africans who originally arrived as slave labor for the colonists received liberation during the presidency of Abraham Lincoln back in the 19th century, but have struggled and fought to earn an equal status to that of their white counterparts. While they have come a long way from their days as slaves, unfortunately many still experience differing levels and expressions of discrimination or bias today.
As America continues to beckon to people from around the world who come for political asylum, religious freedom, economic, educational or career opportunities, the existing groups (whether racial, gender, economic or religion based) often continue to stereotype and categorize people different than themselves. So, while the U.S. does not have a caste system, or segregate people groups officially, you can still see, hear and experience varying levels of discrimination in America. Of course the area you live in the U.S. will have some effect on the amount of discrimination and narrow-mindedness you encounter. Large cities have the most numbers of people from other countries, while in smaller cities, towns and rural areas you might stand out more. But regardless of where you live, there will be those who have already labeled you according to the stereotype they have in their minds, and there will be others who accept you for who you are and welcome you.
As more and more people immigrate to America, and the birth statistics of several minority groups outnumber those of white Americans, the government predicts that whites will actually become a minority before 2050, toppled by the combination of Asian, Hispanic and multi-racial individuals. That has already occurred in children under 5 years of age, and will soon hold true for youth under 18 as well. The young in America show less prejudice and discrimination as they grow up in a world with far fewer blatant examples of the gap that used to exist. Bi-racial friendships, co-workers and families have become increasingly commonplace in our modern society.
Since the terrorist attacks orchestrated against the U.S. in 2001, Middle-Easterners have experienced more racial profiling and discrimination in America than they previously did. In any country, there will likely always be those individuals whose lack of, or distorted knowledge about other people groups cause them to discriminate. However, one cannot judge the entirety of the country by the actions of some. Just like Americans have to realize that all Middle-Easterners are not terrorists just because those that performed those heinous acts were of Middle-Eastern origin.
In comparison to most countries, the U.S. continues to provide opportunity for many who might never break through the class/status system in their own countries. We have both men and women from numerous nationalities in places of leadership, authority and power throughout this country, including the fields of law enforcement, medicine, science, the arts, and city, state and federal governments, to name a few.
While certainly not perfect, and with much to improve on, the U.S. still provides one of the most welcoming and open environments in the world. Known as a “melting pot,” America was built on the foundations of many cultures, traditions and customs. Although you may experience some level of prejudice in the U.S. as a result of your nationality or ethnicity, do not assume that everyone will treat you that way. If you remain open and willing to interact, you will discover that plenty of Americans will gladly speak to you, interact with you and consider you as an individual, and not just lump you into a particular group based on your race, gender or religion. Although you might often assume you know what people think or say about you, or how they see you, you don’t actually know. The way you behave and interact with others plays a big part in how others view you and interact with you.
You can always count on ISI staff and volunteers to accept you without judging or labeling you. Getting involved in ISI activities and events will help you make friends from all over the world, struggling with the same kinds of issues, adjustments and questions you face. You will also have the opportunity to experience relationships with Americans, one-on-one. It might surprise you to learn that T.V. shows, movies or news reports don’t actually give you a very accurate picture of real, down-to-earth Americans.