Fear of The Other: Dealing with my own Xenophobia as a Liberal
I don’t go around bashing migrants, but I still have to face up to my prejudices
I have a confession, one I think many Europeans have to own up to. I have felt scared of mass migration to the west.
I know that is wrong. I’ve been horrified at myself for reacting with anger to images and videos of millions of people moving north and west. My underlying prejudice repulsed me.
How could I, a liberal, remainer, pro-immigration, and a descendant of immigrants, possibly feel such awful emotions towards human beings?
It was tempting to deny that I had felt such things at all. To my shame, I was happy being an armchair critic of other cultures. I felt disgust at the oppression and suffering Libyans, Moroccans, Iranian, Afghani and Sub-Saharan people. I also know, on a more economic level, that immigration benefits the west enormously. Surely I was just feeling the fear that the right wing propaganda wanted me to. Right? Right?
It was interesting to ask myself what actually frightened me. I wouldn’t call it racism so much as extreme cultural xenophobia. If I thought these migrants were Christians, Buddhists, Jewish, Hindus, Athiests or social progressives, would I feel differently? Probably. If I had felt that they had ‘modern' attitudes to women, gay or Jewish people, I probably would be less cruel in my thinking.
Which, again, is still completely wrong.
People don’t deserve oppression, suffering, hunger and economic hardship for their culture or ideology. If they are willing to risk their lives to leave, they are probably challenging the cultural norm anyway. And you aren’t born with culture or faith. Guilt by heritage is a Nazi ideology.
The way you think about non-muslims, gay people and women can, and does, change.
These people can change their prejudices and deeply held beliefs, as we in the west did not so very long ago. Even then, it is disgusting to think someone’s nationality and heritage means they all feel the same way about the world. Am I identical to every British female in my thinking? No. That would be silly.
Then why, knowing all of this, was I still uneasy at the sight of migrant camps and boats? They deserve to live and prosper. They are my equals. They are coming to work and contribute, not to take. What was it then? The sheer numbers? Fear of a changing world? A different Europe to the one I knew and loved?
The little xenophobe in my head leapt up and down. Why are they all men? I kicked the thought down with my anthropology boots. Obviously, culturally, the men are the breadwinners and want to establish a life here before bringing their wives over. And children. Don’t be so judgemental. So there will be even more of them? Said the xenophobe. I am fine with that, I told myself. A Pakistani man sat grinning broadly to a camera, talking to a reporter about how he had heard people got free homes and school in the west and left his village. Again, why am I entitled to this, but in my head, they are not? Don’t they deserve safety? Freedom? Housing? Love?
But I was still very aware that the xenophobe in me was still there, however logically silenced.
That all changed (thank goodness) while visiting Germany in the summer of 2016.
I was in a small town in rural Westphalia, and was constantly aware of just how many hijabs there were. Just a year before, this was an all white town of old wealthy Germans. Now there was probably a 50% North African, Pakistani and Afghani population. This clearly unsettled many of the older people there. They looked angrily at the niqabs and Urdu speakers in a way that only resembled sheer resentment. Why are you here, why are you here, why?
It was unsettling and deeply unpleasant, but not enough to shake off my deep set prejudices. Until I was crossing the road with my sister when a woman in an abaya walked into the road without looking at the lights. Big, big faux pas.
A red faced German woman marched in front of her, shouting in her face. Why did you do that, you stupid woman? You are in Germany now, act like a German! Obey our rules! You’re not in the desert now!
I heard it in German but understood every word. The woman looked confused, scared, clearly not understanding a word. My sister and mother turned to me. What did she say? What did that mean?
And it hit me. My mother or sister, could be that woman. They didn’t understand the language. They were in a foreign country. They looked different to the blonde blue eyed natives. This woman wasn’t an antagonist, just an outsider. It takes time to learn the rules. It takes time to know what is rude or allowed.
Being new isn’t wrong. It’s the being different bit that grates. It threatens social cohesion. Happily, that can and does change. The new become third generationers and passionate handball fans. They go to uni and snicker in English or German about the lecturers. They fall in love with freckly second years and break up in house parties. They discover chips by the pier and Beyonce. They become. It takes time, but they become.
So I’m not scared anymore.
But I will have to keep challenging my racism and xenophobia.