Written by: Jorinde Berben
Image credit: Pexels.com
I live in a rather small town that houses a semi-large refugee center. Around town we might see them at the bus stop or in the supermarket, but they don’t really mix with the locals very much. Of course I have had inhabitants of the center in my classes before, and since I work with refugees and other immigrants on a daily basis, these people do not seem any more threatening to me than the local men and women.
I know, however, that I’m lucky in that way. Many people in my town don’t have any contact with immigrants and only see them come into their town and be different. They don’t speak the language (yet), they don’t know the customs (yet), they receive an allowance that is tax-funded (for now). And last week, one of the adolescent refugees harrassed a young Belgian girl on the bus, according to the newspaper.
This news was shared on the facebook page of my town, and followed by an outpouring of racist comments. The kind of comments that make me not only angry, but ashamed, and disheartened and incredibly sad, and… In mere seconds this turns from a single incident to the whole population of the center needing to be sent back to where they came from.
Normally I turn away from this kind of hatred, but ever since the latest Black Lives Matter protests, and the interviews I watched in the wake of it, I’ve realised that it is really our job, as white people, to speak up when other white people make these kinds of comments.
So I responded, in a nuanced and calm manner (if I say so myself). Of course my response triggered more racist comments, no surprises there, but what I also noticed was that it received far more likes than the initial commentators did. At least I wasn’t the only one in my town looking for a more open minded view, we were even in the majority. But why don’t we speak up more? Because it takes too much energy? Because we know it will not change their views? Because we kind of understand how they feel?
That might be the thing. I know that instinct to look for someone to blame. I might project it onto my parents, or my partner, or (most often) myself, but I know the feeling well. When we feel like things are changing for the worst, and we have no control over it, we look for a way out of that feeling of unease. We are really afraid of how our lives, our countries and the world in general are evolving. And you could argue that our fear is completely justified: Belgium hasn’t had a government for over a year; Covid-19 is wrecking economies and in the meantime politicians can go on pretending once again that Climate Change is not an urgent issue.
Fear is a difficult emotion to deal with. It’s paralyzing and leaves you with very few options for managing it, apart from actually facing it (and oooooh that’s so scary, for real). Anger, on the other hand, is much easier to express, and can step in to take over the wheel. I’ve talked about this unwelcome co-visitor here. But where to point your anger? Often, certain political parties will provide handy bait. They might say that migrants are ruining our social security (when in fact they use up only a small percentage of the resources), or they might say that the youngsters today don’t want to work anymore (when in fact it’s just so hard to find decent work), and so on. Obviously this is a very easy decoy to make sure they don’t catch any of the blame themselves (see me pointing at politicians here?).
We’ve seen this happen many times in history: in Nazi Germany (and before that even in the Middle Ages), Jews were branded as the common enemy. In many European countries, it is the refugees that have become black sheep. In Trump’s America it’s either the Trump supporters or the Trump haters depending on which group you ask.
These narratives are non of them complete. They are projections of an emotion that is covering up our fear. And they don’t like to be contradicted. I’m not a Trump-fan (surprise!), and the fear that I have around the effect he has on the world leads me to question or dismiss any positive news I might hear about him, such as the fact that he doens’t drink or smoke. The story in my mind goes “He probably doesn’t because he knows he couldn’t handle himself drunk”.
When I find myself vilifying one group over another (racists, or millionaires, or politicians,…), I try to see what they might be afraid of that makes them act in the way they do. Then I try to see what I’m afraid of that makes me put these people in a box.
When I’ve made it there, I try to remember that we are all just people. We all want to have meaningful lives, we all want to live safely and happily, we all want beautiful and clean environments. But most of all, we all love our family and friends. We know how to relate to others and how to empathise. We just sometimes forget because we are scared.