Immigrants of Brown
As a second generation Korean American female immigrant, I’ve honestly taken my U.S citizenship for granted and never really explored my racial identities until recently. Having gone to a white dominated school, I didn’t realize I was perceived as different from my peers when my “friends” started to make fun of my Asian features, such as how small my eyes were whenever I laughed. Since then, I not only resented my racial identity, but also struggled to find a space where I felt a sense of belonging. I lacked belonging in my American space at school, taking desperate measures to be accepted by my white peers by disregarding my racial identity. But at the end of the day, I felt no belonging even in my Korean household, being too Americanized to connect culturally with my family who immigrated here. My father and mother both came to America in their teenage years to escape the poverty in South Korea and in hopes of finding a better life. I admire my parents for their success and hard work in achieving the American Dream, as they worked incredibly hard to send me to a privileged place such as Brown. However, I also remind myself how lucky we were, as many immigrants do not have the same experience.
While successful, their isolation as first generation immigrants still carries with them today in society, and carries with me as well as a second generation immigrant.This dilemma isn’t unique. U.S public policy and culture have constantly marginalized immigrants who were promised a land of opportunity and acceptance.
This photography essay seeks to explore the different experiences, emotions, and stories of immigrants here at Brown. I conducted interviews with each student, asking first about their identities and where they come from and moving onto what it means to be a citizen and having a sense of belonging in America. Even in a space of privilege such as an Ivy League institution, immigrants can carry a constant sense of marginalization, and isolation throughout their entire transnational experience. I also hope to end the silence people of color carry in today’s society, as their stories, sacrifices, and emotions are overshadowed by mainstream attitudes of American nationality and white superiority. While each student’s story is unique and personal, all share commonalities and patterns that speak to the hidden oppression of American immigrants.
“Right now there’s like Islamophobia, so people are scared of Muslims and things like that because they think they’re terrorists. It’s actually getting kind of scary, they did an experiment for job applications. They sent out a bunch of resumes and had one resume have the same qualifications as the other, but one would have something related to Islam. And what they realized is that those who didn’t have it, but had the same qualifications as the other, got called back for an interview much much more than those who had Muslim related things. Like if I put down Muslim Student Association, that could really hurt my chances of getting an interview. And it’s kind of crazy because my brother warned me about this when I was applying to college.
He was like, ‘Take all Islamic related things out of your college application. You never know who the admission officers are, and Islamophobia is really bad right now. Take it out’. But I was like, ‘…I can’t’. Because I had these important leadership traits. I was like ‘If I take it out I’ll have no application’. I started a tutoring program in a Mosque. And If I take that out, that’s not good, I need that…NYU was my top choice, because NYU had one of the first Islamic Centers in the country, so during the summer before Senior Year I interned in New York right near NYU and I went to the Friday Night Prayers over there, and wrote about that in my essay.
My brother said not to have that in my essay, but I didn’t show him my essay because he was gonna tell me to change it but I really liked it. I was also talking to my friend and he told me, ‘If you’re gonna take it out, why take it out? Because if they don’t want you because of your religion, why would you want to be in a school like that?’. So I was like ‘that’s true, I’m keeping it’..I don’t think I told my brother that my essay had all that stuff, I’m gonna tell him one day and tell him ‘yeah, you were wrong’”.
“The social identities of marginalized and subordinate groups…are both imposed from above by dominant social groups, and/or state institutions, and constituted from below by these groups themselves as expressions of self-identification” ‐ Michael Omi and Howard Winant
Haris, who identifies as a 2nd generation Palestinian‐American immigrant, has been deeply affected by racial formation. Islamophobia exemplifies the socially constructed attitudes we have about people of color. His fear and near complicity with the discrimination of his racial identity is explained by both the construction of white superiority and minority inferiority. The discrimination of those who identify as Islamic are affected by the racial project that is Islamophobia in institutions (college applications, work place, etc.). The stereotype of all Islamic peoples as terrorists has been so embedded within society that it now actually has a fixed meaning. This meaning has become so fixed that even individuals who are targeted by this project, such as Haris and his brother, are pushed to adopt it. This shows a significant problem with not only the white perception of immigrants, but also how immigrants view themselves.
“I’ve lived in the states for eleven years now, but specifically coming to Brown has been pretty difficult, because anywhere I’ve been I’ve been surrounded by Iranian people. Even in Oregon I was surrounded by my family, and even in LA, it’s probably the capital of Iranian populations in the United States. But here I have yet to meet an Iranian freshman, so it’s just been really difficult. And because I did TWTP, at the end of the program we were given a tour of the Brown Center for Students of Color, and the various spaces in which everyone can go and everyone has a place there. But I felt such a lack of representation for middle eastern students, and that kind of made it really difficult for me. Because out of all the places on campus where I should feel welcome as a person of color that’s middle eastern, that really hit hard, at least emotionally.”
Helya, who identifies as a first‐generation, low‐income Iranian immigrant, couldn’t find a belonging to a space in Brown’s most recognized racial community. Although she immigrated to America as a child, she still encounters racialized boundaries to this day, particularly when coming to Brown. While the Brown Center for Students of Color seeks to recognize and include people of color by giving them a dedicated racialized space, Helya, along with other individuals, can still encounter barriers that even further marginalize their racial identities.
Her experience of isolation also reveals the idea of a racialized border that is not just a tangible or physical. This ultimately causes those who experience the same pressure of boundaries, to potentially feel more oppression. Helya’s story also reveals that exclusion from racialized spaces is always occurring: despite crossing transnational borders to get to America, Helya, along with thousands of other immigrants, still feel the burden of thickened boundaries constantly. The Brown Center for Students of Color is a representation of what’s occurring within our greater system, as immigrants who traverse the American space never really end up finding a sense of belonging.
“I feel like a lot of immigrants come here because they see America as a place in which opportunity is accessible, no matter who you are, it’s the whole idea of the American dream. And I think that the American dream has never existed. I think it was something that we as a society has constructed, because there is social mobility in this country I have to say that the fact that I’m here is proof of it.
But in some ways, me and a lot of the children of immigrants at Brown are the exception. If you look in my community for example, a lot of the Senegalese children that are my age aren’t here. When I graduated from my high school, people were either not going to college, couldn’t afford to go to college even though they got into college, or got into a local community college or state university. Which are all great places, but the privilege again with going to an Ivy League university is something they won’t have access to. So the whole idea of the American dream is kind of flawed because it makes it seem as if people don’t succeed in this country it’s their fault, when really it’s the systematic barriers that prevent people from succeeding in this country. So I think that yes, there is a lot of opportunity to be had here, but hard work is not the only way in which people can be exposed to it, because a lot of Immigrants will come here and still work really, really hard, but they still don’t get the resources they need, the support they need and the opportunities they need because of the systematic racism, homophobia or other systematic barriers in society.
Throughout my life I have definitely seen that putting hard work was definitely not enough to get the opportunities that my parents were kind of promised when they immigrated to this country. For example, during my high school experiences, I worked really hard, but I couldn’t just work hard. I had to put in more effort, more time, I had to go out and seek opportunities and a lot of my classmates were just presented those opportunities. Maybe they’re parents had connections with their job or knew someone in a field they were interested in. But because my parents were immigrants and because they were new to this country, they didn’t have access to those relationships. I definitely had to form those relationships on my own. I had to seek internships on my own, I worked at the lab and in hospitals and things like that, that was my reaching out to people and cultivating those relationships. That was definitely one thing that I had to put in that other kids maybe didn’t have to, because their families were already connected with relationships within the US. I think that’s one thing that makes being an immigrant very hard, because it’s very hard to depend on relationships you’ve cultivated over your lifetime when you’re in a new place that’s completely different.”
“On the one hand, the status of non citizens, or aliens, is a product of citizenship’s exclusionary regime: these are people who are legally deﬁned as lacking in full national membership, and who are subject to certain disabilities, including lack of political rights and potential deportation as a result. In the case of alienage, citizenship’s exclusionary threshold shifts inside to operate directly within the territory of the national society.” ‐ Linda Bosniak
Yacine, who identifies as a first‐generation Senegalese American and college student, exposes the flaws of the American dream. While those who immigrate here are promised access to the American dream, the difficulty of not obtaining a citizenship makes that dream less and less tangible. Without a citizenship, individuals are not recognized as socially and politically part of the U.S, preventing them from achieving the success they sought for. Yacine’s story reveals how constantly pressured immigrants are to obtain the American dream, despite never being given the resources or even acceptance to obtain it.
“I think if my dad wasn’t a doctor, or if my mom wasn’t a physical therapist, they wouldn’t be here [in America]. Some people aren’t given those opportunities….I was talking to my parents about how hard it can be to come in, especially for illegal immigrants. And they said, ‘well, WE worked hard to get here.’ And I said ‘You did, absolutely. And you beat out a lot people who were given the same opportunities as you. But some people aren’t given those opportunities’. My dad has worked hard his entire life, he earned every single thing he’s got. But you know at the same time he does come from a little bit of a richy-rich family. And he had the money to do things. But he worked in a sweat shop when he was younger, so he knows what hard work is and so does my mom. My mom scored the highest in the Filipino standardized testing. But at the same time she was one of the richer kids in town.’
Shawn identifies as a second‐generation Filipino‐American, who feels a very strong connection to both the Philippines and America due to how hard his parents have worked to get him to America. Shawn’s parents story exemplifies the possible reality and tangibility of the American Dream. However, Shawn does emphasize the social and economic position his parents started out from. His parents have worked incredibly hard to give him his opportunities as a second‐generation immigrant. However, he implies an important question: if an immigrant doesn’t have the needed resources, where would they be?
“It was hard at the beginning. My dad used to call me every week, and I never had that relationship. That normal relationship with a dad because like he left when I was five years old so I didn’t have many memories about him. So when I came here, I had to live with the woman, who he married and technically left my mom because of her, so it was difficult. My mom didn’t have a job back in Colombia, so I always had her by my side. So when I came here, my dad was working three jobs, my step mother worked two. I came during the summer, so I got really lonely. I’m [also] queer. At the time I was struggling with myself and with coming out and everything, my dad wasn’t the most open minded person. So we had a lot of arguments and I used to be all by myself in the room and used to cry because I wanted to go back and not feel this way and not be here. I had my whole life in Colombia where I was happier and didn’t have to worry about anything.
I had this boyfriend, we dated for four months. But at the end of it, it didn’t go well. I was very emotionally connected to him, but he started to make fun of my accent. He told me to go back from where I came from, and it hurt a lot. And after that I got very self–conscious about my accent. For example, I try to avoid talking in English sometimes because I don’t want people to make fun of my accent…I hate it, but sometimes I like it but it’s also a part of who I am. “
“There isn’t any Negro problem; there is only a white problem, by inverting the reporter’s question, Wright called attention to its hidden assumptions- that racial polarization comes from the existence of blacks rather than from the behavior of whites, that black people are a ‘problem’ for whites rather than fellow citizens entitled to justice, and that, unless otherwise specified, ‘Americans’ means whites.” – George Lipsitz
David was born in Colombia and immigrated to America just three years ago with his father, and is currently a permanent resident waiting to obtain an American citizenship. His struggle with adjusting to America while also struggling with his identities is a common experience thousands of immigrants face when first coming to America.
David was led to believe that he should have been ashamed of his culture, his race, for not being the same as the classic White American figure. The marginalization and discrimination of immigrants thus originates from the racist behaviors and attitudes of those deemed classically “American,” exposing the serious problem in how alienated and blamed immigrants are for migrating to America.
“Because my family is all U.S citizens, when I was growing up immigration control was less strict. All you had to do was say “U.S citizen” and cross and they would take your word for it. But for me, because I wasn’t a U.S citizen, those were words I was never allowed to say. I was never allowed to say U.S citizen to border patrol. So there have been times where we would have to go to secondary inspection just because I forgot my papers, or another time once my aunt put me in her boobs to pass immigration and no one saw because I was really small. As I got older I saw the reason to apply for US citizenship because it makes things so much easier. Growing up I never really cared to become a U.S citizen even though I was constantly being made fun of for not being one. And that’s what made me so desensitized to the value of what being a citizen meant. To me, I was already a citizen, I was going to public school here and doing really well, I was going to an Ivy League, why does it matter to have this document that says I’m a U.S citizen? I’m contributing more to society to be like the people who are undocumented than to people who have been here for generations. I didn’t really care about that title.
Titles and documentations don’t really mean much. There is so much value attached to them. There’s always a way of making your own title and your own identity apart from what’s written on a paper or what’s ascribed to you on your paper. And that’s what I made sure to make of myself. My way of doing so was through education, and the academy, but I definitely feel like there are different means for everything. As long as you recognize your own self worth, that’s all you really have to be honest.”
“The establishment of the Border Patrol in the 1920s institutionalized an already pervasive racial logic: the collapsing of brown skin, impoverishment and nationality as racial difference. Congress established this police force three days after the passage of the National Origins Act of 1924, which implemented a system of national quotas to protect ‘American racial stock from further degradation or change through mongrelization’ and outlawed virtually all ‘immigration’ from the western hemisphere...Immigrants, it seems, lived the racialized condition of exceptionality, subject to pervasive forms of governance ranging from state to informal forms of power.” – Gilberto Rosas
Anselmo was born in Mexico in the state of Comila, but then moved to San Diego, California a year after he was born and has been living there his whole life. This has caused a complication in which he cannot concretely identify with being either a first or second generation immigrant, or identify as a Mexican‐American since there was so much transborder activity going on. Anselmo’s emphasis on how he could never say he was a U.S citizen when crossing the border implies the fear instilled in individuals who cross the border, as well as how stigmatized the US‐Mexico border has become. The border not only physically divides two countries, but also establishes racist attitudes in which those who cross the border threaten the purity of U.S nationalism.
Anselmo also has an interesting perspective on what it means to be a citizen, challenging the original definition of citizenship by supporting the idea that the definition of citizenship was socially constructed in order to ultimately alienate immigrants. While the idea of the American dream is commonly bound to the idea of obtaining citizenship, Anselmo’s story challenges that idea, as he was able to obtain his dreams without attempting to satisfy societal pressure in obtaining legal status.
“The border represents many things. Now as a college student, it makes me realize some of the history that is not taught in California or in the southwest about how the border came to be, how these southwestern states were once apart of Mexico. I didn’t know about the Mexican American war until coming to college, so how is it that I lived in California my entire life, I went to public school, and I didn’t know how California became a state? By living on the border I was able to see the differences between the education and history taught.
After my father was released from prison, I started visiting him in Mexico and I have two step sisters in Mexico. My step sisters who have gone to school in Mexico their entire life, having them comment on American projects on imperialism and me not having yet learned those things, made me realize that American education taught Mexican history different from the way it is taught in Mexico. As someone who has always been passionate about school, knowledge, and knowing history, I felt very much on different playing fields at that moment. Like “wait, how do YOU know about the Mexican American war and how the Southwest was a part of Mexico, and I never learned that?”. And so that was a tension, first living in the border, going to school in the US while living in Mexico, I thought that US schools were so much better and higher quality versus Mexico. But then couple years later, I come to realize that quality doesn’t mean what history is being taught or what history is being ignored, and how its different related to the socio political contexts.
Hector identifies as a transnational second generation immigrant and first generation American from a low‐income, single‐mother household. When he was four years old, his father was sent to prison and was released after four years, only to be immediately deported. Hector was thus exposed to the border at a very young age, understanding that a physical border divided him and his father. Passionate about education studies and having gone to school in the states while living in Mexico, he was simultaneously exposed to both cultures.
The disregard for Mexico’s history in American education systems enforces American superiority and imperialism. As a racial project, this embeds in society that America’s relationship with Mexico is irrelevant, and thus its citizens and immigrants are also irrelevant. The ignorance of Mexico’s history in history classes represents the bigger picture of America taking away Mexico’s history and the land that was once possessed by the Mexican citizens.
“It’s kind of like in between two different worlds. I was born here, and I have this citizenship and that means something completely different to someone who doesn’t, like my family. And again my citizenship means something different from people who come from a family of all citizens who are just citizens. I think a lot of the fear I grew up in, and a lot of the fear my family experienced because they were undocumented, I sort of inherited that. It was very much part of my experience even though I am an American citizen, and I am protected for a lot of things. But I wasn’t protected by that fear that I felt. And that’s also part of the invisibility that I feel, but I can’t ever experience what its like to cross the border. And so I can’t own up to that invisibility, I just don’t know what that is. I guess it’s different, its very different.
I was like really, really young this one day. I was playing outside with my siblings…I was playing with one of those toys with the vacuum with the balls inside. And when you move the vacuum the balls pop up and make this cool noise, so I was outside playing with the noise. And all of a sudden I hear this deathly scream of this woman out of nowhere. And I see my sister’s friend running toward our apartments and she’s like crying, and bawling, and screaming: ‘They took her they took her!’
I didn’t know what that meant, I knew it was bad. I knew what fear looked like and she had it. My mom ran over to us and had understand very well what had happened, and so she grabbed me and my sister and took us inside the house. I just remember being very confused and afraid. And I couldn’t understand why my toys were still outside. Like someone’s gonna take my toys why can’t I be outside right now?…The history of ICE and undocumented folks was never told to me directly a lot of the times, so I had to just piece that together and form these alternative narratives…all these little memories I have with coming to terms with what it means to have undocumented parents, all fragmented stories. There was never a way for me to get all the details because my parents will never tell me about their experience back at home and while crossing the border. Given all the things that you’ve heard, all the things that people have had the courage to think or speak, those things aren’t even the worse thing. There’s so much more behind that the individual holds that are so dear to them…So my understanding was that my sister’s friend, who was around middle school, her mom was taken a little outside the Apartment complex by ICE. But being a citizen, the girl was not taken. There’s these situations that happen when your parents are taken and suddenly your in charge of living your life and you have no idea what to do.
Liliana identifies as a second‐generation Chicano immigrant and first‐generation college student. Even though she has an American citizenship, her story exposes the idea that despite being given the legal rights of protection, immigrants can still feel fear, marginalization, and isolation from society. Liliana also talks about ICE (Immigation and Customs Enforcement), indicating how public policy on immigration has further solidified this fear and constructed a boundary her and her family cannot escape. The creation of ICE has constructed boundaries around thousands of immigrant families.
Liliana also brings up the significant issue of immigrants being silenced. The stories that we’ve heard, or even the stories in this book, are not even the worse thing. There are thousands of stories and experiences that cannot even be exposed in public society, further emphasizing the silence immigrants must constantly live in.
While these subjects possess unique experiences and stories, they all share commonalities and speak to a bigger idea about immigration in America. Those who believed in the American dream acknowledged that their family came from a higher position in society, implying that the socio economic standpoint of where an immigrant stands is dependent on the reality of the American dream. In contrast, others felt the American dream to be an illusion, as it was never really tangible for their family due to the burdensome isolation they experienced.
It’s also important to understand that these stories in this book only represent a tiny grain of the Immigrant experience. Not only do we subjects represent a minute percentage of the immigrant population, but we come from a place of privilege at an Ivy League institution. This grain does not capture the stories of the thousands of immigrants whose stories have never been exposed. Due to the burden of silence and marginalization immigrants are forced to carry, public policy on immigration has yet to fully integrate and include immigrants into a safe and unbounded space.
Special thanks to:
Professor Yalidy Matos
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Lipsitz, George. 1998. “The Possessive Investment In Whiteness.” In The Possessive Investment In Whiteness, Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.
Rosas, Gilberto. 2006. “The Thickening Borderlands: Diffused Exceptionality And ‘Immigrant’ Social Struggles during the ‘War on Terror’.” Cultural Dynamics. US: SAGE Publications .
Bosniak , Linda. 2008. “Defining Citizenships: Substance, Locations, And Subjects.” In The Citizen And the Alien: Dilemmas of Contemporary Citizenship, US: Princeton University Press, 17 to 37.