Intolerance towards ethnic minorities and the power of stories - RSA

Intolerance towards ethnic minorities and the power of stories

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  • Accessibility & inclusion
  • Communities

The kind of stories we need to be telling are those of tolerance. Stories that don’t attach bad connotations to the word ‘migrant’. Stories that don’t further scapegoat groups such as Muslims.

When the RSA’s Public Services and Communities team travelled across the country and asked people what they think are the country’s biggest problems, intolerance emerged as one of our five ‘New Giants’.

The public interest in this issue underlines why it’s so important for us to address it, especially for the children of diaspora who are made to feel like they don’t belong here nor there.

What is Intolerance?

Intolerance is the unwillingness to respect views, beliefs, or behaviour that differ from one’s own. It manifests itself in many ways, for example being intolerant of the way that someone in a different economic class behaves, the way that people dress in line with their religious beliefs, or of the ethnicity that some people belong to.

These are all things that make up a person’s identity, just like the smaller things that you can use to create your idea of self, such as the art you consume, the sports you watch, and the trends you follow.

Being intolerant of something integral to someone or a group’s identity is inexcusable, but at the same time it is also often the consequence of stories that people tell themselves to make sense of legitimate life-experiences such as economic insecurity and in-work poverty, which are often the result of institutional failure.

‘Us vs Them’ Stories

Behavioural economist Daniel Kahneman explains that humans have the tendency to interpret things in the form of stories. This is because stories are powerful. They explain how people categorise themselves and others as ‘us’ (those we favour) and ‘them’ (those we hold bias against).

An experiment where people were divided according to something as trivial as their birthday found people to show preference to those in their group and bias to those who weren’t.

The way we talk about these groups of ‘us’ and ‘them’ from within our group of friends to politics are stories. These stories reinforce the way we see the world and are effective in shaping narratives, which is why we need to be careful with what stories we tell.

These stories seep into conscious and unconscious biases and the consequences are serious, especially for those on the receiving end such as ethnic minorities.

Despite the Equality Act, minority ethnic Britons face "shocking" job discrimination according to the Guardian. There is evidence that applicants from minority ethnic backgrounds had to send 80% more applications to get a positive response than someone from a white British background. Research by Hope Not Hate also paints a picture of continued hostility towards Black Britons and South Asian Britons (particularly Pakistanis), and hardening attitudes towards Muslims.

Creating ‘Them’ through ‘Othering’

Evidence of inherent bias reinforces negative stories around migrants through ‘othering’. Othering is all about making groups seem more different then they are by creating a ‘them’ you can then contrast to ‘us’.

The category of ‘they’ that ethnic minorities get thrown into is not in the spirit of ‘integrating into the community’. It is also unsettling for many second-generation immigrants who have never even been to the country that their ancestors were born in, and all they have ever seen and known is Britain.

It is this climate that makes very relevant the work of a non-profit organisation called MEND (Muslim Engagement and Development), which actively works to tackle Islamophobia across the UK and encourages conversation around this sphere.

A report by Frontiers in Sociology has found that anti-immigrant feeling is a symptom of a deferred ethno-religious prejudice. This underlines the influence of how the conversation is framed, and the importance of issues such as national identity and culture in shaping prejudice. Or to put it another way, the findings suggest that the role of stories are more important than before.

Second Generation Immigrants and the fight for belonging

Some economic migrants have accepted that they must pay a socio-economic ‘tax’ of falling into the category of ‘they’ for trying to improve their standards of living in a country they weren’t born in. This includes explicit and implicit instances of racism, being overlooked for promotions and even things like not being chosen as a flatmate.

But as political commentator and comedian Hasan Minhaj puts it, second generation immigrants have the “audacity” to demand equality - after all, they are British.

This is where things get fuzzy and the British identity of minorities gets thrown into a bit of a crisis where it seems that being British and being an ethnic minority is mutually exclusive, when actually, you can be both at the same time - identity is fluid.

Author and analyst Raza Rumi encapsulates this: “identity, in any case, is a messy affair: shifty, shifting and eventually imagined.”

This is important to understand because the consequence of being othered is feeling like you don’t belong. This is not only demotivating for the othered party but on the extreme end, it is this very gap that radical ideology fills.

Deeyah Khan explains this point by stating that the youth will burn down its village just to feel its warmth. Extremists recruit the vulnerable young that are looking to belong somewhere to strengthen their identity. In this respect, young Muslims really need to feel at home in the West as this is what gap radical ideology fills.

Creating opportunities for everyone

Structurally, things like income and wealth inequality, economic insecurity, and political disempowerment create an environment that causes people to look for scapegoats to direct their anger. This is why the state must actively explore targeted policies to fill these gaps, such as a Basic Income to reduce economic insecurity and promote economic growth for all.

Other policies should include grassroot initiatives, for example workshops in schools that explain ethnic and religious differences.

A similar way to make space for new stories to take root is to encourage discussion about identity through the creation of art with the intention of encouraging conversation about identity and belonging. This may help address gaps for vulnerable youth. (This also fits with the work of the RSA to promote arts education.)

At the end of the day, it all boils down to what stories we tell ourselves and others about the people that are different to us. And the best way to change those stories is to start a conversation.

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  • A very powerful and insightful article, but my views are somewhat different. Mind you I do not mean in a disrespectful or argumentative way, but I feel like this information which you share eloquently is only going to inform the elite or scholars. I feel that the people that really need your interpretation of the system or the failings of the system do not want it or will not respond to it in this way. They have, I feel, become immune to people telling them what they already know, they are living it, so they are looking for people to inform them how to navigate the system and become successful as a result. You can tell a person over and over again how to bake a carrot cake, but until you give them the recipe to the cake it will never get baked. These people have lived the adverse life and have had people like yourself, politicians, clergy, and civil rights leaders standing up for them calling out the injustice, but no one gives them the recipe of conquering it and coming out on top.

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