The perpetual foreigner stereotype in America is applied mainly to Asian Americans. No matter how long they or their families have lived in the country, they are still not seen as True Americans, they are still seen as foreigners. That is why people are surprised at how good their English is and ask them, “Where are you really from?” – where New Jersey does not count as an answer.
Please note: Asians born in America speak perfect English with an American accent. For most of them America is the only country they know. It is their country too. They are every bit as American as white people.
The girl pictured in the Virgin ad that says “Dump Your Pen Friend” is not from Japan or anywhere in Asia: she is American – at an American barbecue, no less. If that surprised you, then you were applying the perpetual foreigner stereotype to her, as did Virgin.
This is not some small point.
For example, General John DeWitt, in charge of defending the western American states during the Second World War, said this:
A Jap’s a Jap … The Japanese race is an enemy race … It makes no difference whether he is an American citizen, he is still a Japanese… we must worry about the Japanese all the time until he is wiped off the map.
And so Japanese Americans, despite being native-born citizens charged with no crime, lost everything they could not carry and were sent to live in prison camps during the war. Even the Supreme Court thought their race mattered more than their citizenship.
Japanese Americans have been in America longer than most Italian, Polish and Jewish Americans. So, if anything, they should be seen as less foreign, but they are not.
Another example: Vincent Chin, a Chinese American engineer, had his brains beat in and was killed by two white men in Detroit in 1982. One of them had been laid off by Chrysler and blamed Japan. But Chin was not Japanese. He was not even Chinese: he was American! But despite that neither white man served any time in prison: they got off with a fine of $3,000 and three years’ probation. The judge said of Chin’s killers: “These weren’t the kind of men you send to jail.”
Two ideas underlie the perpetual foreigner stereotype:
- America belongs to white people.
- Race and culture are pretty much the same thing.
Race, how you look on the outside, is seen as a good sign of how you are on the inside.
In America the stereotype is mainly applied to those with East Asian roots, but lately, since 9/11, Muslim Americans are increasingly seen in this light too, so much so that their citizenship does not always grant them the protection and rights that it should.
The stereotype is assumed by those who call Obama a secret Muslim. Colin Powell made the excellent point that even if Obama were Muslim, so what? Plenty of Americans are Muslims, many have even fought and died for the country. If they are not True Americans, no one is.
- YouTube: What kind of Asian are you? – Ken Tanaka’s great satire of this stereotype – and that thing where whites love to tell Asian Americans about their “Asian experience”.
- In memoriam: Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan
- growing up Asian American
- The stereotype has been applied to blacks in France and China:
- black people as monkeys