Op-Ed | I am a person, not an "alien"

Wednesday, February 17, 2021 - 1:38pm

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Design by Yassmine El-Rewini

The first time someone referred to me as an alien, I laughed. I did not have a big, bald head. My skin wasn’t green and my eyes, while on the large side, looked quite normal to me. The word “alien” followed me around for years. In America, because of my immigration status, I was as extraterrestrial as Zoe Saldana in “Avatar.” 

Therefore, when confronted with the question, “What does an alien look like?” in a freshman seminar, my answer was, “they look a bit like us.”

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the meaning “foreigner” has been associated with the word “alien” as early as the 1380s. The first citation for the science-fiction meaning was in 1929, in the Wonder Stories magazine. It appears that we had been using the word “alien” to refer to foreigners long before we used it to refer to extraterrestrial creatures. Consequently, we can conclude that when the English-speaking world first wrote about Martians in space, they imagined these Martians to be similar to foreigners. Alien means the same today as it did in the 1380s — it is used to differentiate between people based on race and borders. It is a pejorative term that strips immigrants of their humanity and their rights on the basis of such humanity. 

In 18th and 19th century humanitarianism, autopsies were popularized. They made it clear that on the inside, our bodies are extremely similar, if not all the same. It is one of the reasons humanitarian aid exists today. We realize, above all, we are human. According to Thomas Laqueur, “the humanitarian narrative relies on the personal body, not only as the locus of pain but also as the common bond between those who suffer and those who would help.” 

But the act of referring to a person as an “alien” clashes with the notion of humanity. Identifying someone as “alien” disregards all of their other forms of identity and simply classifies them as “the other.” It is an unnecessary word that only serves the purpose of differentiating between people on the basis of race, ethnicity and nationality. It is used to deepen the divide between “us” and “them,” and it perpetuates racism and problematic stereotypes. 

In his article about the social and legal construction of “aliens,” Kevin Johnson writes: “the concept of the alien helps to reinforce and strengthen nativist sentiment toward members of new immigrant groups, which in turn influences U.S. responses to immigration and human rights issues.” 

These influences appear in politics and laws that are very prominent in our society’s very recent political agenda. The Muslim Ban comes to mind. The infamous wall at the Mexican-American border comes to mind. Children in cages and separation of families comes to mind. The rampant sentiment of “go back to your country” comes to mind.

My mother, who doesn’t speak English, works at a bistro. A customer thought that she made his coffee with water instead of milk and told her to “go back to Russia.” My mother is not Russian. 

Words carry meaning. Language influences attitudes in society. The fact that extraterrestrial beings are named after immigrants serves as proof. The word alien carries negative connotations that reinforce distinctions and divisions between human beings. It perpetuates stereotypes that make it impossible for our society to progress. 

The only thing all aliens have in common is that they’re aliens. The only thing that all people have in common is that they’re people. You can’t be both. 

Xhulia Guri is a junior in the College of Literature, Science & the Arts and can be reached at xguri@umich.edu.


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