By Ciaran O’Brien
British society is facing a challenging time. Many years from now politicians and historians will still be discussing Britain’s decision to leave the European Union, which for many was an emotive response to frustrations over immigration, a perceived loss of self-governance and for some, an appetite to reclaim our past standing in the world.
Concern over economic growth, rising poverty and the decisions of bureaucrats in Brussels has spiralled into the scapegoating of migrants, repudiation of refugees and increase in hate crime towards many communities across the country.
We do not yet know what the real effect of Brexit will be
As new economic ‘relationships’ are formed (and predictably, some are lost), the need for intercultural awareness and sensitivity will be essential. It would be foolish to believe that all of our European neighbours will continue to extend a warm hand of friendship once we walk away from the relative comfort of the EU veil.
Rise in racial incidents
Aside from economic uncertainty, Brexit has already had an effect on the streets of Britain. Almost immediately there were reports of increases in racist, Islamophobic, anti-Semitic and even homophobic incidents.
Whilst it is true that the urging of the police and other authorities to people to report hate crime and what they perceive as hate crime would have resulted in an inevitable statistical increase, Brexit certainly emboldened many to become more visceral, both verbally and physically, in their negative feelings towards those they perceive as ‘different’.
The role of the media
The media, in its increased use of divisive language during the EU Referendum, and the proliferation of far-right rhetoric on social media, certainly played a key role in this. Indeed, following Theresa May’s call for a General Election in June 2017, some British newspapers were already speaking about Tory “Blue Murder” and the Prime Minister’s intention to “Crush the Saboteurs”. It looks like we’re in for a long ride.
The challenges of a cohesive society
Many of those of us who either live or work in diverse communities will understand the importance of overcoming differences between us and learning more about each other. Doing so is fraught with challenges and sensitivities. Many barriers can stop effective bridge building taking place including the preconceptions we hold about others, the lack of understanding we have of others’ beliefs and behaviours, and negative prior experiences we may have had (for example, if we have been a victim of racist abuse or perceive we have been discriminated against on the basis of our race, gender, faith etc).
It’s not easy, and yet how else we will live in a cohesive society if we do not try?
The role of interculturalists
This is where many interculturalists and those working in diverse communities at a grassroots level come into play. There is a wealth of intercultural and interfaith understanding out there, and there are many opportunities through different events and initiatives to share this.
However, in light of the concerns discussed earlier, it is only natural that many communities become more fearful and feel increasingly alienated, and so there is a huge risk that opportunities to build solidarity with others are missed. These fears and frustrations can manifest themselves as distrust and heightened sensitivities of cultural appropriation and white fragility, very justified and very real issues, and yet these can also become barriers to better relations.
Indeed, people from all communities struggle in knowing what to do or what to say without offending others, and so this often deters them from trying. Attempting to reassure others that you are not a racist, are not a terrorist, do not hate migrants, do not believe the far-right rhetoric etc is tiring and is simply not adequate in addressing these fears. So how do we move forward?
Well cultural sharing is essential in being able to develop trust, engage in effective dialogue and build bridges between different communities. This, especially for intercultural trainers and those involved in grassroots community work, will usually involve sharing, studying and discussing elements of other cultures or faiths that are different to their own. Doing so is essential in enabling people to learn more about others, discover what they have in common and reconcile differences.
Is sharing really caring?
Regrettably, the very act of sharing others’ cultures and faiths can be a barrier for some from marginalised communities, particularly when this sharing is viewed as cultural appropriation. Choosing and adopting elements of another culture is a very real phenomenon, often distorting or losing the meaning behind them, and is usually seen as disrespectful by members of the originating culture. There are many instances of this in society and concern should rightly be expressed when these occur. However, there is a very fine line between cultural appropriation and appreciation, and we must be careful not to heighten this concern to a level where we view it as wrong for anyone to share or engage in aspects of another culture.
Immediately shutting down the good intentions of those attempting to bring communities together is divisive, and let’s face it, exactly what our ‘friends’ on the far-right are seeking to achieve!
Answer me this…
If a Caucasian person discusses an African philosophy, is it wrong or inappropriate for them to do so? Should only a Black person do so? Or a Black person specifically from the country in which the philosophy originated? What if they are a Caucasian African?
The concept that the traditions, beliefs and practices of cultures cannot be discussed, examined or shared by people from a different culture is bizarre, in direct contrast to centuries of migration and cultural adaptation, and contrary to the inevitable cultural amalgamation that globalisation brings. Cultural appreciation is not negative, nor does it harm or denigrate other cultures, but instead it demonstrates admiration and respect for other cultures, helping to foster more effective dialogue and stronger relationships between us.
So what do we need to do?
For communities to overcome the challenges that society is facing today, we must listen to each other with humility, make a commitment for ongoing engagement, be willing to bridge our cultural and religious divides, and have a desire to tolerate our own discomfort with sensitive issues such as white privilege. If not for ourselves then for our children and grandchildren, we must find a way to move forward and not step back in time. Embrace each other and appreciate our diversity. As William Sloane Coffin Jr, an American clergyman and peace activist proclaimed, “Diversity may be the hardest thing for a society to live with, and perhaps the most dangerous thing for a society to be without.”
SIETAR UK recognises these challenges and is now endeavouring to do more with relevance to community level engagement. If you are interested in this and would like to get involved in some way, please contact the Director of Community Development, Ciaran O’Brien, at firstname.lastname@example.org or link up online at LinkedIn.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in articles on this site are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of SIETAR UK.