Deciding What's "Foreign" and "Exotic"

October 15th, 2010 · 6 Comments · Uncategorized

By Tracy Dingmann

What exactly is a “foreigner?”

And what kind of name is “exotic?”

I’m left pondering those questions – and wondering who gets to decide the answers – after reading the story headlined, “7 Foreigners Charged With Medicare Fraud,” in the Oct. 14 Albuquerque Journal.

Here’s the lead:

“Seven individuals with exotic sounding names from countries of the former Soviet Union – Armenia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Russia — have been charged in New Mexico with committing over $2 million in Medicare fraud as part of an Armenian-American organized crime enterprise.”

What’s “Foreign?”

First, let’s examine the use of the word “foreigner” in the headline.  Technically, the paper’s usage of it here is absolutely correct. These folks ARE from countries outside the U.S., so they are, in fact,  “foreign” to this country.

But “foreigner” is a somewhat outdated word, with seriously negative connotations. I’m wondering- was the use of it in this headline meant to inspire fear of some kind of alien crime wave victimizing the rest of us presumably law-abiding, tax-paying Americans?

I’m not saying the people in this case aren’t really bad guys who apparently did really bad things.

But there are ways to talk about this case without injecting the “foreign” element in the headline.

No Other Papers Used That Word

Lots of other papers carried this story on Oct. 13 –  and no others I saw used the word “foreigners” in the headline.

Here’s the way the Los Angeles Times handled it:  “52 Arrested In Sweeping Medicare Fraud Case.” (Querulous journalistic note: Since when it is okay to start a headline with a numeral? That goes for both the Journal and the Times headlines.)

Apparently for the Journal, though, being a “foreign” criminal is so much worse than being a regular criminal that it is mandatory that it be put in the headline.

I’m raising this issue because I believe words matter. Americans have enough free-floating anxiety right now about “foreigners” coming to take their stuff. Perhaps a more thoughtful newspaper editor would have refrained from making that loaded word part of the headline.

What’s “Exotic?”

Second, let’s puzzle out the notion of “exotic sounding” names.

I’ll let Journal Watch reader Kara McArthur tackle this one. In a comment to Journal Watch, she calls the phrase a needless “slur” and writes:

“Exotic-sounding names” sounds like something you’d find in a small-town American newspaper in the 1950s, not in a 21st-century newspaper in a city that aspires to international relevance.”

McArthur continues:

“Who is to say what is an exotic name and what is not? Is Hartranft an exotic name? How about Linthicum? Uyttebrouck? Romo? Sanchez?”

She makes a good point (all the names she lists are those of staff writers at the Journal).

And Who Gets to Decide?

So is Smith okay? Johnson? Grossman? Khan? Perez? Does it depend on who is writing or editing the story? Or to some notion of a homogenized society in general?

Remember, this is America – most of us came from “foreign” countries at some point in time.

Armenians, for that matter, have been in America for hundreds of years, writes McArthur:

“I can’t believe that the Journal doesn’t recognize that Armenians and other immigrants have always been part of our American story (there was an Armenian among Jamestown’s early settlers).”

Remember, America is and always has been a nation of immigrants.

So who gets to decide what’s “exotic” or “foreign” now?


6 Comments so far ↓

  • claus

    You are not alone in believing that words matter. They do!
    How we express ourselves influences how we think, and in a more subtle way influences those whom we converse with.
    A newspaper should not promote a monocultural viewpoint.

  • Arthur Alpert

    I don’t know, Tracy, you sound very squishy. Today, it’s foreigners moving in on a domestic industry (Medicare fraud) and tomorrow, who knows what they will impose on us?
    If we’re not careful, Americans will suffer through the nine week annual vacations common in Western Europe. Health security, too. And better health..
    If we don’t resist now, we’ll could be condemned to longer lives!
    I say “Good going, Albuquerque Journal” and keep an eye on them “foreigners” – they’re out to undermine our very way of life.
    Arthur Alpert
    PS Besides, you can never have too many scapegoats.

  • Lily Ribeiro

    I couldn’t even believe this when I first read it. I thought you had inserted the exotic sounding names part to make a point. That sounds ridiculous and not at all professionally written.

  • Roland Penttila

    I love Journal Watch. I have to take your word what the Journal prints, BECAUSE I CANCELLED MY SUBSCRIPTION LONG AGO for just this and many other reasons. For the same reasons, I never watch Fox News. Keep up the good work.

    Exotic Named supporter

  • Tracy Dingmann

    Thank you so much!!

  • Tracy Dingmann

    Thank you, Claus! I can’t believe we even have to have this discussion, in this day and age. No wonder newspapers are dying.

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