The "Ideal" Immigrant Worker Is A Problematic Trope — Especially For Women

“Speak up!” I told my mom recently after she called complaining about a coworker who had berated her. The coworker told my mom she didn’t know what she was doing, stopping just short of calling her dumb. It was so bad, she called my mom to offer a half-hearted apology the next day, like a schoolyard bully.
Incidents like these were building up. My mom’s company had recently been outbid and taken over. After more than two decades of work, they hacked her salary down to entry level. If that wasn’t bad enough, now she was calling her daughter on her lunch break with a tone of desperation in her voice that made me want to drive to Texas and give this bully a piece of my mind. Instead, I decided to give my own mother a pep talk. “Stand up for yourself so people don’t treat you this way,” I said.
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As I heard the words come out of my mouth, I realized, I was kind of giving this advice to myself. My mother and I are both chronic people pleasers, and it leads to situations like this all the time. If my boss wants me to work on vacation, I say yes. A coworker asks me to cover her shift, I say sure thing, my own plans be damned. Why is speaking up, pushing back, and advocating for ourselves so difficult for me and my mother? Partly because it’s not how we were raised.
Like many first and second generation Americans, my mother instilled in me the tenets she followed when she immigrated here from Hong Kong in 1972. Immigrant children from other races may recognize these adages: Work hard. Be quiet. Don’t ask for stuff. Most importantly, remember that you’re never, ever entitled to anything. You’re just lucky to be here, in this country and working at this company.
American culture romanticizes these values in immigrants. Our ideal immigrant fled a life that was harder than our first-world minds could imagine. Our ideal immigrant works hard, takes the jobs no one else wants, asks for nothing, and makes our country richer in the process — no pressure or anything. Business gurus call it “the immigrant mindset” — they tell native-born Americans to copy these “good habits.” While these traits are often true and may be noble, our “good immigrant” ideal is problematic in so many ways, and particularly for women.
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For starters, this ideal makes it hard to navigate American workplace structures, which typically reward assertiveness, competitiveness, and aggressiveness, according to a Stanford study. In other words, ask for raises, take credit for your ideas, jump on the best projects before anyone else does. When you’re not raised or expected to follow those traits, it’s going to be a struggle. “I was always taught to be thankful and not burden others,” says Jessica Hamilton, a child therapist and social worker in Houston.
Jessica, a Peruvian immigrant who, like my mother, moved to the States when she was young, also experiences tension between her cultural upbringing and her ability to assert herself. “My first year at work, they changed my position three times. Even though I was melting inside, I took it with a smile,” she told me.
Dr. Shaun Harper, the executive director of the University of Southern California’s Race and Equity Center, says that people of color deal with this problem as well. They’re often raised to value community over individual progress, which makes it hard to assimilate in the traditional American workplace where the opposite attitude usually gets an employee ahead. “People of color tend to not be all that individualistic, we think about the greater community,” Dr. Harper said. “I don’t want to be absolutist, this isn’t true for everyone. But collectivism is the cultural norm in most of our families and communities.”
In many workplaces, being individualistic is what it takes to get ahead — that includes getting raises, getting promoted, and getting the corner office. There’s evidence that people of color are paying dearly at work for being good immigrants: For example, while Asian Americans are the most likely racial group to be hired to high-tech jobs, they’re the least likely to to be promoted in those jobs, according to Harvard Business Review. Researchers hypothesize a handful of reasons for this, but the bottom line is that it’s clearly harder for some groups to not just navigate the American workplace, but also move up in it. It’s even harder when your boss and coworkers expect you to be the nice, quiet worker — not the assertive one who pushes back against, say, a massive pay cut.
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When I asked my mom about this and encouraged her to fight it, she confessed that she had never negotiated her salary before. She didn’t feel right asking for money when she “can’t even speak the language right.” My mom has an accent but speaks perfect English. Her fear of negotiating seems to be more a fear of not living up to her role as the “good immigrant,” which is basically just a stereotype. “And when people are primed with stereotypes, there's the possibility that it holds them back,” said Dr. Alice Stuhlmacher, a psychologist and researcher from DePaul University.
Researchers found this to be true with Black job applicants as well. In a series of studies, researchers Morela Hernandez and Derek R. Avery found that when Black job seekers negotiated the same salaries as their white counterparts, hiring managers reported the Black applicants as negotiating more — even though they didn’t. Worse, they unfairly perceived those Black applicants as being pushy. Hernandez and Avery concluded:
“It appears that because they expected Black job seekers to negotiate less, the evaluators had an exaggerated view of their behavior. Furthermore, the perception of having been pushier resulted in Black job seekers receiving lower starting salaries.”
When you don’t fit the ideal stereotype expected of your group, you often pay a price. “Different things keep people from speaking up,” Stuhlmacher said. She’s one of the researchers behind the stat you’ve probably heard before: when women negotiate, they’re perceived as less likable. We pay a social penalty just for speaking up, which predictably keeps a lot of us from speaking up. And why does this happen? “Women get more backlash for being assertive because some people don’t think it’s their role, so this could be true for different cultures,” Stuhlmacher said.
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We expect immigrants to work harder than everyone else, and that’s how we assign value to them. Even well-meaning people reinforce this problem. As Forbes put it in a self-help article on the benefits of adopting immigrant values: “Immigrants who come to the U.S. with nothing are successful because of hard work, humility, flexibility, family/community collaboration, and zero sense of entitlement.” As the cliché goes, when you put someone on a pedestal, you make it easy for them to fall. Do one thing wrong, and it’s a long way down.
Let me be clear: We should absolutely appreciate workers who break their backs to do excruciating work. Immigrants are 15.7 percent more likely than U.S.-born workers to work the graveyard shift, according to a report from New American Economy. They’re also 25 percent more likely to work on weekends. According to the study, most of these jobs are working class. “Immigrants on such shifts are more likely to work as janitors, entry-level agriculture workers, or construction laborers,” the study found. Of course, there’s a racial divide in working class versus white collar jobs among immigrant groups, too.
Problems arise not when we appreciate the struggle, but when we impose it on people as a baseline. When immigrants don’t work harder than everyone else, they’re perceived as less valuable, maybe even criminals. Whether you’re an immigrant, a person of color, or other ethnic or sexual minority, when you belong to a group made to feel that it’s lucky to just be here, you prepare children for that experience, too. Psychologists call it “racial socialization,” a process in which we’re raised to cope with the biases we will inevitably face in the world and in the workplace. Hernandez and Avery hypothesized that, because Black workers are raised to believe they’ll always get the short end of the stick, employers might then expect the “Black job seeker to be satisfied with what he is offered — and will respond negatively if he attempts to negotiate," which is what they found to be true. To put it bluntly, the attitude echoed here is: You should be lucky you’re getting anything at all.
Some groups just aren’t expected to rock the boat, even when rocking the boat is a signal of professional ambition. They’re expected to stay quiet and stick to their assigned role. When they veer from that role, there’s a good chance they’ll pay for it in some way. Maybe it’s a chicken and egg problem: Did my mother raise me to be obedient because it's her culture? Or is it her culture because, in America, foreign-born citizens are valued when they’re obedient? For me, it feels like both.
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