Bringing together researchers, practitioners and policy makers working with migrants, refugees and asylum seekers in Scotland
I have a daughter. She tells me she is scared. She is scared because she does not share a skin colour with the majority of people in this country. Since she has been my daughter she has often been treated unkindly by people in authority, people on the streets, people at pass- port control – white people. We have neighbours in our street who are just kind. They always greet her, invite her to play with their children, bring sweets round for Christmas. There are others who find kindness is too much. They cross roads, heads down, avoiding eye contact, embarrassed by race.
As an academic, studying how we live with and make sense of diversity in various forms, I think about these things. I study the societies that are brought into being not by immigration but by immigration policies which build structures of unkindness and suspicion into public life. The same tide which tore through Europe in the middle of last century is rising again, shockingly so in Greece, Australia and now, sadly, Britain.
In between the discursive violence of the billboards telling people to “go back to where you came from” and the deliberate violence of a politics that tells some people they have economic value and others that they do not, are those people who have simply let themselves become like those neighbours who cross the street to avoid the discomfort of greeting a mixed race family, or move from some neighbourhoods to make sure their children go to “whiter” schools. Money seems to make us mean. It is easiest for me to characterise such casual practices of intolerance as racist and to become angry, particularly as the consequences are so heartbreakingly clear to see in those I love most. But to do so also diminishes my capacity for understanding or kindness.
Fear is a normal reaction to things people do not quite understand, to disruptions to the patterning of life, whether or not these ultimately bring tangible benefits. Consequently, there are two particular elements to the debate on immigration and hospitality I believe are significant for Scotland’s conversations about the make-up of itself as a nation. First, fear can be overcome without recourse to such casual intolerance, violence and exclusion. Hurt people will hurt people, unless there is room to overcome the fear through a little education in the practice of conflict transformation and non-violent communication. We all need this in our everyday lives. How we live with things that trouble us or suggest we might need to change or that we might need to make an effort speaks volumes. What is important is having a space for acknowledgement of fears without the knee-jerk recourse to labels of “racist” or “illegal” which immediately close down the space for working through gut-level fear and move beyond this into a place of acceptance and even openness.
Secondly, the shallow debate on immigration in the UK revolves entirely around the question of economic value. If you do not look or sound like us you are only welcome if you will bring or make us money. Figures, being disputed in the courts, have been placed on this value. But there is an investment also to be made in the currency of kindness, in what we learn when we learn to live with people who are not particularly like us, when we make a little effort of neighbourliness and friendship.
We may not all end up like Scotswomen of the Year Jean Donnachie and Noreen Real with their hospitality to asylum seekers, or like the Glasgow Girls who defended their friends from deportation. But these are the ordinary extraordinary people. We can learn from such examples of those who have overcome fear and moved into living a life of exemplary kindness, not judging people on their economic value but showing that any of us can overcome fear and live lives of enrichment learning kindness.