- "Oh, You Speak English So Well!":U.S. American Listeners' Perceptions of "Foreignness" among Nonnative Speakers
I work in a bank and I'm constantly helping customers. Most of the time I can just tell by the way that they look at me, that they don't expect me to have very good English skills. They probably think I speak with an accent, because when I do talk most of them will say, "Oh, you speak English so well! You were born here weren't you?" When I sit back and think about it, you know, they've judged me and I know it's because of the way I look.—Student journal entry
The united states is a country of immigrants, yet some citizens are considered more foreign than others. The most striking example of this is undoubtedly the internment of Japanese American citizens during World War II. As the officer in charge of the Western Defense, Lieutenant General John L. DeWitt, said at the time, "You needn't worry about the Italians at all except in certain cases. Also, the same for the Germans except for individual cases. But we must worry about the Japanese all the time until he is wiped off the map."1 Of course, such race-based discrimination is no longer allowable under law. Even so, the country's long history of differentiating immigrants on the basis of national origin suggests that not all U.S. citizens are perceived to be equally "American," even today.
Soon after the country was founded, the Naturalization Act of 1795 set the parameters for who could become a citizen: free, white persons.2 Although persons of non-European origin were integral to the founding (and literal building) of the country, they did not "belong" in the sense [End Page 59] that they were entitled to the rights and privileges of citizenship. With passage of the Fourteenth Amendment, however, the first nonwhites became eligible for citizenship: "Africans" were allowed to become "American" after the Civil War. Despite this victory for civil rights, the change in the law served to further alienate persons from Latin America and Asia; their status as "outsiders" was now firmly fixed in "a society only able to see in black and white."3
Nearly a century later, immigration and nationality acts had finally lifted racial restrictions on citizenship and had abolished national-origin quotas for immigration. By 1968, civil rights laws stipulated that a person's race or place of origin could no longer be used to deny him or her access to the American dream. Even so, centuries of practice judging "fit" and "belonging" among the population meant that related attitudes and customs did not disappear overnight. Indeed, even at the beginning of the twenty-first century, people are still deciding which fellow immigrants and citizens should be considered "real" Americans.
Undoubtedly, among the most significant events in the new century have been the attacks of September 11, 2001. The experience surfaced fault lines drawn long ago to distinguish European American "selves" from non-European American "others." Whereas before the attacks Americans of Arab descent or Islamic religious beliefs had lived in relative tranquility, afterward they found themselves under surveillance and under assault as enemy "others."4 These post-9/11 fault lines were so broad that almost any non-European, non-Christian attribute qualified an American for suspicion. For example, the first post-9/11 hate-crime murder victim, Balbair Singh Sodhi, was neither Arab nor Muslim—he was an immigrant from India of the Sikh faith. Likewise, one Cuban American author of this study has been repeatedly subjected to added airport security screenings that fellow authors of ascribed European American heritage have not.
As much as September 11 dramatically resurfaced questions about who "belongs," it is important to recognize that the questions had never really disappeared. Indeed, practices and judgments that continue to "otherize" people of color—including those of Latin or Asian descent—keep occurring. For example, Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency officials routinely deport U.S. citizens of Latin origin and/or descent as [End...