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What Not to Say to New Americans

What Not to Say to New Americans

New Americans are often met with questions that either startle them or leave them feeling all the more isolated and misunderstood. These questions are generally not meant to harm; curiosity is often the main intention behind the ask. Yet, our goal should be to seek to understand without leaving behind wounds of ignorance.

The burden of educating others about what not to say to New Americans should not be one New Americans have to carry. But generously, our teammate Shadia Mbabazi took the time to share some thoughts from her own experience. Hearing her perspective is a good step in learning how to show care—in our words and actions—for our newest neighbors.

On Language

I have had so many people come up to me and say, “Your English is so good, how did you learn it so fast?” My first thought is always: “compared to what?”

It is helpful to know that Africa is a continent and that some parts of Africa were colonized by the French, British, or another European country. Because of this, there are a number of people that come to the U.S. from Africa with a well-versed knowledge of several languages, including English.

With that, others have also asked, “Do you speak African?” Africa is a continent with many countries, and therefore, with many different languages and dialects—none of which are “African.”

On Misconceptions

Unfortunately, many people have a lot of misinformation about the countries from which we come. As I am from Rwanda, much like the question asked above, I hear many things asked about my country and again, my continent, that are unfounded.

Questions like, “are the houses in your country like American houses or are they're made of mud?” or even worse, “is everyone in your country poor?”

The question, “do you have lions and tigers as pets, and do you see them on a regular?” is laughable. But it is less amusing when you are asked this as often as I am.

I’ve also been asked questions along the lines of: “There's a lady by the name of Mahoro, she lives in such and such place, do you know her and her family? They are also from Rwanda!” Put differently to help you see how this comes across, it is much like hearing this question asked to you: “There’s a man named John from Michigan, do you know him?”

I shouldn’t assume you know people just because you are all American, in the same way that you might not want to assume I know someone in Rwanda just because I am Rwandan.

On Being in America

Some of the most harmful questions aren’t just the ones born from ignorance, but from prodding about the whys and whats of having come here.

Some conversations start with the question, “Why are you here?” And I answer that I’m here for the same reason anyone else is. They then follow up with, “No, I mean why are you here in America?”

I never know how to answer this in a way that might seem sufficient for someone. In these situations, I tend to look for a familiar face and then excuse myself. So, it is helpful to know that there are immigrants from all over the world in the U.S. and they are here for many different reasons.

When I mention that I am from Rwanda, people often ask: “Oh wow, how did you survive the genocide? Are you Hutu or Tutsi? Were you there?”

What a way of making someone not want to share anything about their journey with you! This can also trigger bad memories and trauma for some people, officially making you unsafe to speak to about anything we may have actually wanted to share.

Other questions I find insensitive include: “When are you going back home?” and “Aren't you glad you are here?” These questions imply that you might not grasp what it took to get here, as well as what it takes to be here.

Life in America is not immediately easier for people who come here. In fact, it’s so unfamiliar and difficult to navigate that our expectations and hopes of moving to the land of prosperity are often disappointed.

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To those who want to be better allies to New Americans, we encourage you to take the time to learn—through books, articles, documentaries, and more—about the experiences and realities of both voluntary and forced migration. We hope these words don’t make you feel as if you need to stay silent, but instead, that they encourage you to cultivate empathy and deep listening—the first vital steps in any relationship.