Those who know me know just how passionate I am about various topics. They know that working with international students and having traveled abroad has shaped my worldview. It is through our lens of experience that we see the world. Each of us are citizens of somewhere. I am a citizen of the United States. I am a citizen of Arkansas. As a Christian I am a citizen of heaven. The ideas of citizenship and belonging have begun to cause a stir among many residing in the U.S. even more so since election season began.
I use the term residing, rather than citizen because the U.S. is filled with not only U.S. citizens. It is filled with our neighbors from Mexico, Canada, Europe, Asia, etc. etc. etc. This country, just like many others, is not occupied only by citizens, but by visitors also.
Now, more than ever before, we are becoming global citizens. This does not mean that we have lost our country citizenship or our state citizenship but that we have gained greater opportunity to learn and grow with those who did not originate in our home country. Our workplaces, schools, and neighborhoods are filled with people from all over the world. We have access to so many countries and cultures right in our own backyard, yet we have walked away from the idea that our neighbors are our friends. We have slowly, over time, stopped inviting our neighbors over for dinner or befriending our co-workers. We have distanced ourselves an arm’s length (or fence’s length) away from each other.
We have a perception of our neighbors/classmates/co-workers but we don’t actually know them. We are distrusting and afraid because we do not know each other and would rather not even take the time to try. When we keep ourselves distanced and nestled in our fenced in land we miss opportunities to learn and grow. We miss opportunities to teach our children from a young age about diversity and culture and the world. We miss friendships and the possibility of progression.
We have this idea that by locking ourselves inside our family or friend groups or even within our own homes that we will be protected. Yet, when we read the news and see the reports we see that seclusion keeps us from helping each other. It keeps us from knowing if the person next door is missing or just on vacation. It keeps us from making assumptions about people we do not know.
Last night an international student asked me how I viewed people from his country. He said, “do you think we are all the same?” My answer was simple. “No.” I also told him that he shouldn’t assume every U.S. citizen is the same. We all have our own personal culture. We all have our own background and history. We may have a similar country culture or state culture, but please do not group us together. We talked about the idea of racism and how it can be boiled down very simply to a lack of understanding. When we are not educated on something, whether that education comes from personal interactions on a consistent basis or sitting in a classroom, we make assumptions and have unrealistic expectations (both good and bad).
After this conversation with the student I had dinner with another international student. She had a different story, but it reminded me that not everyone knows the stories of the faces they are so prejudice against. It is easy to sit on one side of things and make assumptions when not ever being close to those on the other side.
Although social media is not a good tell for the average person in the U.S. and their views, I do notice a few trends: topics like these are either ignored and tiptoed around or they are full fledged fist fights. There is no in between. We have come so far since the extreme brutality and racism seen in this country in the 50’s, yet we haven’t come far at all. The physical violence and bullying is now cyber or verbal. Often times people do not even see it as such. In a perfect world we’d all hold hands and sing “Kumbaya”. But we do not live in a perfect world and most people get annoyed if you try to hold their hand or stand too near to them.
As people we all want the same things. We want happy healthy lives for our families. People travel to the U.S. for tourism and education – lawfully. They travel here for work – lawfully. They also travel here unlawfully, because they want the same things you and I want for our lives. I’ve noticed people shutting out other because of race or national origin. This shutting out of others secludes them. It tells them, “you are not worthy of my love”. It says, “you are not worthy of my friendship or trust.” It says, “because you do not look like me and are not from my country you are untrustworthy.” Seclusion leads to desperation. This desperation can be for anything, the same way it would be for you and I: love, acceptance, assistance, to be heard, to be helped, etc. Desperation leads to action. When people are treated like they don’t matter, like they are nothing they want to escape. They might do or try anything to get your attention. When people are treated like criminals, they realize nothing they do or say will change the minds of others. When we treat people who do not look like us negatively, we send a message to others that this is acceptable behavior. It spreads like wildfire. Some become violent against them, or the other way around.
The U.S. houses hundreds of thousands of international students. The U.S. granted over 1 million green cards in 2014. Not every international looking person you come across is who or what you think they are. Being a global citizen doesn’t mean you travel everywhere or that you have a lot of multi-ethnic friends. Global citizenship is now commonplace. Our continents and countries and cities are easier to access than ever before.
We cannot preach diversity and look down on differences at the same time. We must stop treating people like they don’t matter, like they are unloveable, like they are criminals, like they are unacceptable. If we do this, we might finally begin to see change in our country.