What’s in a name? A lot.
When I first visited the UK in 2008, I was shocked to hear British people referring to anyone not UK-born as foreigners. I heard frequent references in the news to foreign countries. Listening more attentively, I could tell foreigners didn’t really extend to Canadians, Americans, or Australians. It became evident the term foreigners was used only for non-whites and/or non-English speakers who had come to the UK.
It’s a cultural norm; it’s also racist. Using the word foreign creates an Us-versus-Them mentality: “You don’t look like us or sound like us, so you can’t be one of us.”
The problem is that the word has two meanings: one means “from another place” while the other means “strange or abnormal.” A speaker can intend the first meaning (and will always insist that’s what they meant), while the listener hears the second meaning. When a word is so loaded and harmful, I argue it shouldn’t be used.
Great Britain is a little island; to say the entire rest of the world is foreign is laughable and also perhaps a carryover from its colonial past.
When Rom joined me in Canada, I reviewed terminology with him: We follow international news. The local universities have international students.
With recent events in world news, I am checking my language to ensure it’s not merely accurate, but kind. You have probably heard about author Neil Gaiman’s solution:
I was reading a book (about interjections, oddly enough) yesterday which included the phrase “In these days of political correctness…” talking about no longer making jokes that denigrated people for their culture or for the colour of their skin. And I thought, “That’s not actually anything to do with ‘political correctness’. That’s just treating other people with respect.” Which made me oddly happy. I started imagining a world in which we replaced the phrase “politically correct” wherever we could with “treating other people with respect”, and it made me smile. You should try it. It’s peculiarly enlightening. I know what you’re thinking now. You’re thinking “Oh my god, that’s treating other people with respect gone mad!” (Neil Gaiman, February 2013)
So I started thinking about how I can ensure my own language is respectful, and maybe give other people a nudge if I can do so respectfully. The language and culture in some areas are changing quickly. Most of us use the terms newcomer and new Canadian for anyone who has settled here recently. However, I hear a lot of people (personally, or in the media) confuse refugees and immigrants. Here is how they are defined by the Canadian government:
Refugees are people who have fled their countries because of a well-founded fear of persecution, and who are therefore unable to return home. Many refugees come from war-torn countries and have seen or experienced unthinkable horrors. A refugee is different from an immigrant, in that an immigrant is a person who chooses to settle permanently in another country. Refugees are forced to flee. Canada resettles refugees to save lives and to provide stability to those fleeing persecution who have no hope of relief.
Meanwhile, if someone has emigrated to Canada, they have met all the conditions of the immigration system. Both immigrants and refugees are legally entitled to live and work in Canada. If someone “disagrees with” immigration, they are usually disagreeing with the current government approach to immigration, or to the quotas. But they often show their disagreement by criticizing the immigrants and refugees themselves.
Most of us know that immigrants are usually brought in to deal with labour shortages, and that refugees usually start with low-skill jobs unwanted by others. For example, in my area, no one wants jobs on overnight cleaning crews, or picking apples and strawberries. They are low-paying physical labour. No one wants their kids doing those jobs, either. So, they are most often filled by newcomers. Then the locals complain that foreigners are taking our jobs, that is, the ones we didn’t apply for and the business owners had to advertise in Mexico and the Philippines.
Sometimes people draw sweeping conclusions based on anecdotes or their own situations.
A mother and her grown daughter visit my library daily. The daughter recently graduated with a diploma in digital animation, a very popular program for which there are few local job openings. The mom showed me an article in the newspaper in which a recent refugee was offered an animation job. It was intended as a feel-good story showing that the refugee had in-demand skills and could make a living soon after arriving in Canada. She pointed at the article and said, “No wonder my daughter can’t find work, when they are coming over here and taking all the jobs!” I gently asked if her daughter had known about or applied for the job in question (which was located several hours away) and she conceded, “Well, no, but still!”
So here is a family blaming their economic and employment woes on refugees! It’s a slippery slope.
There is so much misinformation. Three or four years ago, a story made the rounds of Facebook, saying that refugees received twice as much in monthly living support as “our own seniors.” This was patently false. Refugees who are not privately sponsored receive a one-time amount of $1700 (in my province) for settling up a household, and someone had twisted this to state that refugees were given $1700/month indefinitely. I called my local immigrant settlement association about that one!
The next words that irk me are a legal term: illegal alien. Yes, that is a legal term, so there are a few contexts in which it can be used. But to treat people with respect, we can use undocumented worker. This one is unambiguous for me. Either we refer to someone as a human being, who is in the country without the right ID to stay and get a job, or we are referring to them as an instance of a legal issue. To me, a person is a person, with a life and a story, and there may be a route to a happy ending. Of course, it is an issue of race, culture and class. No one would call William and Kate illegal aliens if they overstayed their visa on a vacation island on their next world tour. It’s rare that anyone reports their neighbour’s nanny from the Dominican, either – as long as the worker has utility, and “knows their place ” (i.e., works long hours and is paid cash), they remain in the underground economy.
I’ll leave off by writing a bit about names. I have a difficult last name that I always have to spell. It sounds like another word and I am always expected to laugh when people say it. Let’s say my name was Boyard and everyone said, “Oh, like Chef Boyardee, ha ha!” It is one of those kinds of names. Everyone asks me where it comes from. I don’t mind chatting about it when there’s time for a conversation. As a consequence, I really feel for people whose names aren’t Anglophone. Please read this recent account of someone’s experience giving their name in a restaurant. I’m sure you know, too, that job applicants with “difficult” or ethic names are often skipped over, for reasons of overt racism or the employer’s awkwardness in making that first phone call. A follow-up to that research is here; if you read all the way through, there are oddities in the methodology. Chloe Washington – really?
Almost 40,000 refugees from Syria have been settled in Canada in the past 15 months. The one Syrian refugee family I know are grateful to be safe in Canada, but they are also keenly aware of what they left behind (not just in geography, but in time, because they literally can’t go back to what they knew). I fear they will be referred to as “the refugees” forever. I have henceforth vowed to refer to them by their names – the Azmeh family (pseudonym). I will not try to coerce Fadwa to “just let us call you Fay because it’s easier.”
I invite you to show kindness by using names and words that are not divisive.