I am a young, white woman fluent in the American tongue. I smile at you and tell you I am from Africa. You look at me, puzzled. I can see the question in your eyes before it reaches your lips: “Why aren’t you black?” Because only black people live in Africa, wearing lion-cloths and emerging from their wooden huts every morning to collect water from a well. Certainly, most Africans are black. But not me. I am an anomaly to you. I look just like an American girl, yet I am an immigrant. In your mind you try to equate me with those dirty Mexicans desperately sneaking across the border.
In the beginning, you put my heritage at the back of your mind. After all, I am no different from any other white woman you normally interact with. I can talk to you about politics, religion, the weather, and current trends in social media.
But then, you hear about my documents. I am applying for a visa, I am waiting for work authorization, I am in the process of getting a green card. You don’t understand why it’s taking so long. It should be easy for a pretty white girl with an American accent to get a green card. You’re surprised they didn’t hand one to me the day I entered the country. You cannot fathom the fact that I’m not a citizen yet even after I married an American man. You ask me whether I’ve talked to my lawyer. Have I done my research? Have I made the right phone calls? Have I talked to the right people? I can hear the accusation in these questions. Obviously, I am not trying hard enough. I am ignorant of how the American system works. I try to tell you the system is broken, but somehow, you end up believing that I am broken instead.
Work is important to you. It’s the American way. Your job defines your worth. You see I have no job, so you think I’m worthless. You ask me, “why don’t you work?” I tell you I am not allowed. You hear that I’m lazy. You ask why I don’t work illegally like those dirty Mexicans. I tell you they will throw me out of the country. You scoff and tell me your aunt cleaned houses under the table once and nothing happened to her. I don’t try to explain that breaking the law is not worth it to me because too much depends on me getting my documents. I don’t tell you that sometimes at night I have nightmares about the police knocking on my door, putting handcuffs on my wrists, and tearing me away from my husband and my family to go back to a country I’ve worked so hard to escape.
Now you pity me because I don’t have money. Your family is in debt, but they work, so they have money. My family is not in debt, but we are immigrants, so we are poor. You give us your second-hand clothing as a kind gesture—you are a charitable soul helping poor Africans. When you and me hang out, you take care to tell me how much your family is struggling. College tuition is expensive after all, never mind graduate school. I nod in agreement, while deciding not to tell you that there were times when my family hardly had enough to eat and we had no furniture in the house. I smile because your definition of poverty is my definition of wealth.
I never even dreamed of going to college, but here I am with a college degree and a perfect GPA. Every grade to me meant the difference between life and death. Life, because good grades will enable me to receive scholarships to continue my studies and stay in this country, or death, because bad grades will send me home. You have a college degree too, so you don’t think it’s that much of an achievement, as long as I get a good job.
Since I don’t have one, you remind me constantly of how much of a burden I am to my American husband. He has to work hard to take care of me, while I relax around the house. You never consider the fact that he might be a burden to me, because if not for him I could already be working and enjoying many opportunities in another country. But now I’m stuck here, waiting on papers, waiting on my husband, and dealing with your condescending stare. I know what you’re thinking: why didn’t he just marry an American girl, so he wouldn’t have to deal with all of this? He could have. But he chose to marry me because he is different from you. He is open-minded and understanding. Being married has allowed us both to think further and deeper than we ever could have done alone, and we have inspired and enlightened each other with our different perspectives of the world.
“Yes, but he needs to look after himself first. He can’t support you, and even worse, why is he helping out your family!” Apparently American families don’t help each other. Every individual for himself. I assure you that my husband is taking care of himself. I am assured you don’t know the first thing about family. In my culture, we believe in ubuntu, we believe in helping each other and supporting each other because it’s the human thing to do. My husband believes in compassion, and every day, I tell him that there are parts of the world where it exists.
You are my friend, but every time I’m with you, I am made to understand that I am second-class, somehow less, than you and other Americans. Despite my values, despite my achievements, despite my lack of opportunities or barriers to opportunities, you still think that I’m not trying and that I cannot possibly succeed. You pity me and feel good about yourself because you do. I am a white woman and you are a white person but you are also an American and I am an immigrant. Every day I think that if I were not white and did not speak American then my struggle would be a million times worse. If you see me this way, how do you see the South American or Middle Eastern person who tries to immigrate to the land of opportunity? I cannot say that I understand their struggle, but my heart goes out to them because I have experienced but a small piece of it and some days it is hard to keep myself from falling apart.
Disclaimer: This essay is not based on a single person or a single experience; it is written creatively to explain the attitudes of many different people whom I encounter. I do know Americans who truly care and support me, and to them I am very grateful. Also, I realize that attitudes towards foreigners is not always conscious–many people truly mean well, they just don’t understand how their actions or attitudes come across. Immigration is frustrating, demoralizing, and sometimes dehumanizing, but I am still grateful to be here and grateful for my experience. I am sharing these particular feelings to make people aware that immigration is not always easy, and hopefully, when they encounter an immigrant, they can be understanding.