Character  &  Context

Showcasing Immigrant Excellence

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By Joel E. Martinez, Lauren A. Feldman, and Mina Cikara

A social-media campaign to counter negative stereotypes shows enormous promise—but it’s still a work in progress

On Jan. 26th, the public received notice of a new immigration-related executive order, describing the Trump administration’s plan to publish a weekly “list of criminal actions committed by aliens.” As psychologists, we immediately grew concerned that such a policy would fuel public fears and animosity towards immigrants by contributing to the stereotype that immigrants are dangerousResearch on the availability heuristic shows that the more easily examples of something come to mind, the more common we perceive that thing to be. Consequently, a weekly-published "removables" list could result in people overestimating both the likelihood of immigrants committing crimes and the extent to which most other Americans accept this generalization—a dangerous social norm that could increase hate crimes and violence against immigrants.

But what if information related to immigrants’ achievements were more prominent than information about crime?

To create a counterpoint to the statistically unfounded stereotype of immigrants as criminal, we used Twitter and Facebook to solicit immigrants’ stories under the hashtag #immigrantexcellence (inspired by the podcast The Read’s weekly segment, Black Excellence). Learning about people who defy your pre-existing stereotypes can reduce stereotyping and bias, so we sought to highlight immigrants’ achievement and resilience—their “excellence,” broadly defined to include a range of personal narratives and family histories. We specifically called for narratives because stories invite perspective-taking more than statistics do, and may be more likely to spur genuine engagement rather than defensive reactions.

Even as the Trump administration’s executive order to temporarily ban refugees and immigrants from seven predominantly-Muslim countries took effect, we saw solidarity grow among immigrants of many different origins. They liked, shared, and commented on each other’s stories, connecting with each other as well as amplifying each other’s voices. Stories of immigrants in prestigious academic and professional positions accumulated alongside stories of struggle within, beyond, and on U.S. borders. Many of these posts radiated pride—for storytellers’ family histories, their perseverance, and for the opportunity to have their stories heard.

We quickly realized, however, that such an enterprise could have unintended but harmful consequences. On Twitter, Kamil Hamid rightfully critiqued the hashtag for placing pressure on immigrants to signal their utility to U.S. Americans in order to justify their presence in the country. Because it focuses on how immigrants may be “used” to benefit the country, this kind of rhetoric fails to emphasize that immigrants are inherently deserving of inclusion, safety, and opportunity as human beings regardless of any prestige they may bring to the country.

Narratives focusing on traditional measures of “excellence” can also be publicly misinterpreted as bootstrap myth apologism, reinforcing the idea that an individual’s failure to achieve must be due to their lack of effort. Meanwhile, those who do achieve success are often hailed as “model minorities,” creating a distinction between “good” and “bad” immigrants. This false dichotomy directly undermines our original goal of dispelling negative immigrant stereotypes. While representing the academic and professional accomplishments of immigrants is deeply important and uplifting, the fact is that these outcomes are not equally accessible to everyone. An exclusive focus on success-oriented stories glosses over differences in socioeconomic and pre-migration educational status, access to social and cultural capital, work visa approvals, and intersections of immigrant status with structural racismand religious discrimination, which all contribute to disparate outcomes for different immigrant groupseven after one has settled in the United States. As a revision to the adage goes, “it’s hard to pull yourself up by the bootstraps if you can’t afford boots.”

Finally, while initial calls for stories sought to feature excellence at all levels of social status, many of the most virally-shared stories reflected traditional notions of success and prestige (e.g., Ivy League professorships). Consequently, potential contributors may have felt discouraged from sharing stories that didn’t fit this showcased form of “excellence.” The goal of debunking stereotypes is not to replace one extreme image with another, but to represent the full spectrum of a group’s humanity. That many of these stories are conventionally inspirational does not diminish the importance of amplifying and celebrating the voices of all immigrants, from professors and doctors to single parents and service workers.

So do enterprises like #immigrantexcellence hurt or help? This remains an empirical question we plan to address in the coming months, but we remain heartened by the ways in which many have shared their stories. Being immigrants or children of immigrants ourselves, we wanted to feature the very narratives that could get drowned out by those that demonize immigrants as a class of people (e.g., lists of “removables”). However, even the most effective platform for sharing narratives does not address the structural and institutional barriers immigrants face in the process of coming to, or making a life in the U.S. This can only be achieved through changes to the law and immigration policy, which requires the continued engagement of natural-born citizens and immigrants alike. In the meantime, we hope that people will continue to share their stories of inspiration and solidarity, and to participate in necessary, nuanced discussions about how to best uphold our cherished democracy in the years to come.


By Joel E. MartinezLauren A. FeldmanMina Cikara. This post was first published on Scientific American and is shared with the editor's permission.

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