Am I a xenophobe? Being a progressive Christian student today.

August 23rd, 2013 1:40 pm

‘We are all racists’. This was one of the most startling phrases that has remained with me after the WSCF –Europe’s conference on Xenophobia and Migration in Velletri, Italy. This was an interfaith event that WSCF-Europe organised in cooperation with the European Inter-Faith Youth Network of Religions for Peace (EIYN-RfP) This idea that I as a moderate, young and modern Christian could be a racist in anyway is unsettling and probably unbelievable for me and probably for several other young students like me. But there is some bitter truth in that matter.

The word ‘xenophobia’ comes from the Greek work ‘Xenon’ meaning ‘the other’ and ‘phobia’ meaning fear. This word captures the essence of racism which lies in the fear of things that are different from us or the ‘other’.  Sociologists have long been arguing that we create ourselves, our identities and our thinking based on the ‘other’. We think in relational terms. This becomes quite clear if we start to question where our identities come from – why do we call ourselves Christians, men or women, gay or straight, black or white? It partly comes from the idea that if we are a man we are by default not a woman, if we are white we are by default not black, if we are Italian we are probably not French or British and so on. Academics point out that our lived experiences ‘fill’ these identities to make it seem like they are natural and real (Butler, 1993, Connell, 2005 Anderson, 2006). W­­­e define ourselves as French or Italians or British by eating certain food, living in a certain country, dressing a certain way and just more generally accepting a certain social model of thinking and behaving. That is where the problem begins.

When we start to think and fill our identities with certain ‘realities’ like calling ourselves ‘men’, ‘British’, ‘middle class’ etc – we also start creating the ‘other’ – all the people who are not British, not men nor middle class. We also think and act out our identities through what we say, think and consume. This is what one of the pioneering feminist Simone de Beauvoir wrote about that ‘One is not born a woman but becomes one’ (Butler, 1993). Of course there are biological differences but these are always exaggerated by our socially constructed identities. It is de Beauvoir’s idea of ‘becoming’ something and someone that also creates the other who is different from us. If we try to expand this argument, everything we do is an attempt to create and justify our constructed identities. The ‘outsider’ who is considered to be different from us has to be kept at a distance or else they could attack our constructed identity. The ‘other’ becomes a threat.  To give a very practical example, there is an over emphasis in England that the stereotype of the ‘Polish plumber’ is somehow different to the ‘British man’ because they eat different food, drink different drinks and speak another language. Keeping the Polish man away from the idea of the ‘British man’ not only defines who a British man is but also defines the Polish man. This simplistic example can help shed light on some of the very complex social constructions that occur in our societies everyday. The British man is justified in thinking that the Polish man is different from him and is the ‘other’. Any attempt of the Polish man to also, for example, drink tea, speak English, eat ‘English’ food etc. threatens the English man’s construction of himself. If the Polish man can also do exactly the same thing, then who or what is the British man?

Xenophobia stems from the attempts to defend our own created identities whilst ‘othering’ contrasting identities that threaten ours. Our identities are so vulnerable that we ourselves do not really believe them and have to keep trying to physically live them out. If a ‘French woman’ was to move to Slovakia and speak Slovak and start living and thinking using a Slovakian frame of life – does she still remain French? What does she do to remain ‘French’? It is much easier to think of ourselves as being either one or the other and then think of the other people as fitting into one category too. It is much harder to see that we are all the same.

This is also what happens with Christianity. We are so obsessed at defining what our religion is and creating symbology around it to fill our religious identity, that we also create the ‘other’. The idea of having cermeonies and inventing ‘traditions’ give meaning to what belong to a church or a community.  Religious leaders in the Church have very often used the language of threat – threat from other religions, from secular society, for minority groups etc. In today’s society, to define ourselves as Christian means that we define ourselves as not being Muslims or if we were to define ourselves as Catholic would suggest that we are probably not openly gay. Of course these identities are very useful for political and personal reasons. And it is easier to think of ourselves as only and exclusively Christians. But we also need to look beyond that. There is not that much that separates a Muslim girl form a Catholic man. Yes, they may wear different clothes and pray in slightly different ways but these are constructions of a religious society. Of course there are some biological differences between the two, but these are often exaggerated. What is also a construction is the over exoticising of the Muslim girl for her colourful headscarf, her prayer rituals or her language. This is what a lot of us modern, young, Christians struggle with. It is easier to see people as ‘others’ or as part of a community but still remote. The more challenging part is to think about everyone, including ourselves, as living out in several constructed boxes or identities that overlap.

The WSCF and EIYN-RfP conference on Xenophobia and Migration was a starting point for students across Europe to think about the issues of xenophobia in their personal lives and in society. This was an interfaith event where Jewish, Muslim and Christian students and religious leaders were invited to disuses and reflect about the topics. The conference was divided using three thematic areas of Identity and Community, Practical Solidarity, and finally the Practical Consequences and Action Plan. The WSCF Europe region is committed to carry on the inspiring work that began at this conference through ground level political action.

One of the important things that we as members of the WSCF realized after this conference was that when we start to critically think about our faith, identities and our lives, we realize how much binds us as students and young people around Europe, rather than separates us. The title of this conference ‘Who is my neighbour’ not only allowed us to think about who our neighbour was but it also challenged me to think about where we draw our boundaries and at which point does a person become our neighbor or not.

This article is not a call to drop all our identities, no. Rather it is asking for something more radical. Can we critically question our identities and try to discover the fluidity which our constructed boxes try to restrict. Beyond that, can we try to live out this fluidity and build a community? Identities are to be celebrated and traditions are to be practiced, but should we not always be aware of when tradition becomes dogma? Take a moment to think about where you draw the lines to your identities and start defining  the ‘other’. The only way to understand ‘who my neighbour is’, is by beginning to think about where our neighbors and neighborhoods begin and why.

References:

Anderson, B. 2006, Imagined Communities: reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism. London : Verso

Butler, J, 1993, Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex. London: Routledge

Connell, R. W. 2005, Masculinities.  Cambridge: Polity Press.

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