I’ve been a foreigner for going on 28 years, so by far most of my life. Now, obviously, your identity changes as you grow older and also the longer you are in a place–you gradually grow to belong to that place and it rubs off on you and you rub off on it. Some places are easier than others. I’ve had many, many addresses since my childhood home and since we were chased out of Bosnia-Herzegovina with bullets flying over the river. Many of those 28 years were spent in Denmark and many of them here in the UK.
All this to say that I have a lot of experience in being the Other in one sense or another. One thing that always annoyed me was when people would be anti-refugee to my face and then add, ‘I don’t mean you. You’re alright.’ As if that made anything better?!
Nadine Dorries famously warned of a ‘tidal wave’ of immigrants from Yugoslavia in 2014 in a TV programme discussing the relaxing of immigration restrictions for Romania and Bulgaria (which initially didn’t have the same rights to freedom of movement as other EU member states). It was a mistake, and everyone can make a mistake. Especially in modern debate culture which allows no time to reflect and especially on TV where ‘dead air’ is a cardinal sin.
What’s interesting is not so much the fact that she said this as why she said it: She had just been confronted about racist rhetoric by a member of the audience who was himself Romanian. And immediately she deflected. It’s one thing to state your opinion to no one in particular and an entirely different one to say it to someone’s face. Especially if that someone doesn’t in fact look and sound like the proverbial boogeyman but is a completely normal human being.
So if the threat was Romanian, and a Romanian said, ‘Hi, I’m here, would you mind explaining that to my face’, it’s a lot harder to defend your initial position than to simply move the label of Threat to someone else — who is not present. (And who better than Yugoslavians who haven’t even been around for decades, amirite)
I’ve had so many of these episodes in my 28 years of Otherhood.
Some person: ‘Man, those refugees, all they want is to exploit our benefits system and suck us dry. They’re probably not even refugees, it’s all made up.’
Me: ‘Hi, I’m a refugee from Bosnia-Herzegovina. I don’t at all recognise what you just said, can I perhaps clear anything up for you?’
Some person, quickly and flustered: ‘Oh, I don’t mean you. I mean those other ones.’
One of ‘those other ones’: ‘Hi, I’m one of those other ones, would you mind elaborating that for me?’
Local person, quickly and flustered: ‘Oh, I don’t mean you. I mean those other ones.’
You can’t ever actually dismantle the ‘argument’ because it’s not an argument. It’s a free-floating fantasy of a threat and a villain that can be reassigned as needed and very frequently is. This can be about race, sexuality, people on benefits, anything at all that you want to hold in contempt. The contempt must be maintained regardless of any evidence to the contrary. No amount of ‘decent foreigners’ can make a dent in the fundamental contempt because they will forever be Excepctions™. All of them.
‘All the foreigners (gay people, people on benefits, etc.) that I know are good, decent people. The ones I don’t know? They’re bad. They must be, because they are the thing I dislike without the benefit of being three-dimensional human beings to me.’
I wonder whether they ever consider their contribution to creating a hostile environment for their own friends who they stubbornly see as Exceptions. If they are out there spreading and perpetuating the view that Foreigners Are Bad, and only the foreigners they personally know and have approved are alright, then the same must be true for everyone else. Since I can’t ever know everyone in any one country and I have only been ‘approved’ by a small number of people, then I am an Other for everyone else.
So if I’m walking down the street looking and sounding foreign, then anyone who dislikes foreigners and doesn’t know me personally would by this logic be justified in harassing me or attacking me or plain old discriminating against me. They don’t know that one of their comrades has vetted and approved me, do they? So how could it ever come as a surprise to them if one of their own friends is one day harassed on the street? After all, aren’t they themselves contributing to the general view that Foreigners Are Bad and adding their voice to that choir, encouraging others?
Again, this goes for any group that someone chooses to malign as a whole. ‘Foreigner’ is just an example here. I’m not strictly talking about racism, I’m talking about the mechanism of maintaining this contempt at all costs. And the disconnect between maintaining something that hurts one’s friends while telling them it’s nothing against them. It’s those other ones.