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Why we should stop calling people “aliens”

May 28, 2013

There is a well-developed body of scholarship on the racist roots of U.S. immigration laws and how the term “alien” — and, even more perniciously, “illegal alien” — has been used to define and exclude those foreign nationals who are viewed as unwelcome, whether because of race, religion, language, culture, poverty or some combination of the above…

So what does this all mean? Well, it turns out that we had already been calling foreigners aliens for centuries before we started using the word to refer to extraterrestrials. So it’s not that we think foreigners resemble Martians, it’s that we think Martians resemble foreigners. Put another way: It is not the case that, the first time we saw a foreigner, he reminded us of a Martian. Rather, when we in the English-speaking world first conceived of the possibility — or at least first started writing about the notion — that there might be Martians (green skin and all that), we imagined them to be akin to foreigners. This actually has interesting sociological implications. Could this account, for example, for why people who insist they are not racist often do so by saying something like, “I don’t care if you’re black, white, green or purple …”?

Why is it important to recognize that we appear to have named extraterrestrials after foreigners, rather than the other way around? Because it shows just how very much we fear what is different. It also suggests that until we demystify foreigners — perhaps by remembering that apart from Native Americans, we are all descendants of immigrants, i.e., foreigners, in this country — we will just, at best, find a new euphemism to name that which makes us uncomfortable.

A great article on how language is used to dehumanize others, to create a separation between groups, and to label those we are afraid of. My favorite sentence was, “The power inherent in the ability to ascribe names is real, as is the impact on the named.” Fear is a powerful feeling. Fear of others, their ideas, or their way of life can easily make us do and say things that have devastating consequences. We need to learn to be okay with that which is different from us. We also need to remember that we are different to others.

Read the full article

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