The Psychology of our Immigration Unease

Acknowledging our discomfort over migrants is the start of a conversation about ourselves, not an argument for immigration control.

'Her Eyes' by Ranoush on Flickr. Creative Commons Licence.
‘Her Eyes’ by Ranoush on Flickr. Creative Commons Licence.

Having complained earlier this week about The Times reposting wire copy behind their paywall, its now time to point out that some writing is worth paying for.  Despite his Toryness, I think Matthew Parris is one of the most honest and eloquent columnists writing today.

Last Saturday he returned to the subject of burkas, and other religious and cultural uniforms, making an attempt to articulate why he and other British people might find such uniforms uncomfortable:

I wonder whether it really is only the burka’s particular capacity to hide the face that nettles us.  I believe there’s something more: that we see the decision to wear a burka as an insult, however passive, to ourselves; that we take the wearing of this veil as an expression of rejection by the wearer, or her husband, of the culture and society in which they live. We think that they are trying symbolically to shut us out, to define themselves against us. We think we see the uniform of an alien grouping: a passive-aggressive shunning of the host country.

Now this isn’t fair. Many burka wearers would be wearing burkas too in the countries from which their families come. But it is a fact I cannot deny that when I walk the pavements of Whitechapel in East London and pass women in the full black veil whom I sense do not want to acknowledge or speak to me, I feel very slightly affronted. I can’t help this. To any Muslim reader who may protest that I ought not to feel like that, I must, in all sincerity, give this reply: however you think non-Muslims ought to react to the full veil, this is how we always will. You’ll have to take it as a given.

An accepted wisdom of modern sociology is that racial insult is to some degree in the eye of the individual offended, rather than the intention of the offender. If this argument cuts one way, it must cut the other too. On this page yesterday Hugo Rifkind argued that race and culture are sideshows, and it’s all about jobs and economic competition: a powerful argument that I flatly reject. Poles are taking our jobs; burka wearers aren’t. But Poles are quite popular in Britain.

If I’m right about the wearing of religious or cultural uniforms that define the adherent against — as it were — the world in which he finds himself, then this would explain the slight hostility I feel (and must immediately combat in myself) on encountering groups of Hassidim with ringleted hair, in black hats, thick spectacles and heavy black coats. What is wrong with the rest of us (I hear myself mutter) that you want to separate yourselves from us in this aggressive-looking way? I feel it a bit with nuns, too. I feel it with stud-pierced youths with spikes on their lips: “Why do you hate our world so much?” I sense myself silently asking.

Then there are the shouty crucifixes that seem to announce that the rest of us are on the wrong side of a sheep- versus-goats divide. I’ve not the slightest doubt that those orange- swathed Hare Krishna people you see on the London pavement are the most harmless creatures alive, but their uniform is telling me that they’re special, and I’m not; and I don’t react well to that. I’ve even felt this with the wearing of the Jewish skullcap in a secular, mixed and workaday environment: “Ok, but why do you need to wear that thing?” a voice within me says — to which another, fairer, one replies: “And why shouldn’t he? Must he justify to you what he puts on his head?”

Its also possible to feel the opposite. When I walk between the saris and sarwar kamises on Tooting High Street or Ealing Broadway, it makes me feel cosmopolitian, international, and worldly (although I would be lying if I said I was not similarly puzzled by Burkas). Regardless of my personal feelings, I appreciate Parris’s article because he acknowledges that we are intelligent animals, capable of introspection. We may have certain inate fears about ‘The Other’ (be they Muslims, Jews, or Hare Krishnas) but we are equally capable of some rudimentary self-psychoanalysis.  We are not slaves to our fears or our gut instincts – we can transcend them in favour of a shared humanity.

Acknowledging our discomfort over migrants is the start of a conversation about ourselves, our country, and our species. Contra to what both David Cameron and Ed Miliband seem to be saying, such feeling are not a legitimate reason to criticise immigration policy. Portraying white Britons as uniformly panicked and distrubed by the changing face of our community is patronising and simplistic, and may even legitimise the reactionary views of the Far Right.

1 thought on “The Psychology of our Immigration Unease”

  1. There is a lot of performing difference in the wearing of a burkha, or the semiotics of being a sikh – and as Guru Gobin Singh expounded these outward attires of difference become an act of defiance against authority and persecution by being visibly rebellious, proud and combative. the burkha or niqab becomes a performance object in everyday life.

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