Us and Them

   Mar 3, 2024     4 min read

Can’t one talk about foreigners without being called a racist?

This is a surprisingly common question, especially considering that the answer to it is quite simple. Yes, it is entirely possible to talk about foreigners, asylum seekers, Muslims, or these black people… wait, no. The answer isn’t that simple. It is indeed very easy to speak about any minority group in a prejudiced way. But when we talk in a prejudiced manner about people with a different skin color or background, those prejudices are called racism.

The unfortunate reality that prejudices exist in society is a fact, and we need to be able to talk about them, and the problem people are trying to express without sounding prejudiced. How can one talk about foreigners without being called a racist?

It’s possible to talk about the problem without being prejudiced, although it’s difficult. Simply because all issues related to minority groups are sensitive and fraught with emotion. Minority groups are often in a position where they are being targeted. They are therefore particularly cautious and sensitive to any kind of criticism. Indeed, they have heard all versions of that criticism and are frankly tired of hearing the same phrases and prejudices over and over. It would therefore be very helpful if people approached the discussion with the respect that needs to be shown to people in a vulnerable position.

This is particularly true for people in politics. The responsibility that politicians need to shoulder is greater than usual because it is very easy to exploit distrust towards minority groups for political purposes - and then politicians can have a significant impact on the general discourse. Various minority groups are easy targets in the competition between us and them. It suits some politicians very well to align themselves with us against them because we are more numerous than them.

Us and them is a common way to unite people against something or someone else. When “they” are a minority group that generally cannot defend themselves, prejudiced discourse can be particularly harmful. Politicians should be aware of this, and therefore it is hard to see such discourse from politicians as anything but intentional.

But you haven’t yet answered how one can talk about foreigners without being called a racist!

Sorry, I am taking the long way around to answer this. Politicians… can’t answer the simplest questions. Unfortunately, it’s so complicated that entire books have been written about it. But it might go better if we could acknowledge that we all have prejudices. Just being aware of them can change how we approach the discussion. It’s also good to realize that prejudices themselves aren’t bad, but how we react to our prejudices can be harmful.

Prejudices are actually just a defense mechanism when it comes down to it. A defense against something we know little or poorly about. Some react cautiously while others lash out, and everything in between. These are very natural reactions that have helped the animal in us survive for hundreds of thousands of years. But lashing out can be harmful.

The fear of the unknown is a very driving force within us. The greater the fear, the more severe the reactions can be. This fear can be fueled by propaganda about the supposed danger in many ways. For example, calling tent cities a disaster, claiming that flying several national flags in front of the Parliament for weeks to protest against Icelandic authorities should not be tolerated, and subsequently calling for strengthening the police with increased powers to combat international crime - as the foreign minister has done.

Saying that “no one should be allowed to fly some national flags” (other than Icelandic is presumably meant) can very easily call people to action. There is a certain justification for the harmful manifestation of prejudice, it was after all a minister who called for this, and the words of a minister have an impact.

In the context of the question whether one can talk about foreigners without being called a racist, it must be said that the foreign minister is dancing a very narrow line dance in this regard with these remarks, because on the scale from “proceed cautiously” to “lash out”, these comments by the minister are much closer to “lash out”. Which makes the remarks more harmful than constructive. Ultimately, that is the measure of whether the discussion is racist or not, whether the discussion “lashes out” or is cautious.

When the basis of the discussion is about us and them, there’s a good chance that it will become a prejudiced discourse. Racist in cases where it concerns different origins and backgrounds of people. If people really want to avoid prejudiced rhetoric, here’s a simple piece of advice, let’s just talk about all of us. After all, we are all in this together in the end.

All attempts to create some kind of separation lay the groundwork for prejudice. This isn’t about how they are different from us - but how we are alike. Even though we don’t choose the same parties or support different sports teams, we are much more alike than we think. We love and sing and eat. We also hate alike. We hate injustice. War. Unfairness. We all hate those who want us harm, who do us harm.

And all too often we assume malice in others toward us. People who look different. People who, in reality, think exactly like us, even though they support a different team in English football.

Who do we really hate then?