Last year, the president’s July 14 tweet to four Democratic congresswomen and American citizens of color advised them to “go back” to where they “originally came from.” Until late in his 2016 campaign, Trump persisted in publicizing the unfounded theory that President Barack Obama was born in Kenya rather than in the United States. Casting political opponents and people with whom he disagrees as foreign invaders rather than American citizens is a tactic Trump has repeatedly invoked.
What was new this time was Jiang’s response. “Sir, why are you saying that to me specifically?” she asked. In posing a question back to Trump, she encapsulated a perfect in-the-moment retort to allegations that you or your group does not belong in the United States.
When individuals feel that their American status is called into question, their knee-jerk response is often to explicitly prove or exaggerate their American identity. When important aspects of our identities are met with suspicion, it’s natural to defend ourselves by presenting evidence proving who we really are. But there is another way.
Former presidential candidate Andrew Yang offered such advice to Asian Americans recently in the Washington Post. In the face of xenophobia and racism during COVID-19, Yang wrote, Asian Americans should “embrace and show our American-ness in ways we never have before.” We observed similar patterns of response to Trump’s tweet last summer. Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota responded, “As members of Congress, the only country we swear an oath to is the United States.” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York had a similar response: “The country I ‘come from,’ [and] the country we all swear to, is the United States.” Barack Obama eventually provided his birth certificate to prove his American identity. These responses reveal a deep-seated instinct to defend ourselves against doubters and demonstrate that we belong.
But based on scientific evidence that we have found over the past 15 years, these kinds of reactions to racist rhetoric can unintentionally reinforce the problem, creating a double bind for targets of xenophobia. In contrast, Jiang’s response sidesteps these issues by highlighting the racism of the comment rather than trying to counter it with evidence of American identity.
Reacting by asserting one’s American identity in response to xenophobia tends to strengthen a narrow definition of what it means to be American. In one of our behavioral experiments, Asian American and white college students were approached by a white experimenter to fill out a questionnaire. Before being given the questionnaire, the experimenter asked half of them, “Do you speak English?” while the other half received no such question. The questionnaire then asked them to write down 1980s TV shows, a form of American cultural knowledge. Participants who were Asian American but not white and were asked, “Do you speak English?,” spent more time recalling the 1980s TV shows. In another study, Asian Americans were given a menu and asked to make a food selection. But prior to receiving the menu, some participants were told by a white experimenter that they “have to be an American to be in this study.” These participants subsequently chose more stereotypically American foods from the menu, such as hamburgers and hot dogs.
When Asian Americans choose to eat hamburgers or define themselves by the number of American TV shows they can recall, they are reinforcing a narrow definition of what it means to be American. Identity assertion typically involves conforming to conventional tropes, whether that means eating cheeseburgers or watching “The Golden Girls.” In the short term, these actions might help people seem less foreign. But in the long term, they can inadvertently reinforce that narrow definition of being “American,” when in reality American identity encapsulates a diverse range of experiences and cultures. Those narrow tropes, in turn, fuel racism and xenophobia toward anyone who falls outside the lines, contributing to a cycle of oppression.
If asserting one’s American identity isn’t the solution, what is?
Jiang showed us all how to respond in the moment. Asking a question put the burden on Trump to examine and explain his statement. While Trump cut the press conference short after an ineffective attempt to avoid responding by calling on a different reporter, the power of posing a question reaches beyond the person to whom it is addressed. Jiang’s question drew attention to the statement for those who may have missed it. Questioning a racist comment leaves observers pondering answers to that question.
Questioning may also be a more effective method of persuasion at times than engaging in direct conflict, and it can be easier in the moment for people of color, increasing the likelihood that people will be able to use this technique.
Jiang’s simple query rings louder than Trump’s response and the subsequent unraveling of the May 11 press conference. As we work to reduce the prevalence of discrimination and embrace a more nuanced and diverse national identity, the power of putting the burden back on the speaker to answer for themselves can propel us further than patriotic declarations or proof of citizenship.