Changing the discourse on immigrants, culture, race and ethnicity among family scholars

Allison Gibbons, Ph.D., CFLE, Assistant Professor of Family and Child Studies, McNeese State University
NCFR Report
Content Area
Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
Families and Individuals in Societal Contexts
Family Law and Public Policy

Immigration into the United States (U.S.) is an on-going movement. Since 1902, the U.S. Census Bureau's figures count immigrants consistently as 10 to 13% of the population. New arrivals generate U.S.-born progeny; Child Health USA reports that 20% of all children since 2006 have at least one foreign-born parent. U.S. migration is not one-way. According to Transitions Abroad, a web-based portal, 6.6 million Americans (non-military) now live in other countries; they migrate out of the U.S. for the same reasons that foreigners migrate into the U.S. - economic and creative opportunity, adventure, learning another language or seeking cross-cultural education.

This author is a foreign-born scholar from Trinidad & Tobago in the Caribbean. I challenge the old assumptions that immigrants are a homogeneous group coming to the U.S. for economic reasons alone, fixed forever at the lower end of society. Illegal immigration must be examined differently from legal immigration. Issues of race, ethnicity and nationality need to be disentangled, starting in the halls of academia.

Universities are populated with growing percentages of foreign-born students and faculty, or close kin to immigrants who arrived after 1950. Prior to 1950, most immigrants were European. Data from the Census Bureau reveal post-1950 groups comprise more Hispanics, Asians, and Blacks from Africa and the Caribbean. There is also a constant influx of international students. The Institute of International Education reported in 2006 that there were 564,766 international students in U.S. universities with 150,000 new enrollments every year. The presence of foreign students and faculty is cited as a boon to cultural enrichment on campuses. The number of foreign-born faculty on the tenure-track is currently estimated at 20%, one-third of whom earned their degrees in the U.S. A 2005 article by Akbar Marvasti in the Journal of Economic Issues commented on the rapid demographic shift in the general population and the student faculty population. He raised the question whether academic institutions are ready for the new face of America. This is my question as well.

A Bit of History

The United States is a country of immigrants, but the negative tone about "other peoples" emerged when the native population was described by early adventurers as "savage Indians." The idea of being a dominant superior culture was embraced by the new citizens of European origin. Consequently, freed slaves were denied full citizenship and the "Indians" were shifted to the margins. Following the gains of the Civil Rights movement, new immigrants entered from the world beyond Europe, but race-defined pathology was already institutionalized based on theories of scholars such as Stanley Hall, an American psychologist who posited that "lower races" were in a state of adolescence. He claimed there was a scientific basis for race segregation, and the ensuing Immigration Restriction Act of 1924 imposed quotas on the so-called "less intelligent nations." Thomas Teo in his 2008 work on Race and Psychology saw this Act as seminal to scientific racism.

Scientific Racism in Family Life Textbooks

University instructors of "non-ethnic" backgrounds may well gloss over the cultural statements found in textbooks. Instructors examine a new text for content, readability, student-friendliness and relevance. Some may check the facts. Nevertheless, the accuracy or sensitivity of cultural statements may never be questioned. As a university instructor who comes from an "ethnic" and immigrant background, I examine a text with the additional questions in mind. My university cites global awareness among its objectives. The task is not simply an intellectual pursuit. Cultural bias in textbooks assaults the sensibilities of persons who are perceived as the inferior "other." Included among the courses that I teach are: Sexuality, Child & Adolescent Development, and Family Crises. During the past three years, I have analyzed a minimum of 50 textbooks. I seek texts that are written with cultural integrity; this covers both cultural competence and cultural sensitivity. The subject of sexuality serves as an example here. All the texts that I examined included a section on "Race and Sexuality" or "Ethnicity and Sexuality" seeking to underscore differences in sexual behavior among ethnic groups. The three groups usually highlighted are African Americans, Latinos, and Asian Americans / Pacific Islanders (the last two usually thrown into the same group). This may seem like a standard approach, but it condones stereotyping simply by singling out a select few groups. Sexual stereotyping by race blocks progressive scholarly analyses of sexual behaviors that cut across race, ethnic groups, regions and nations.

For my class on adolescence, I examined one of the texts which represented a cross-section of the cultural landscape. The authors used a case-study approach. Storytelling is a very engaging style to keep the attention of undergraduates. Yet the text falls into the cultural hierarchy trap. The authors introduce each case with a short profile. A synopsis of the introductions read like this (names have been changed): Pedro is a Latino young man whose parents came from Central America ...Paul is a young black man who is living with his mother and sister ... Joan is a Native American female who was abandoned by her father and abused by her uncles... Mary is a first-generation Asian American who is growing up in middle-class suburbia... Anne is a twin and works hard at being a girl ...Michael traces his personal journey from being an awkward young boy to self-possessed young man ... John is a college senior who conforms to expectations and longs to be a '"regular" kid. It is not difficult to tell that Anne, Michael and John are White teenagers. The authors saw no need to indicate their ethnicity or color, so ingrained is the notion of cultural hierarchy. There are two ways to correct this ignominy: either describe all the teenagers ethnically, including Anne, Michael and John (for example, John is a young man of German American heritage) or omit the ethnic descriptions altogether, and let the stories tell themselves. The change is subtle yet powerful demonstration of cultural equivalence.

Texts in multicultural counseling tend to be one dimensional in approach. Authors write from the perspective that the counselor is White and the counselees are non-White. The focus of the texts is on counseling individuals of "other" cultural backgrounds. There is little thought given to the reality that several counselors-in- training or the University students taking the class and using the text will be members of the "other" groups, and that many of their counselees will be White. A lot more effort needs to be put into preparing writers, editors, researchers and teachers to develop cultural competence and sensitivity.


Cultural equivalence is a term used in social research to ensure that concepts are not "lost in translation." The spirit of cultural equivalence is needed in family research. Many writers use phrases which refer to behavior of immigrants becoming more consistent with the dominant culture or with the "White American norm" thus reinforcing the idea of inherent deviance of non-White immigrants. Such an approach conjures up ghosts of Arthur Jensen and his dogma of bio-evolutionary inferiority. Some scholars of White ancestry cannot seem to shake that belief. On the flip side, Black American researchers are pressed into constantly defending the Black population and sometimes over-claiming behaviors as being specifically Black. This approach inadvertently supports the notion that only White Americans belong to mainstream America.

S.J. Gould in his 1996 work, The Mismeasure of Man, analyzed the role of psychologists who laid the foundation for scientific racism. Within the United States, it is almost sacrilegious to omit race as a research variable. Thomas Teo challenges the repeated singling out of the same three to five races. Teo argues that current advances in genetic analyses have shown that the variation within traditionally conceptualized races is much larger than between them, and that if race is going to be used as a variable, instead of three to five races, one should assume several thousand populations that are changing. Research hypotheses involving non-White immigrants will always be affected by questions of population validities and observer effects such as bias, contamination and cultural incompetence. Tainted conclusions make their way into textbooks. Research on race in America has its relevance; the society needs the research sector to keep tabs on racial inequities. Anthropologists will continue to contribute descriptive data on variations in groups around the world. None of this removes the responsibility of university communities to eliminate bias from scholarly work that produces or utilizes data based on race and ethnic hierarchy.

New Perspectives

The focus should shift to the many other central variables. Technology and its impact on family life is an urgent issue. All nationalities are struggling with the questions of same-sex unions. Religion cuts across all cultural barriers. The largest and most conservative wing of Episcopalians worldwide is located in Africa. Black or White religious conservatives share the same views; immigrants spread themselves across all religions. The PEW Forum on Religion & Public Life reported in 2008 that 44% of Americans have rejected the faith of their childhood. Immigrants who arrived as Roman Catholics are being drawn into fundamentalism in as many numbers as native born Catholics. The perception of who is Jewish has changed. Alysa Stanton was ordained in 2009 as the first black female Rabbi and was contracted to lead a traditional Jewish congregation in Greenville, North Carolina. Her new congregation is not Black, although, according to the San Francisco-based Institute for Jewish and Community Research, 20% of American Jewry is now non-Caucasian. There are 5.2 million Jews in the U.S. and 6 million Muslims; Middle Eastern and Arab Muslims represent the smallest subset. Most immigrant Muslims arrive from South Asia, Africa and the Caribbean with a fast growing membership of African Americans and a few Whites.

Family scholars must revive and emphasize the importance of qualitative research to generate new hypotheses. Scholars should not keep recycling old assumptions and hypotheses about immigrant families, race and ethnicity, and set out to prove them correct using miniscule quantitative statistical analyses. Early family scholars (new Ph.D.s) should be encouraged to seek teaching contracts in foreign universities. There are also many foreign-born scholars at U.S. universities. A spirited exchange of ideas about immigrants will contribute greatly to an academic climate of mutual respect. Family scholars should read outside the narrow confines of their perceived discipline or their academic comfort zone. Readings should include eminent studies on scientific racism, books on other religions, marriage practices and cultural celebrations. Textbook authors need to be aware that the instructors or students targeted as consumers of the text might have a totally different perspective based on first-hand involvement and membership in the cultural group relegated to inferior status in their scholarly discourse.