Stop saying “You’re racist” and start telling the truth: how to solve the polarization around migration.

by | Jul 16, 2022 | Migration | 0 comments

Article by Martino Meraviglia

Photo by Mukund Nair on Unsplash

“No one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well […]
you only leave home
when home won’t let you stay”

The beautiful poem “Home” by the British Somali poet Warsan Shire encapsulates the fundamental truth about migration that many eyes in the Global North feel unable to look at: nobody wants to leave home unless their home is rubble, disrupted by violent conflicts, political instability, corruption, and environmental degradation phenomena. People in the multi-causal condition to migrate are forced to do so when they observe the collapse of their everyday normality, of their ordinary life. Among many examples, consider the Bangladesh[1] framers that once informed of the huge economic benefits of moving in the city during infertile winters still the majority prefers to starve at home. The home is indeed such a substantial feature of our identity that when we abandon our “soul places” our self-concept is fine-tuned.

Notwithstanding the complexity of the many “migrants” legislative categories, their different backgrounds, and the economic outcomes’ analysis, the Global North public debate is intimately fueled by politicized, simplistic, and misleading narratives such as the common “victim” or “threat” characterization of migrants. Results from a survey[2] on 22.500 respondents across 6 countries clearly show a profound misconception of the volume and the characteristics of these people while truth itself seems to have lost its meaning, as would seem considering Le Pen (a French right-wing party leader) supporters that would be more likely to vote for her once her lies have been disproved in front of them.

In other words, “victim” and “threat” characterizations are more convincing than data and that’s because the former delivers a portrait that inflates the Global North’s egoistic altruism, its Savior complex, at the basis of its humanistic efforts’ façade. The latter instead levers the xenophobic dialectic of the Othering phenomenon, the ancestral tendency to separate Us from Others that manages here to negate any form of empathy towards the Other-migrant.

Both these views are intrinsically biased. The first highlights the sorrow of the migrant condition omitting positive qualities such as their average low risk-aversion at the base of the high entrepreneurial spirit that brought immigrant-founded firms[3] to account for 52% of the top 25 US firms. The second stems from preconceived stereotypes rooted in the social context creating “statistical discrimination”, which is the result of targeting some characteristics (criminality, drug dealing, …) correlated with the race or religiosity of immigrants.

All these narratives are hence influenced by the behaviour that Global North citizens employ in their social context. Conformism, stemming from our need to be loyal to our identity group to perpetuate our self-concept, strengthens our attachment to social norms that may lead to discrimination against migrants. Homophily, the tendency for people to associate with others like themselves, leads them to a segregated society where each one’s ideas are reinforced in an echo-chamber amplifying only statements we already share, thus deepening the polarization around migration. Also, our emotional needs shape our beliefs about others-migrants and since we don’t like to think of ourselves as racists we avoid information that would lead us to confront our moral ambiguities overweighting instead any piece of news, even fake, supporting our position.

Now that Frantz Fanon’s [4] claim “white is richness and black is poverty” isn’t holding anymore, we observe a new “existential precariousness[5] in which the circumstances exacerbating the white Global North poor citizens’ sense of crisis bring to these xenophobic or superiority sentiments. Telling people their position regarding migrants is wrong hence inflates violent identity responses, like the Le Pen supporters. They can’t accept to have become comparable to a used-to-be lower social class. Their prejudice and dislike of immigrants usually stem from the weakening of their self-esteem and frustration.

Therefore, what the Global North would need to do now to react to the sterile narratives would be to start telling the truth without being judgmental. Attaching labels such as “racist” isn’t a solution, as it doesn’t cancel the reasons why such racism was born and instead attacks the moral stance of a person stimulating violent identity responses. A solution could be to follow the advice psychologists give to parents: tell kids they are nice, not that they should be such, to see them behave consistently. Forcing to affirm values before exerting a judgment on the Others-migrants, might hence reduce prejudice and thus reunite such a polarized society.

[1]  “Under-investment in a Profitable Technology: The Case of Seasonal Migration in Bangladesh” by Gharad Bryan, Shyamal Chowdhury & Ahmed Mushfiq Mobarak

[2] « Immigration and Redistribution » by Alberto Alesina, Armando Miano & Stefanie Stantcheva

[3] “Immigrants founders of the 2017 Fortune 500”

[4] “THE WRETCHED OF THE EARTH” by Frantz Fanon

[5] “The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class” by Guy Standing


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