In 2009 and 2010, colleagues from St. Louis University and I worked with the Missouri Immigrant and Refugee Advocates (MIRA) to collect data that would help them develop a “Welcoming Initiative.” They wanted to understand what U.S.-born individuals thought about immigration and immigrants, so they could do outreach that would really reach people, and ultimately, develop neighborhoods and communities that were welcoming to all residents. As I contemplate the recent protests in St. Louis (where I live), I think about what I personally learned from that research project. In this extended piece, I share some thoughts about the importance of blurring boundaries and setting up situations that are designed for us to do so.
In our work with MIRA, I was responsible for interviewing U.S.-born adults from all walks of life: individuals that identified as younger, older, upper-middle-class, working-class, high-school drop-out, college graduate, African-American, Black, White, Republican, Independent, Democrat, and everything in between. We interviewed 27 people about their everyday contact with immigrants, what they thought about current policy proposals, and what they knew about the process of gaining citizenship. We asked for their opinions on keeping the borders “opened” or “closed” and on immigrants’ contributions to society.
As I analyzed our interview transcripts, I became less interested in what people believed or said about immigrants and more interested in how they answered our questions. In the space of one interview, which usually lasted between 20 and 60 minutes, I read answers that suggested people very much respected (and liked!) their friend or colleague who was an immigrant, but they supported policies that might profile or negatively impact the life of that very same friend. Others did not even realize that they regularly interacted with people who weren’t born in the United States. For example, in an interview that I completed with someone that I knew, I asked: “What’s your contact with immigrants, monthly, weekly, daily?” He replied something like: “Not much, maybe monthly,” at which point I said: “But, wait, doesn’t your daughter go to a preschool where the director is from Mexico?” “Oh, right,” he acknowledged, “so the answer is almost daily.” In another interview, a respondent described his Chinese friends who owned a restaurant as very “hard workers.” Later in the interview, when asked to compare prior generations of immigrants with current-day migrants, he stated that the ones from the early 20th century were much more hard-working than the lazier immigrants of today.
So, what do such responses tell us, and what does this have to do with the idea of blurring boundaries?
Sociologists, such as Michèle Lamont, have long been interested in the ways that individuals create and define groups, or how we envision the boundaries between ourselves and others. Drawing from research in cognitive science, scholars like Douglas Massey (2007) have explained that our memories are incomplete, so we unconsciously rely upon short-cuts or “schemas.” Drawing on these schemas, then, which may be shaped by negative images from the media or family stories, we often assess people outside of our own group in negative terms. Some have suggested that “contact” among people who view themselves as different will improve these negative opinions we have of “different” people. (Oft-cited for this perspective is Gordon Allport, The Nature of Prejudice, 1954). But the results from our interviews suggest otherwise. Individuals who had daily or regular contact with single individuals that they respected did not immediately report more positive thinking or welcoming attitudes toward the group they thought of as “immigrants.” Instead, it appeared that when a particular immigrant became known to one of our respondents, he or she wasn’t in the perceiver’s category of “immigrant” any more. In other words, the individual moved from the immigrant schema to the friend or colleague category. This suggests that contact alone cannot improve perceptions of an ‘out-group.’
What was most striking to me was that these disjointed perspectives were expressed within a short 20-60 minute conversation! This underscores the range of unconscious biases that guide our daily choices and interactions. The question for me is: how can we blur the boundaries that we often draw to recognize and acknowledge both the differences as well as the shared experiences and identities?
I think that we must start by acknowledging that we make snap judgments about “groups” of people that are not accurate. In any group, there are a wide variety of beliefs, experiences, histories, and identities. Thinking about the recent protests that occurred after the shooting of an unarmed Black teenager in St. Louis, this means that each group under intense scrutiny here—from young Black men, to protestors, to the police—is made of individuals who have various perspectives, goals, and motivations. When we read a news story or catch a video clip online, we must remember those reports and pictures are but one slice of a situation. Whatever we are watching or reading must not define all police officers or an entire generation of young people for us. It is far more likely that within that group, around which we have drawn an unconscious ‘boundary’ because we see ‘them’ as different from ‘us,’ there is someone who thinks like us, has a mom like ours, and has similar hopes for his/her children.
Perhaps most important, we must recognize that contact with others is helpful, certainly, but not sufficient to blur these boundaries. Individuals in our study seemed to separate their immigrant friend or teacher from a more nebulous, symbolic group; they did not seem to consider that their friend or teacher was (or may have been) part of the group that they sometimes discussed as illegal, unethical, and/or undeserving of U.S. freedoms. What might this mean for the recent police shootings and protests in St. Louis? Well, if the Ferguson police department has a few Black police officers, it doesn’t mean that each member of the force then understands the Black community members that they serve. In some ways, those Black police officers may be assessed through a “friend” or “colleague” category/schema, rather than one that links them to the community being served. Likewise, if a few of the protestors have a family member in law enforcement, it doesn’t mean that they assess the local police in the same way that they assess their family; it doesn’t mean that they understand the complex task of protecting one’s right to peaceful assembly at the same time as protecting others’ property.
And, I think it means this: Because contact alone doesn’t lead to understanding, we must find additional ways to build bridges and blur boundaries. Continued conversations with people that we view as ‘different’ is one step in the right direction. Let’s challenge our own notions; every time we hear ourselves think, but “X group of people did Y,” let’s consider if we know anyone in that X group, and what would s/he think if we made some claim about that group? Let’s get off of the internet and go out into our community to meet and talk directly with others. Let’s advocate for integrated public education that not only integrates, but also challenges students to think about and with others. Rather than sharpening the (symbolic) boundaries that divide us, I challenge us all to recognize the diversity within groups, and then find ways to blur our boundaries and find common ground.