While scrolling through your Instagram feed this past week, chances are you have come across an infographic or two bringing awareness to the recent instances of xenophobia in America that have not gained their deserved attention. Though the target of this racism has shifted towards the Asian American population recently, this country has a history ridden with xenophobia, marked by major events in which people felt endangered, such as after 9/11 and during the current COVID-19 pandemic. These historic events in the United States spur more frequent physical aggression towards minority groups. While we discuss this concerning pattern of violence, we must also bring attention to microaggressions and normalized bigotry that contribute to the trend of xenophobia.

Xenophobia stems from America’s toxic relationship with patriotism — it tends to mean something much more intense than the average definition of the word. Many other countries don’t believe as ardently that their respective countries are better than all others; for most, patriotism signifies having pride in one’s country, aligning with its dictionary definition. Recently, with the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and with more attention being placed on our country’s racist history, Americans have become more aware of their confusing relationship with patriotism. In reality, only one specific population — white Americans — has felt deserving of the title of an “American patriot,” leaving much room for the exclusion of other races and ethnicities. Patriotism in the U.S. has grown to mean that America is better than all other countries — a mindset that clearly feeds into xenophobic and racist ideologies.

Racism and xenophobia have existed throughout our history and been recently propelled further by (no surprise here) former President Donald Trump. After ignoring the severity of COVID-19 for several weeks, Trump purposefully labeled the COVID-19 virus as the “Chinese Virus,” making China the scapegoat for his lack of a pragmatic pandemic response. Because the outbreak of COVID-19 originated in Wuhan, China, Trump saw an opportunity to place the blame for the pandemic on China. By doing so, he implicated people of Chinese descent, and many of his supporters have taken cues from this rhetoric. This stance has come to violent fruition — Oakland’s Chinatown has become a hotspot of attacks against the elderly population, and over 20 Asian Americans have been assaulted in the past two weeks. Now, elderly people are suffering from Trump’s inflammatory xenophobia, and Asian Americans are experiencing slander and bigotry with frightening regularity. It is clear that, in a pandemic-induced frustration and being provided with a scapegoat pinpointed by the former president, assailants feel empowered to harm innocent members of the Asian American community.

Unfortunately, this xenophobia does not only target the Asian American population, and Trump is not the only source of white supremacy in the U.S. One of the strongest examples of xenophobia in modern American history occurred after the tragic events of 9/11. Many Americans were in deep shock after the terrorist attack on U.S. soil, and they felt that blaming a specific group of outsiders was necessary for regaining strength and faith in America, ultimately perpetuating our country’s uniquely toxic definition of patriotism through xenophobia. Individuals discriminated against Arab Americans in reaction to the actions of a small group of extremists, ultimately scapegoating innocent people. Since then, many Arab Americans have been subjected to xenophobic attacks and microaggressions, such as receiving uncomfortable looks in the airport and excessive “random” Transportation Security Administration searches.

Blatant attacks on individual communities such as those in Oakland, Calif., may seem distant from Ann Arbor, but Americans everywhere need to learn to avoid bigotry in response to national danger. This starts with everyday language full of microaggressions and xenophobia-fueled patriotism. Here, on this campus, there are many diverse communities, providing an environment where racial microaggressions can occur. Common examples of discriminatory perspectives can be the assumption that students from diverse backgrounds only got accepted because of their race or ethnicity, rather than their merit, or when white students ask where someone is “really” from, rather than accepting a student’s original response. These microaggressions not only demonstrate how white Americans will create an outgroup in order to make sense of complicated issues, but also how it becomes normalized to incorrectly point out others’ diversity through stereotypes and politically incorrect language.

The deep-rooted and problematic definition of patriotism that Americans have created has allowed for persistent xenophobia throughout the country’s history. Although this definition will take time to change, Americans cannot continue to project their feelings of anxiety during times of national danger onto different ethnic communities and blame them for events which they have no part in causing. 

The recent Oakland attacks show how this issue takes many different forms, ranging from microaggressions and slander, to structural issues disproportionately affecting minorities such as TSA security, to outright violent attacks. This all starts with the assertion that an entire ethnic community should not be held responsible for the actions of just one small subset of people, and that every American with a diverse background is still an American. 

Dimitra Colovos can be reached at dimitrac@umich.edu.

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