Mark B. Baer, Esq.

Empathy and Relationships

Go Back to Your Country

How are we deceiving ourselves as a result of our biases?

Posted Mar 11, 2017

When you look at the picture of the young man that is used in conjunction with this article, what thoughts come to mind, if any, with regard to his nationality?  If such thoughts didn't initially come to mind, please look at the picture and try and assess the man's nationality.

If you've somehow missed it in the news, I'd highly recommend typing the following search into the internet:  "go back to your country."

"[Last summer,] William Lee, a partner at Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr and one of the country's top intellectual property litigators, had been told to 'go back to your own country' by a man in his hometown outside Boston....

 Lee was filling his Mercedes-Benz SUV at a Wellesley gas station when a man asked how he could have such a car and then said that he wasn't welcome in the U.S.

Lee, who is ethnically Chinese but whose family has been in the country since 1948, told the man that he didn't understand.

'You mean, you don't understand English,' the man said.

'I don't understand ignorance,' Lee replied....

He's not the only one.

Cyndie Chang, managing partner of the Los Angeles office of Duane Morris and president of the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association, said that she was standing on the Capitol steps in Washington, D.C., in May when an older Caucasian man told her the same thing: Go back to your country.

Chang, whose family came to the country from China five generations ago, said that she's been hearing similar stories from others amid this year's presidential race and its aftermath, including accounts of threats of violence."

On November 11, 2016, the California Psychological Association's Board of Directors issued a statement on the Presidential Election in which it acknowledged that many of its members "have continued to work with clients who are fearful and distraught even while possibly dealing with your own feelings."

Five days later, Wayne Kao, PsyD., Diversity Chair of San Gabriel Valley Psychological Association, sent an email to the members of that organization, which stated in part as follows:  

"Regardless of your political leanings, this election, more than ever, has reminded me of our need to better understand each other's beliefs and needs. More importantly, my main concern is for public safety and our need to defend those who struggle to defend themselves. 

In the coming weeks, please be on the look out for postings regarding meetings and events addressing our role as mental health professionals in promoting community safety."

That same day, the members were invited to an open discussion titled Post-Election Reflections Collaborative Event.  The following topics were considered:

  • Impact of the election on ourselves, our clients and our community
  • Ways we can support ourselves, each other and patients who may be expressing stress, fear, family conflict, etc
  • Psychology’s role/potential contributions in this time

On February 1, 2017, the American Psychological Association issued the following statement: "Trump Administration Orders Pose Harm to Refugees, Immigrants, Academic Research and International Exchange, According to Psychologists."

Then, on March 10, 2017, the topic for the San Gabriel Valley Pschological Association's monthly luncheon was When The Political becomes Personal And The Personal Becomes Political: Panel discussion on the impact of the election. The program was moderated by Larry Brooks Ph.D. and the panel consisted of Richard LaBrie, Psy.D., Indhushree Rajan, Ph.D., and Wayne Kao, Psy.D.  It was a well-attended meeting and the panelists remained afterwards for an ongoing discussion with those of us who were interested in and able to continue the discussion. 

It became abundantly clear based upon the information conveyed by the panelists and by the psychologists in attendance that as a result of the 2016 Presidential election and what's occurred politically since the election, people are literally suffering mental health issues, the likes of which were not seen from prior elections.

During the program, among other things, they drew on distinctions by many with regard to Americans, United States citizens, and immigrants.  Apparently, in 2017, many people define "Americans" as those U.S. citizens who appear as though they are or could be direct descendants of early European settlers.

By that definition, Cyndie Chang, mentioned above, is not an American, despite the fact that her family came to the United States five generations ago.  As a frame of reference, a generation is approximately thirty years. As such, Chang's family has been in the United States for approximately 150 years. Yet, to some, she's not an American because she's of Chinese descent.

According to Merriam-Webster, American is defined as follows:

"1:  an American Indian of North America or South America

2:  a native or inhabitant of North America or South America

3:  a citizen of the U.S."

It's true that Chang isn't "an American Indian of North America or South America", but neither were the early European settlers or their descendants. Considering that she was born in the United States of America, she is native to the country and a U.S. citizen. 

Since her family came to the United States from China, is she any less American than the descendants of early European settlers? How about in comparison with decendants of European settlers who came to the United States less than 150 years ago? How about in relation to a Canadian of European descent who has since moved to the United States, obtained U.S. citizenship, and looks and sounds as though he/she could have been a descendant of the early European settlers?

According to William Lee, also mentioned above, “In the bluest of Blue States, Massachusetts, a mile from Wellesley College, if someone tells you to go back to your own country, this can happen anywhere. If this can happen to the managing partner of an Am Law 200 firm, what’s happening to the rest of the country?”

"Lee said he hadn’t heard a comment like this for 40 years. He attributes the encounter to the political environment that has encouraged hostility to immigrants.... 

'I’m concerned that if this can happen in Wellesley, it’s indicative of people having similar views, whether expressed or unexpressed,' he said. 'It’s something we have to address as a country and as lawyers. Who knows what’s going to happen? Maybe it will be better than we hope. If not, it’s important for lawyers to be heard and stand up.'"

Returning now to the picture I selected to use in conjunction with this article, it is an image of a man of Hawaiian-Polynesian descent.

Query: When Hawaii became the 50th state on August 21, 1959, did its citizens and descendants become Americans, US citizens, or immigrants?

Allow me to assist you with your answer.  

"The Hawaiian Organic Act, enacted April 30, 1900, was an Organic Act enacted by the United States Congress to establish the Territory of Hawaii and to provide a Constitution and government for the territory. The Act was in force until August 21, 1959, when the territory was admitted to the Union as a State....

The Act stated any person that was a citizen of the Republic of Hawaii on or before August 12, 1898 would also be a citizen of the United States, and any citizen of the United States that resided in the island on or after August 12, 1898 would have to live there to become a citizen of the Territory of Hawaii."

In other words, the man of Hawaiian-Polynesian descent in that picture is clearly a US citizen, unless he has moved elsewhere and reliniquished his citizenship. He also happens to be an American and he is by no means an immigrant.

Did your biases, beliefs, assumptions and values lead you to conclude that the man in the image was any less of an American or U.S. citizen than someone who appears to be of European descent? If he were told "go back to your country", where exactly might that be?

If your biases got the best of you, the good news is that empathy has been found to undermine biased perceptions.

Meanwhile, are your biases literally causing other people to suffer from mental health issues?  If so, how does that make you feel?

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