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The dehumanisation of immigrants on American television

13 Jul 2017

In American film and television, immigrants are often misrepresented. Their nationality is a running joke. Their accents have become our favourite punchline. Lines that could provide depth revolve around their “funny” pronunciations. Whether it’s Gloria in Modern Family, Raj in The Big Bang Theory, or Rashid in Dear White People, they are oblivious before they are ever deemed intelligent. Though a positive example, characters like Dev’s father in Master of None become an anomaly and are often outnumbered by inaccurate depictions.

Seasons can go by where you know nothing about them. They are often strangers in the midst of complex characters – roles that are often played by people of colour. They enforce the belief that you can’t really be American unless you’re white. Which helps explain why Fresh off The Boat was well received. The show gained attention with a multidimensional Asian American cast. Something we shouldn’t just be seeing in the present day.

“Whether subconscious or not, it implies immigrants have nothing else to offer other than their nationality turned novelty”

These misrepresentations affect our social interactions. It’s the reason why people of colour get ambushed with where they are “really from” after stating the American town they grew up in. It’s why people get excited when they hear a non-American accent, and demand that the person speaks more. It’s why Americans even say “Oh, you have an accent!” Well so do you, Ashley. Saying that makes as much sense as saying “You have a nose!” Most of us have one, they just vary from person to person.

With this in mind, it’s no surprise that many, in and out of the US, are quick to Americanise themselves. It’s why first generation immigrants are sometimes embarrassed by their parent’s thick accents or broken English. They’ve been conditioned to believe that sounding American is the only normal way to speak. This rhetoric on and off the screen dehumanises the individual. Whether subconscious or not, it implies immigrants have nothing else to offer other than their nationality turned novelty. It suggests that these characters wouldn’t be worth acknowledging had they been from the United States.

“Shows should be working hard to be the solution, not more of the problem”

Writers and networks need to do better. If we are truly for diversity, we must stop creating shows that break stereotypes, while simultaneously sticking to certain monoliths. Shows should be working hard to be the solution, not more of the problem.

America is not the epicentre of all things normal. It’s clear now, more than ever, that the United States is far from perfect. To paint it as the best country in the world, while insisting that anything non-American is inherently weird, is problematic. Especially for a country where almost everyone descends from immigrants.

I say this not to bash the country. I’ve lived there for seven years, and the last five have been by choice, so it’s fair to say that I enjoy being there. Because of that, I feel much more compelled to speak on the issues that bother me, to make mine and the experience of other immigrants more pleasant. Leaving won’t help dismantle the institutionalised xenophobia that’s been embedded in American society for decades.

While no show will ever be perfect, this has happened far too often for us to just deem it a mistake. At a time where so much information is readily available at our fingertips, there’s no reason why we can not only overcome this ignorance but also create characters to portray different cultures accurately and more positively.