How do internationals perceive the United States citizens’ negotiation of their multiple identities? Directing an international office at a graduate school gave me ample opportunity to hear fascinating comments made about foreign students’ perceptions of U.S. citizens. I decided to pursue their perceptions further in my doctoral research.

Humans juggle multiple identities (e.g., religious, national, ethnic, etc.), and studying how others describe their perceptions of how Americans negotiate theirs was intriguing. Following is an excerpt, used by permission, of a portion of my research findings. Read the whole account at https://amzn.to/2IPeuNw.

“Interesting patterns emerged regarding my interviewees’ perceptions of how those in the U.S. negotiated their identities. Although all of the graduates had also traveled extensively to other regions of the U.S., they tended to focus their observations on the local residents of North Texas. As aforementioned, my interviewees were members of the majority ethnic groups in their respective countries of origin but members of religious minorities. As Christians, they gained membership status in the religious majority during their stay in the U.S. but became members of an ethnic and cultural minority. This temporary inversion in status may help to highlight the processes of identity construction since their observations were extremely beneficial in exploring intercultural patterns. They addressed questions such as, how do Christians from various countries differ in their understandings and constructions of their personal identities? Do certain trends and idiosyncrasies emerge?

“In another benefit of international migration, my interviewees’ outsider views of the U.S. offered important insights and held up a mirror for national and self-evaluation. Two reflections, in particular, were the racial divide within the American church and the conflation of evangelical religious identity in the U.S. with its national identity. The international students first commented on the racial tensions they noticed in the United States. For example, one graduate raised in the multicultural context of Southeast Asia shared:

“‘One thing that surprised me more strongly than I expected was the segregation of the different ethnic groups even among the Christian community. You have the famous saying quoted by Martin Luther King Jr.: “The eleven hour of the Sunday is the most segregated hour,” right? . . . I mean, to me, as an outsider, I would imagine segregation by language is natural and more obvious. It happens. You know? For example, in [my country of origin], we do have Tamil-speaking churches, congregations, in other words. We do have Chinese-speaking congregations, English-speaking. So the segregation is because of the language, which seems more natural but not so much by ethnic groups.’

“While this graduate was accustomed to a blending of ethnicities within the same religious community in her country, her comment points to a striking difference in her American experience. In the U.S., she perceived new ethnic barriers that even one’s religious identity did not necessarily overcome. A pilot interviewee expected more assistance upon his arrival from those who shared his ethnic and cultural background. To his surprise, white individuals, with whom he shared religious but not ethnic ties, however, aided him more. He not only sensed that his presence created racial tension for Caucasians but also that this tension was relieved once they determined that he was from Africa and not the United States. He elaborated:

“‘I was disappointed though because I expected that more African American blacks to welcome me more than the brothers — Caucasians, white — but it was different. So that was a shock first. Anyway, in general, yes, I was welcomed. . . . Especially when some [instances], maybe because of the culture, because of the history of this country, in some places I will go, and people were actually, I would sense the tension between white and black. And then I began to speak, then people say, “Oh, okay, I thought you were from here.” So then when they know I’m international, then they change. So I felt that uncomfortable level of, people believed, begin to exclude me, but as soon they know I’m just a foreigner, and international who just came, that I am not an African-American, then they welcome me.’  

“Considering their racial backgrounds were primarily Euro-Caucasian or Asian, my other respondents did not refer to any mistreatment based on their racial/ethnic ties. One interviewee from India, however, did share an experience that took place after the events on 11 September 2001 in which she was singled out for her appearance. She reported that while she was wearing her salwer kameez, a woman stopped her in a store and asked if she was from Pakistan. After confirming that the student was from India, the inquirer then stated that if she had been from Pakistan, she would have had to shoot her. The graduate supposed the lady was joking but relayed to me how much that encounter frightened her. Upon sharing this experience with an American friend, she was told that it would be better for her not to wear such traditional dress. These examples illustrate the racialization of ethnic identities in the United States.

“Several interviewees also commented on how strangely they perceived conservative evangelical Christians in the U.S. conflating their national identity with their religious identity. Those that had been raised in communist contexts had always seen religion as antagonistic to the state. One comment illustrates:

“‘In [country of origin], they’re not really connected at all. That’s one thing that’s very different here. Here [in the U.S.], Christians kind of integrate their patriotic feelings with their religious feelings. In [home country], not at all. There is a very clear separation of the two, maybe because of the legacy from communism, but we feel like the government’s always going to be corrupt, no matter what we do, and we can’t expect anything good to come from the government. So a lot of us are — don’t even bother understanding it.’

“Considering the history of a particular nation and its government’s relation to religion is vital to understanding its constituents’ socialization and the formation of their religious and national identities. One respondent warned against the close identification of political views with religious ones. He noted that this tendency in American Christians gives them unrealistic hope:

“‘This kind of right-wing conservatism that so many times, evangelicals are, like, hand in hand with actual politics. … I saw that here [in the U.S.] … that kind of idealistic patriotism that “ours is a Christian nation chosen by God for this mighty task.” Christians do the same in our [home country]. . . . Ultimately, it’s the expectation that political leaders or Caesar is going to Christianize everybody. . . . Christianizing comes from the heart of an individual. . . . America is not going to be more Christian under Mitt Romney and not be less Christian under Obama, if you really want to make it this simple, because it starts with the heart of the individual. It doesn’t start with Caesar.’

“As he noted, this practice is not limited to the United States. Several of my participants observed that the tendency for individuals to conflate religious and national identities occurs in their home countries as well. As one interviewee from India described, India has several religious constituencies, and these memberships are used to vie with one another for political power. According to her report, political races could be won or lost if religion is made the issue, and she recognized the use of this tactic in both the U.S. and India.

“Identities are not cleanly segmented, and how they interrelate depends on the multiple narratives of which an individual is part. Members of a minority population can be distinguished seemingly solely by their identity as other in some social aspect. One’s historical, political, and social narratives largely determine which identities are differentiated as other. As Cresswell summarizes, ‘The close connection between place, identity, and morality creates a world that is difficult for some of those who are apparently “without place.”’ New identities emerge from each historical movement and its unique factors such as the proliferation of international migration in the last two centuries. When different aspects of identity intersect, some identities become more important within certain contexts. Thus, for my interviewees, their sense of ethnic identity and, to a lesser extent, their national identity, was highlighted because they were perceived as the other in the U.S. during their stay. Their Christian religious identity, however, was received as acceptable in this local context and was even strengthened by their theological study.”

Excerpted from Religious Identity and Cultural Negotiation. Used with permission. 

Jenny McGill
Jenny McGill (Ph.D., King's College London) works in higher education and intercultural affairs, currently serving as a university dean and teaching courses on culture, mission, and research methods. A Fulbright award recipient, she writes nonfiction for various magazines and academic journals. Her books include Religious Identity and Cultural Negotiation, The Self Examined, and Walk with Me: Learning to Love and Follow Jesus. Connect with her on Facebook or Twitter.
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