Saturday, May 27, 2017

Who am I? Societal attitude and the question of identity

How do we create our identity?
The UK has been my home for 27 years. I have always loved living here, have been part of my community and have felt totally at home and accepted. That changed a year ago when the EU referendum fuelled anti-immigration sentiment and for the very first time I felt unwelcome, anxious and insecure.

I want to explain what happens when people are marginalised and scapegoated, because even a year on I feel the effects very strongly. Of course I can only speak for myself, but I have spoken to enough EU immigrants and have observed friends from other minority groups to be fairly sure that this is a shared experience.
I expect that the simultaneous impact of the EU referendum result on 3 million people is probably a fairly unique event, but the sense of no longer (or indeed not ever) belonging into society happens to many groups of people for many reasons.

In my personal experience, when you no longer feel accepted by society as a whole, you lose your sense of belonging and security.
You may try to fight it, but how do you change society's perception of you, especially when it's fuelled by the media and political powers?
You begin to feel wary of other people, and you wonder what people really think about you - even people you have known and felt safe with for a long time.
You become more sensitive and more defensive about what people are saying and how they are saying it.
There is a temptation to withdraw and isolate yourself, because that's easier and more comfortable than managing your own feelings around other people.
So eventually you shed your old identity, and you take on a new one. Which new one? The one that you have been labelled with. First you carry that badge tentatively, then you carry it with pride.
Then you start to seek others who carry the same badge, and before you know it *they* are the people you feel safe and comfortable with.
And although you have perhaps never before felt disconnected from "everybody else", you have been pushed that way and you suddenly become it. You know longer belong, at least not in the same way you used to.

I say this because I felt so secure and assured in my life that I would never ever have imagined that anything could change how I feel. And yet it has.
If it can happen to me, it can happen to anybody.

This post is not about me. I am just using my own experience to demonstrate how we affect others.
How society perceives us matters. How we allow politicians and the media to speak about whole groups of people matters. If we allow people to be set aside and scapegoated we risk driving them away into the margins of society where they may become lost and drift away.

We seem to be increasingly wary of people who are different to us, whether it's based on ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, (dis)ability, or social standing etc. We don't like the very rich and the very poor. We accuse people who sound, look or behave differently to us of undermining our culture and way of life. We suspect whole groups of people of exploiting our system, to "just take" and not contribute to society. There is much talk about wanting people to "integrate", to be more like us and to take on the "British way of life".

I put up a different argument. I suggest that if as a society we accept and welcome people as they are, they will be much more likely to contribute to and be part of our society naturally. It's what most people are wired to do.
If we learn to draw people into the fold of our communities, rather than hold them suspiciously at arms length on the edges, we may just become a better nation.

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