I haven’t written for a long time, but I was chided last night at a school event by a former student who wants me to get off my butt and start having something to say again. He was very kind and the discussion challenged me to pull together some of my thoughts on where we are as a nation right now. This space is usually a personal development and management focused one. But I feel a need to address what I am seeing in the United States right now in terms of how we treat immigrants.
The media is aflame with all the political turmoil we are experiencing post election. Every side of whatever debate you pick is filled with righteous indignation about one thing or another. I’m fully in on this as I worry deeply about the world we’ll leave to our children. But I want to cut through the politics for a few minutes and talk about how we both think about and treat immigrants and frankly, people who “look like immigrants” but aren’t.
Some of my anger and frustration comes from my personal belief that what makes America great (we don’t need to be “great again”…we never haven’t been). It’s the constant infusion of new, hungry, motivated talent from all over the world. Every new group has sought some form of “freedom”; whether to worship as they choose, to earn a better living, to avoid ethnic persecution. My personal immigration story ranges from Mayflower passengers seeking a “shining light on a hill” to my grandmother getting off a boat in New York as one of seven Irish children in a family seeking economic opportunity. America’s entire history is the history of immigration, and the resulting conflict that comes from the diversity it infuses.
I am not making an economic case regarding immigration here (though you’ll likely perceive I’m “pro”). This isn’t about how many H1-B visas we should issue per year or whether we should have a guest worker program. My point is about human decency and how we treat each other, particularly those who are more vulnerable or lack a voice.
This week was jarring for me as I had several painful conversations that highlighted my lack of awareness and appropriate empathy. As context, I am cocooned in a bubble of privilege. White male, upper middle class, good education, good job, nice home in a desirable suburb with good schools. I like to think I am self aware of it and that my “liberal/progressive” orientation makes me a “part of the solution” rather than “part of the problem.” Well, I’m at least part of the problem. I have let myself slip into post-election malaise. The facebook feed, media storm and generally unrelenting negativity have had me turning things off or not responding. It can be too much. And as a result, I have been slow to note the very real change in climate. Because in part, my privilege shields me from seeing the challenges friends who don’t look of European descent face. But it seems to me that things have substantively changed for the worse culturally.
To whit, in the last week:
- A treasured friend was unexpectedly reduced to tears telling the stories of racism and xenophobia they and their family have experienced in the past 3-6 months. Born and raised here, their observation was essentially “this is new”. Multiple family members have been targeted with epithets or had bills at their restaurant unpaid with comments like “you’re an illegal, so I don’t have to pay.” It went on from there.
- I had a long chat with a US citizen of Pakistani birth. He described his love for America and what it has done for him and his family. I asked if things have changed. He said unquestionably. His observation was that even after 9/11, peoples’ attitude towards him didn’t actually change much. But in the past 4 -6 months things have gotten much worse. In Washington DC where he lives hate crimes and racial incidents are up. His 8 yr old son is dealing with racism in the 2nd grade as a classmate recently proudly declared himself “a racist” and went off describing how it was better to be white. He retains optimism and looks for the fever to break, but his family is struggling.
- International students in programs I work with express fears about the climate and their safety. What was for many a sense of measured concern has become more serious in recent months as many experience micro-aggressions in their day to day lives that were not there a year ago. They have come here seeking opportunity and wanting to build lives. Many don’t feel welcomed.
- An employer made an offer to an international student. Yeah! Then sent a 1 sentence e-mail rescinding the offer when legal at their firm wouldn’t approve filing for a Visa. Really? No e-mail would be better than one sentence and failing to respond to respectful follow up. One sentence is dismissive and insulting. Perhaps it wasn’t targeting the international student per se, but domestic students offers were all honored. Reach your own conclusion.
- And this: http://www.startribune.com/the-myth-of-safety-for-model-minorities/416382904/
- And this: http://www.kare11.com/news/nation-now/kids-on-winning-robotics-team-told-go-back-to-mexico/423633806
- But wait, there’s more: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/17/opinion/sunday/how-does-my-red-state-see-me.html?smprod=nytcore-ipad&smid=nytcore-ipad-share&_r=0
These stories are just what I’ve heard personally or seen in the media since Tuesday. I hadn’t really heard them before because I wasn’t asking. I think what has struck many of us about the recent bubbling over of outright racism and nationalism is the belief that we had evolved beyond this. It turns out the hostility has always been there beneath the surface waiting to be called forth. People feel emboldened now and are more comfortable acting out as they are just following the leadership of many national political figures.
It’s not only not OK, it’s immoral. I was raised to believe that we are judged in the end by how we treat people. In particular, how we treat those with less power than we ourselves possess. I am not going to even try to lay out an argument for why I feel this way. If you don’t think people should be treated fairly, equitably and with respect then there’s nothing I can say to change your mind.
What I want to point out is the need for what I believe to be the vast majority of fair minded people to stand up in ways big or small. Be visible and be vocal. And don’t be afraid to be embarrassed by “asking an impolite question” or saying the wrong thing. I slide into this trap of not wanting to offend. I overcame it today when I just asked someone how they were doing. Out poured their heart. I think they appreciated being asked, having me listen and ask more questions and offer moral support. So get comfortable being more uncomfortable.
On the promising and heartening side, I also have several stories from the last week of what a number of caring people and organizations have done to be visibly supportive.
- At an event this week, an alum gushed about the support and care they are receiving from their employer. Thank you Capitol One for your empathy and decency. I also suspect they are earning a degree of commitment and loyalty from those they are supporting that will help their employment brand, retention and performance over time.
- I have seen more people in my circle become more aware of the situation and making concrete efforts to be more supportive. Part of dealing with something is awareness that it’s going on around you.
- Then the Irish PM Enda Kenny said this: https://youtu.be/9yGKjDwWnRY
I have benefited in my career from a rich and diverse tapestry of talented people. Off the top of my head, colleagues I have worked closely with have hailed from; Australia, Canada, China, Columbia, Croatia, the Dominican Republic, Egypt, France, Germany, India, Ireland, Israel, Jamaica, Japan, Lithuania, Mexico, Pakistan, Nigeria, Russia, South Africa, South Korea, Sweden, Taiwan, Thailand, Vietnam, the UK. They have also represented a breadth of religious beliefs including; Agnosticism, Atheism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Mormonism, Protestantism and likely many more.
I am a significantly better person for knowing them and learning from their experiences. Thank you.
So remember to take a broad view, ask some uncomfortable questions and be willing to see what is going on around you. Having seen, follow Teddy Roosevelt’s advice to “do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” Whether that be finding time to be more inclusive, actively attending a cultural event, supporting someone’s employment process…doesn’t matter. Just do something.
The New Colossus
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”