Breaking the ‘otherness’ fixation

Diversity is held at the pinnacle of much progressive thought. And yet full inclusion is far from becoming a reality. Could the normative thinking that assumes people with a migration background are different and disadvantaged be at fault?

I arrived in the Netherlands as an asylum seeker in 1988. In Iran, I had been active in a revolution that later became an Islamic revolution. I felt connected to leftist movements all over the world, and the idea of international solidarity gave me strength and hope for the future.

Photo of a Vignette from Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis. Photo by Luciana.Luciana from Flickr.

With this background I entered the Netherlands, and then everything suddenly went quiet. In the beginning, it felt as if my experiences meant nothing. I had to start all over again, learning a new language and summarising my thoughts step by step in childish sentences. At times, I felt very desperate. In those first years of uncertainty, I yearned to be able to have a conversation in Dutch on the intellectual level that I had been accustomed to in Iran. My language limitations, however, meant that this sometimes turned out completely wrong. Occasionally people were curious and would try to talk to me, but much more often they would walk away mid-conversation, leaving me in shock.

After a year, I was able to start studying anthropology at the Vrije Universiteit and gradually I worked my way into the academic world. Although this gave me a great deal of satisfaction and joy, it was quite an ordeal in the beginning. I was constantly aware of the gap between my mental and linguistic abilities. In Iran, I had not been allowed to attend university because of my political background. In the Netherlands, the feeling that I had a lot of catching up to do and that the chance to do so was now mine gave me a huge amount of energy.

A tightly wound spring

During their first year in a new country, many refugees share this experience of feeling like a tense spring that is released after years of oppression and violence. Those who are able to quickly make this energy productive can make up for a lot of lost time. I was lucky to meet people who gave me a push in the right direction, even when I did not believe in myself. It was not only due to my own efforts, but also the people around me and the spirit of the times that I arrived at where I am today. Unlike refugees arriving in the Netherlands today, I did not have to follow a civic integration course or stay in an asylum seekers centre, and neither did I have to deal with a negative discourse that sees the refugee as both a burden and a danger to society. Also unlike today, I was able to start my studies without a residence permit, which allowed me to build up a life in the Netherlands relatively quickly.

At the time, I was shocked by the image of a refugee as primarily someone who needs help and has little to offer. In retrospect, however, it was not as bad then as it is today. There were hardly any institutional restrictions in those days. I often think of the words of the Dutch former politician Ernst Hirsch Ballin: It is precisely in the space that we cannot define in rules where something meaningful happens: a moment of attention to the unique aspects of someone’s life situation, perhaps a moment of administrative and legal creativity’. Today, that kind of space that genuinely saved my life is hard to find.

After finishing my Masters in anthropology, I got a PhD position in Nijmegen. I was pleasantly surprised by the friendly and leftist atmosphere. I could not believe my luck when I got a room in a living community. As an ex-Marxist, I thought it would be special to live in a kind of commune. My expectations were high; I anticipated meeting kindred spirits who would help diminish the feeling of being different that I sometimes experienced in the Netherlands.

Photo of a Vignette from Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis
Photo by Olga Berrios from Flickr

The reality turned out to be completely different. I felt no connection in the community, and was surprised that people were not interested in my experiences as a refugee with a progressive background in their country. So, I adjusted my romantic expectations of international solidarity and kindred spirits and concentrated mainly on my academic life in the Netherlands.

And now, after 25 years of researching the experiences of refugees, I am a little closer to answering a question that has intrigued me for a long time: how is it possible that so many progressive Dutch people with good intentions about diversity do not manage to make their living and working environments more diverse?

This article was first published in Dutch on De Helling and translated into English by the Green European Journal.

Normative thinking

Research shows that without inclusive structures, any intentions and attempts to reach diversity will not lead to the necessary change in the status quo. Therefore, such attempts remain superficial and their impact is short-lived. To make a difference, it is essential to link diversity programmes with actual inclusion. And that requires a more structural approach that challenges normative thinking.

Proud Iranian and Muslim – two marchers in the London anti-Trump ban demo. Photo by Alisdare Hickson from Flickr

What is meant by normative thinking? In a democratic society such as the Netherlands, the greatest challenge is the invisibility of processes of exclusion. Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman describes our era as liquid modernity because the operation of power processes has become more invisible, more fluid. Power does not necessarily lie with people in positions of power who oppress others, but rather within the everyday images and processes that we often take for granted. All language that leads to a certain normalisation of images and ideas (referred to by Michel Foucault as discourse) ensures that its power is more subtle and invisible than before and therefore harder to stop. Thought and practice are nestled in the routine of everyday life. In academic literature, this form of power is called the power of self-evidence ­– and that is normative thinking.

An example of this is categorical thinking about migrants in the Netherlands. This categorical thinking has two components. The first is that migrants, by definition, deviate in socio-cultural terms from the Dutch norm. The second is that migrants are automatically at a socio-economic disadvantage. The result of this thinking is a strong fixation on cultural differences and on disadvantages or deficiencies when it comes to the qualities of migrants and refugees. This fixation on their otherness and their disadvantages is so persistent that these images are hardly ever questioned. The power of normative thinking is that migrants always fall outside the norm, even when they do their best to become part of the norm. This mechanism has been formed contextually and historically, and it is therefore internalised rather than imposed. Think, for example, of the harsh language about migrants that was absolutely inappropriate in the 1980s but is today accepted even by centrist political parties.

The current negative and hierarchical approach to migrants stems from categorical thinking that particularly emphasises their otherness: people who live in the country but do not really belong. Even when the discourse on migrants was less negative, they were still seen as a problem category: vulnerable people requiring the help of the welfare state.

Diversity as a moral imperative

This approach to migrants is not unique to the Netherlands. According to researchers Evangelina Holvino and Annette Kamp, the diversity approach in Northern European welfare states has mainly been aimed at helping ethnically vulnerable groups since the 1990s. As a result, the diversity issue became primarily a moral duty of the state, in contrast for example to the United States, where more attention is paid to the added value of migrants. Although the US approach has its own limitations, this comparison shows how a concept can be interpreted completely differently in various contexts. According to research, it is precisely the specific context of the welfare state that contributes to the image of migrants as needing help and deviating from the norm. As a result, migrants are continuously being treated in terms of their alleged shortcomings and rarely about their qualities and strengths.

Photo by Deutschhilde via Wikimedia Commons

When this fixation on disadvantage is normalised, it often serves to explain the lack of diversity in various bodies. The problem is then not attributed to exclusionary structures, but to the people from these migrant groups who are not yet ready. The supposed solutions often involve helping these people to become more competent (read: more like the norm) rather than interventions to make the structures more inclusive. Meanwhile, generations of migrants and refugees are constantly being reminded of their otherness. The result is a paradox: they must adapt, but they will always be different. Many attempts at diversity are thus doomed to fail. Inequality in positions and distance between groups is growing, without any explicit intention to exclude migrants and refugees. Some organisations even claim that they are doing everything they can to become more diverse. But good intentions do not lead to inclusiveness if the normalised images (both individual and collective) are not also brought into question.

What is needed is a different approach – in fact, a reversal. Being inclusive means actually creating space for diversity by questioning the dominant normative thinking and daring to disrupt the normative images. To this end, it is important to invest in the spaces between the worlds that are, for various reasons, far apart. Inspired by the work of Hannah Arendt, I have previously called this in-between space. But what are the conditions for such in-between space? The volatility of our late-modern age is accompanied by impatience. The art lies therefore in creating moments of delay, so that interactions and stories stand a better chance of being seen and heard. The temporary suspension of judgement, of being right, is another important step in intercultural dialogue. This creates a common in-between space that is empty of judgement, making it possible to listen to the other from their perspective. The primacy of the I position makes contact with the other impossible, especially when the assumptions about the other are loaded and negative.

But communal in-between spaces are also daring. These spaces create a safe environment for minorities to disrupt, and also for people in positions of influence or from privileged backgrounds to be receptive enough to allow this disruption.

The task of politicians is on the one hand to connect with the diversity of life worlds in society, and on the other hand to create the framework for a truly inclusive society and thus to counteract polarisation. The Black Lives Matter movement has put this task even more strongly on the political and social agendas.

Only then will people with a migration or refugee background be allowed not only to participate in various forums, but also to do so from their own perspectives and experiences, which are often different from those of people without a migration background. Consider, for example, how the mobility of many generations of migrants and the survival experience of many refugees can make various social, institutional, and organisational bodies more vital.

A clear example of this mobility is the increase in the number of children of migrants who have received higher education despite having parents with low literacy levels. Despite this special form of social advancement, this group is mainly approached from the perspective of their otherness as lack. They do, of course, deviate from the norm because their cultural and socio-economic background is different from the privileged group that is usually considered the norm. Their perceived disadvantage is part of their story, and allowing different voices to be heard is precisely what is needed. This point deserves recognition. It is possible to give the dreams of these social climbers a real chance, but only if they are approached from the perspective of their mobility and not from their disadvantage.

Freedom of mind in exile

For people who consider themselves progressives, another valuable insight for questioning their way of thinking was provided by the headline of an interview with writer Anil Ramdas in Humanist: Uprooting is liberating. These words contain a beautiful description of what the Palestinian-American literary scholar Edward Said calls intellectual exile. An exile must constantly translate between different contexts, and therefore has a dual perspective. Nothing is fixed, and nothing is in isolation. Because of their state of in-betweenness, exiles are potentially able to withdraw from the power of self-evidence or normative thinking. Said uses the in-betweenness of exiles as a metaphor for progressive thinkers who do not want to conform to the status quo. They are the bearers and guardians of the free spirit, because, like exiles, they reject entrenched patterns (visible and less visible and therefore internalised). These free spirits, as it were, never want to be fully integrated. But for the exiles as well as for the dissidents, this freedom of mind is a potential that can only be made productive when someone reflects on the normalised power structures and images that influence them daily – often unconsciously – and shape their actions.

Photo by Montecruz Foto from Flickr

The choice of taking distance from the dominant normative thinking means being able to go beyond good intentions in order to actually invest in inclusive spaces and relationships. This requires embracing otherness and, in doing so, continually disrupting the dichotomisation of otherness in one’s own life and in one’s own organisations. People with good intentions often think they are doing the right thing, so they do not feel the need to reflect on their lens or approach. But ultimately, good intentions are insufficient and can even stand in the way of real inclusion if people do not question the hierarchical relationship to weaker groups. This results in the reproduction rather than the challenging of normative thinking. Only by disrupting normative thinking is it possible to be inclusive and to get closer to people who are distant from our lives and frames of reference.

By connecting different worlds and by converging people’s horizons, various minority groups can be given a dignified and equal place where their presence and contribution can play a meaningful role. The ideal then becomes not only to help the other, but also to help ourselves to look and see beyond our immediate surroundings.

This article was first published in Dutch on De Helling and translated into English by the Green European Journal.

Published 10 May 2021
Original in Dutch
First published by De Helling (Dutch version); Green European Journal (English version)

© Halleh Ghorashi / De Helling / Green European Journal / Eurozine



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