Being A White Western Immigrant In The United States

I’m not most people’s idea of a “typical” immigrant. To many Americans, the word “immigrant” conjures the image of a Mexican crossing the border, or someone from Africa or Asia who is non-white and doesn’t speak English.

That’s not me. I’m white, English is my first language, and I’m treated like a regular American so long as I don’t talk too much. Although I’ve spent more than three years in the South, and my accent reflects this—y’all is a staple of my vocabulary—most people can detect that I’m from England. (Or they guess Australia or Germany first. Occasionally Canada.) This news is greeted with enthusiasm, only rivaled by the joy of finding out that I’m half Irish. “My ancestors were from Ireland!” I’ve been told many, many times.

There is a privilege to being an immigrant from countries that Americans already identify with or admire. I can call myself an “expat” or “international” if I so desire. I know that I am treated with less prejudice than some groups of bonafide Americans, but I also don’t fit in with white Americans just because of my skin color.

In fact, when I moved to North Carolina at age 21, it was the first time I had been “othered.” I got a lot of attention just for being English, and I hated it. I was asked dumb questions all the time, people would talk openly about how they couldn’t understand me, or they’d ask me to repeat things just to laugh at the pronunciations. It happened so often that I came to dislike talking to new people at all. There were very few people for whom I was just a friend, not their “British friend” or “the foreigner.”

I don’t feel like a foreigner because I’m so familiar with American culture—it was my area of study for six years, and I’ve lived in the States for the majority of my twenties. Living in the South has shaped much of my personality, outlook and manners. But as much as I don’t like being othered, or treated as some kind of token, I’ve never completely assimilated to American culture either.

It’s hard to explain the ways that I am a true Briton in America without stereotyping both countries. There are the silly, surface things about being British that are true to who I am: I drink tea all day long and I’m particular about how it’s made, I’m endlessly fascinated by the weather (yet somehow never able to dress appropriately for the temperature) and I am a Monty Python-quoting machine. The southern summers are a challenge for me as are the mosquitoes that love my pasty skin.

There are deeper ways that my country has shaped me, too. I grew up with an appreciation for books, art, dance, music and theatre, not as commodities but as a way of understanding the world. I’ve met fewer Americans who are comfortable with embracing art rather than seeing it as an elite subculture for people who don’t get sports. I don’t associate Christmas with presents, as much as attending mass with my grandmother, and eating traditional food such as mince pies. Perhaps most importantly, I am glaringly liberal by American standards, something I never gave much thought to at home.

I’ve also been changed by America, for better and for worse. I have to admit that I grew up without giving much thought to race and racial disparities. I have always been friends with people of other races, and many of my friends in England are in interracial relationships. I don’t say this in order to make a point about my own ability to accept others—this isn’t “one of my best friends is black”—but simply to express that multiculturalism was a reality for me. The more I am subject to the still-segregated culture of the South, the more I feel like a privileged white person, out of touch, even though that’s not my whole story.

That’s a dark part of my experience that I usually don’t share at dinner parties. Lest I depress any American readers, I also want to add that living here has given me a lot of confidence. America is an individualistic society, with the result that people are good at advocating for their own needs. I’ve learned a lot by watching how Americans push for what they want. I used to be extremely passive about my own desires, but I have much fewer “I couldn’t possibly do that!” moments now when it comes to finding a job, pitching an idea or working towards a goal.

Other than the liberal stuff, most of my Britishisms are not offensive to Americans. They are quirks that at worst allow people to laugh at me, and at best make people want to get to know me. I don’t face much pressure to change who I am. My whiteness/Britishness gives me a privilege in America that many other immigrants do not benefit from.

On the other hand, the perception that British and American culture are close together can mean that I’m given a harsher punishment if I misread social situations. I’ve accidentally offended people sometimes for being too critical, say about health care or wages, simply because it’s not considered inappropriate small talk in Britain. (Actually, I’m starting to believe small talk hardly exists in Britain.) But whereas someone non-English speaking might be forgiven, it’s assumed that I’m being deliberately rude.

I’m probably going to live in the United States for the rest of my life—that is, unless Sarah Palin is elected president. Sometimes I think about whether my British culture will disappear into American whiteness. I wonder if my accent, my fashion, and my beliefs will evolve into something unrecognizable from where they started. I’m getting married to a white American, and if we raise children here, I have no doubt that they will be identified as American only.

If I were black, Hispanic or Asian, likely they would be called “[Foreign Nationality] American,” but I have literally never heard “British American” used as a category of identity. It makes me appreciate why my Irish grandmother used to suggest that I might like to get married to a nice Irish boy one day: In whiteness, we lose particularities of experience or culture. Similarly, a first-generation African immigrant is swallowed into the label of African American despite the vastly different experiences, subject to all the prejudices just as I receive the privileges.

Being white is not so simple. At my green card interview, the immigration officer reviewed the results of my medical exam, after which he made a remark about how he was glad to know I was healthy, because, “With the border being so open nowadays, who knows what’s coming in.” I wondered how he treats other immigrants who are not British, and I felt guilty, like I had been asking for this collusion, for preferential treatment.

Being an immigrant is not so simple. At an earlier immigration appointment, I sat in a waiting room with a group of others while a video about starting life in America played in the background. Except for the officers, I was the only white person in the room. I don’t know if any or all of the others waiting spoke fluent English. I did know that I was likely facing the smoothest transition into life as a U.S. resident, just because of my skin color.

Jodie Free

Jodie Free

Jodie grew up near London, but has spent most of her twenties in the American South. Currently an M.F.A. candidate in Fiction at Warren Wilson College, she also holds an M.A. in Southern Studies from the University of Mississippi and a B.A. in American & English Literature from the University of East Anglia, which included a year abroad at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Jodie enjoys tea, cake, painting, running, and forcing teenagers to write poetry. She lives with her husband in Pittsburgh. Follow her on Twitter @JodieFree.
Jodie Free
%d bloggers like this: