Dick Durban, Democratic Senator from Illinois, claimed Donald John Trump, the 45th President of the United States of America, made a series of inflammatory comments about immigration. The claims come from a meeting with Congress in which he called certain countries (and larger regions of the world) “shitholes.” These nations include El Salvador, Haiti and the entire continent of Africa, perhaps mistaking it as being a nation-state instead of a land with 54 countries. There were allegations of partisan framing the President, but later Republican senators claimed that the comments were “basically accurate.” Condemnations have come from government officials around the world and at the University of Redlands, there are students from countries Trump has labeled “shitholes.” These kinds of comments are something international students and people whose families are from these regions, are familiar with hearing. That’s not only hurtful, but damaging to learning from each other on campus. Hopefully Bulldogs will learn a lesson from this to be able to have better conversations about diversity on campus so as to avoid condescension and incorrect assumptions.
University of Redlands sophomore, Maxine McHunguzi is from South Africa. “What does it mean to be from a shithole country?” asked McHunguzi. “When I walk around the U.S., every block I walk around I see homelessness, which I don’t see where I’m from. Does that mean this is a shithole country?”
There’s a common view that being from such a place is in some way bad, that students and immigrants from these parts of the world need pity, are viewed as backwards. One might think all these countries need to be Westernized or Americanized to right them from their wrongful ways.
“I don’t think growing up in Africa hindered me in anyway,”Mchunguzi stated. “I came to the U.S. because I want to be a global citizen …Trump could learn a few things from what he calls shithole countries too.”
Indeed, Maxine’s role is contributing to the community on campus rather than seeking help from it.
“What have I done by coming here? I think I’ve been able to help by giving people a different perspective on things,” said Mchunguzi. “I moved around different African countries and in every place I lived in I learned so much. I’ve learned to improve myself by having diverse perspectives. By moving to these so-called ‘shitholes’ I’ve improved myself. I’m a better global citizen.”
Students from the U.S. might view themselves as being above other students from these regions. There needs to be understanding between students that there is a lot to learn from each other, regardless of what one might think. The U of R has several students who study abroad and choose to go to Africa to become more aware and stronger global citizens.
“When students here have been interested in studying abroad, they’ve come to me and asked questions and I’ve been able to give them my own perspective, so I’ve already contributed to the American society in my own special way,” Mchunguzi explained. “America is a country with a lot to learn from with amazing people, but every country has its unique qualities and that’s useful.”
Unfortunately, questions students have had about Africa and Mchunguzi background haven’t always been positive and they’ve echoed some of the sentiments made by people like Trump.
“Sometimes when I’m on this campus, I wish the people I’m surrounded by could see where I grew up so they could understand where I’m coming from.” Mchunguzi said. “For the most part, we’re on a level playing field in terms of education. We as Africans are highly underestimated.”
Going further, Maxine commented on a particularly frustrating and almost amusing sentiment, if it weren’t so uninformed and condescending.
“People ask me when I learned English…Colonialism happened. Every place I’ve lived they speak English as the main language, you can’t go anywhere without speaking English. We have only been taught in English.”
Faduma Haji (who also goes by Faith) is a Somali-American second year Johnston Student who has spent most of her life in the United States but has also lived in Somalia with family for a portion of her life. She’s able to give multiple perspectives on the comments Trump made. Faduma goes by Faith as well because she’s completely comfortable with both, she disagrees with being put in a box in terms of choosing one name or nationality.
“I love Somalia, I also love America so there’s a conflict,” said Haji. “Trump has given me and other dual-citizens an identity crisis.”
That identity crisis is made all the worst by expectations of what this country is for people in Somalia and the reality when they get here.
“There’s this image of the U.S. being a place with prosperity, where the sun never sets,” explained Haji. “But when immigrants do come here from Somalia, they’re often treated like criminals.’
Haji is very clearly condemning of Trump’s comments; however, she clearly wanted to make progress to spark productive conversations.
“There are usually two warring sides and we can’t do anything,” said Haji. “A year ago I wouldn’t have even considered his side. Now, let’s be intelligent. There are a lot of people like him. Why would he say that? It’s important to understand where people are coming from in these debates.”
Haji explained why Trump might be thinking this way and where he’s coming from.
“He’s only looking at what’s wrong in those countries,” Haji explained. “He’s not seeing what’s right, what things people have been able to create.”
Haji knows this debate inside and out because of the diversity of her own experience. Echoing similar sentiments of what Mchunguzi said, that Africa is not a single place — it’s extremely diverse in regards to the standards of living, as is the United States.
“I’m saying this because when I was living in America, I was living in the worst of the worst ghettos. But I also saw the good places in America,” shared Haji “In Somalia, I would sometimes be in the cities, but a lot of times I’d be in the rural areas, where I’d have to herd goats and camels. Once I got run over by a sheep that broke my nose.”
There’s a lot of diversity in both of Haji’s countries and she’s experienced the extremes of every place.
The difference in economic development makes the conversation break down into being sensitive or insensitive when discussing this part of the world while in the United States, what some might call being politically correct or incorrect. This is also wrong because the power of judgement is not just something for people in the U.S. to decide how to use, as all of its problems have been outlined. The measurement of a country is not just in how much stuff it has, but how well its able to function across numerous categories. In many of these respects, the U.S. is not the best at doing. The U.S. is fortunate to not have experienced a civil war in the 20th or 21st century, yet it still has a variety of issues that it seems like it should have dealt with: homelessness, extreme poverty, massive inequality, etc.
“We need to do more when describing developing countries, which is not just how these countries are in comparison to each other,” explained Haji. “There is war and famine, but there’s so much else. There is a beauty that can’t be replaced, there is so much culture, just like the United States has its culture.”
The comments Trump made had with them an appeal, a hope that a country like Norway would have its citizens immigrate to the United States. Lise Bryn is a Norwegian national who is a third year Johnston student at the U of R.
“I find what he said racist. His comments are very unlikely rooted in things that Norway does right,” stated Bryn. “We rank in the top 10 nations for well-being, along many metrics. Not that Norway’s accomplishments justify his comments in any way.”
The insinuations of race being the reason for Norway’s success are a creeping feature of these comments. What needs to be kept in mind is why Norway is actually doing so well.
“A lot of our policies are actually the opposite of what Trump is for,” explained Bryn. “Which easily demonstrates the fact that his comments are based in the perception that we’re rich white people.”
Bryn noted that Norway itself has a lot of immigrants from Eastern Europe, the Middle East and America. In Bryn’s case, her grandmother was an American from Missouri who traveled to Norway after meeting a student from Norway. In other words, assuming Norway is entirely white is also very problematic because the populace is comprised of hundreds of thousands of people from across the globe, it’s not homogeneous.
Further, Trump’s desire for Norwegian citizens to come to the United States has to put in context alongside its history.
“There was a large migration of immigrants from Norway to the U.S. in the mid-1800s because it was one of the poorest countries in Europe,” said Bryn. “At the time, America was not kind to Norwegian immigrants. There was a lot of forced cultural assimilation.”
Since that time, Norway has seen tremendous development, to the point which the United States would be lowering living standards on average for people if they were to move here. In comparison to the U.S., Norway has little poverty, crime, better work-life balance, amongst other metrics.
“Nowadays, why would people from Norway come to the United States?” asked Bryn. “People come here for very specific reasons.”
These comments have had international consequences, but they’ve also had implications for students on campus. Not only are these hurtful comments not new, but they’re often the majority opinion and Trump is simply affirming them in a public forum. Hopefully these perspectives can help us reflect on the way that we’re viewing students from all over the world and where they’re coming from, making sure not to condemn the president’s comments if they’re opinions we might already hold.
Basically the lesson is about assumption. At Redlands, we’re here to learn and not assume things about each other’s countries, lives, religions, families, genders, sexualities, races, etc.
Hollywood writer, director and producer Jerry Bilson famously said, “when you assume, you make an ass out of u and me.”
Photo contributed by Redlands Bulldog photographer, Haile West.