Emotional Health · Politics

Pittsburgh and the Psychology of
the Immigrant Experience

Recently, I have written that women are more likely than men to blame themselves rather than someone else for their problems. They are also more likely to view the moral universe in human terms, more readily promoting relationships as a way to solve problems. The increased tensions in recent years have been sometimes attributed to the anxiety of white males who fear they are losing their hegemony. It is true that is has been harder for people to feel economically secure, to know that they will have access to good health care and good schools and safety. But that is not the fault of any one group or segment of society. Bad policy and bad feelings hurt everyone, but in an atmosphere of fear we forget the adage that a rising tide lifts all boats.

I’m hopeful about the number of women who have been inspired to get more involved in community affairs and politics. With our greater sense of inclusiveness, our skills at relationship building and empathy, our readiness to listen as well as talk, we have much to contribute. And while women can be assertive and aggressive, we are more likely to try to find other ways of solving problems first.

Jews are legitimately sensitive about glib comparisons to the holocaust, but at the same time, the root causes were not unique. Complacency in the face of racism is dangerous. Many German Jews tried to escape, but many stayed, saying to themselves that Germany was an advanced, civilized nation and the behavior of thugs would be limited.

It took remarkably little for the standards of civilization to unravel in Germany, and their advanced skills were put to use for genocide. I think today we are witnessing a kind of unraveling. Words and actions that were unthinkable just a few years ago are now daily occurrences. Some have worried that this is becoming the “new normal,” as we constantly lower our expectations for the public discourse.

With the egregious exception of African-Americans, immigrants are people who come here by choice. They battle great difficulties to come here. They are almost always imbued with a spirit of hope, and use their strengths to better their lives, and that contributes to the health of the nation. Their family ties and ethnic identities give them support in this process. In contrast, African-Americans were stripped of all the things that others who have come here depend on: family, freedom, identity, and hope for a better future.  These are the very things that concentration camp inmates said were the most difficult to live without and endure during their incarceration. Slaves who were not murdered or worked to death experienced what psychologists call “soul murder.”

We know that our citizens and new immigrants prosper when allowed the support of family ties and cultural traditions. Not only are we now working to demonize immigrants, we are actively working against them once they are here, despite this evidence that this doesn’t make sense. Instead of celebrating differences, we want to eradicate them.

Harvard University is currently on trial for having a secret “quota” that they apply to Asian applicants, as they once had for Jewish applicants. Plaintiffs allege, “that Asian-American applicants were rated lower on personality traits than applicants of other backgrounds, made her suspect that some admissions officers were probably prejudiced against Asian-Americans.”

It seems to me that Harvard, which is famously full of “divas” who see themselves as the center of the universe, would benefit greatly by an influx of Asian culture, generally known for encouraging the benefits of the group over the individual. Are Asians being rated for “lesser” personality traits, or different traits? Or, is Harvard being racist, seeing things that are not there because of stereotypes?

Psychologists know that a healthy sense of self-worth comes from being seen and supported as the person you are, not the one someone else wants us to be. In recent years, minorities, women, the disabled, and the LBGTQ (among others) have benefited enormously from being judged by the same standards are others, and enjoying their freedoms.

In return, diverse people contribute their different skills and viewpoints helping to strengthen, not weaken, the fabric of society. You or someone in your family has probably been bullied or even persecuted for being different, and it could happen again. Don’t let this happen to others and don’t let this become the law of the land.


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  • Patricia Yarberry Allen, M.D. November 6, 2018 at 9:18 am

    Thank you Dr. Ford for this thoughtful post for midterm 2018 election day. Most polling places stay open for those who could not vote before work so there is no reason not to stand in line at the end of the day to make sure that each of us has a voice, earned with a vote.
    Dr. Pat