Micro Aggressions to Avoid with Newly Arrived Afghans
As a refugee myself, when news headlines blared the incoming wave of Afghan refugees to the US, I felt a panic of the pain of transition and displacement that these individuals were about to experience. As a Sociologist (PhD) who has extensively studied the Afghan American community, I realized there were small things that my fellow Americans may not realize could assist in easing the transition of our new neighbors. I jumped to Twitter to share my initial thoughts, but have now taken the time to share those same thoughts and a few more here as well in a more accessible format.
This is a delicate period of transition. As an Afghan American, and an academic who has studied the community, I urge you to avoid certain behaviors. These micro-aggressions can be hurtful for our new neighbors.
(What is a micro-aggression? In very simple terms it is "commonplace daily verbal, behavioral or environmental slights, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative attitudes toward stigmatized or culturally marginalized groups.")
Micro-Aggressions to Avoid with Newly Arrived Afghans
Don't call them Afghanis, Afghani is the word for the currency in Afghanistan and is utilized as a slur by other communities against Afghans. The appropriate word for someone from Afghanistan is Afghan.
Don't ask an Afghan what their tribal background is. This is not showing interest in who they are, but rather displaying your interest in labeling them into a box.
Don't assume because they are refugees, that they are uneducated. Many are professionals whose degrees & accomplishments aren’t accepted in the American system, so they have to take up working class jobs in order to care for their families.
Just because they may speak with an accent, doesn’t mean they think with one— Some assume an accent means someone is intellectually inferior. On the contrary, these individuals are bilingual & can balance multiple languages. They simply communicate in a way you’re not used to.
Don’t ask them what their political views are on America. You don’t ask a neighbor who they’re voting for, it’s the same courtesy. They’ve been through a more complex experience than you may be aware of and are focused on feeling a semblance of safety, not on trivial political questions.
Don’t ask if they’re Shia or Sunni. Assuming that the media portrayal of sectarian friction applies to them is false. Their personal experiences are much richer than that. Give them space to practice their religion however they feel comfortable. They just want to feel welcome
Don’t bring nationalism and racism into a discussion with them. They’re mourning the loss of their homes and social networks. They don’t want to hear about your political opinions. They’re not responsible for the refugee crisis.
Don’t assume one individual is representative of every Afghan & every Afghan’s experience. This is an unfair burden to carry, & would be akin to a foreigner meeting one American & assuming he represents the entire country.
Don’t expect them to immediately feel comfortable with you or trust you. The emotional toll they're experiencing is intense. Building relationships for them will take time.
Do NOT assume that a woman is oppressed because she wears hijab. This is projecting your biased viewpoint on her life experiences and personal choice. Commenting on her attire will make her feel uncomfortable, as it means you’re judging her physicality. She already feels like an outsider in a new place. Leave her be to wear whatever she wants to, however she wants to.
Do not laugh at or make fun of any attire they choose to don. Whether it be Afghan clothes, a different style of hijab, wearing hijab sometimes but not always, or not at all— respect that you don’t know everything about their cultural background. And that just like you, what they wear is what makes them feel comfortable at that time. Don’t stare and make them feel like an outsider in a place they’re just getting to know.
Do NOT expect a personal thanks from them. Their homes were destroyed, their lives at risk, and their families torn apart. Providing humanitarian aid should not be done expecting a thanks. They don’t owe you anything.
Do NOT preach your religious perspectives to them (regardless of what religion you’re from). This is awkward & uncomfortable, even if you are from the same religion. If it’s a social taboo to discuss religion with guests, the same applies here. They are preoccupied with feelings of loss, PTSD, & worries of resettlement. Give them the grace of space to not get into heavy topics or feel imposed upon.
Do NOT assume they will immediately celebrate all American holidays. This is a new culture, and they’re learning about it daily. Allow them space to decide how and when they’d like to learn more & what they want to partake in. Secondarily— remember that holidays also have a large financial investment & having lost all stability, they may not be in a position to make those financial investments.
Don’t feel a need to give them a personal crash course on America. Let them ask you questions. If there’s something you notice that would be helpful for them to know, approach someone who they are comfortable with to discuss it with them one on one in private. Do not humiliate an adult by correcting their behaviors publicly. There are cultural norms they’re learning.