The first time I was made to feel like an outsider was at the age of 20 – by a throwaway remark from someone I had considered a friend. “Oh, I don’t like Jews” was what she said and those five little words hit me like a body blow. It was so unexpected, and it made me feel vulnerable. Vulnerable to what I’m not sure and, whilst I didn’t feel like I was about to be physically hurt, forget that old adage about sticks and stones; words can and do wound. I cannot today remember her name or even what she looked like, but I remember her words.
Whilst this was the first time someone had blatantly said something ‘ist’ to me, before that I had already experienced the uncomfortable feelings of otherness that every teenager goes through. Being Jewish didn’t help my quest to fit in – no Friday night excursions for me, and I won’t even start to go into what happened in the RE lessons at my Catholic school (suffice to say there was a nun on a mission of conversion). But these feelings were about my yearning for belonging – not about someone else shutting the door in my face.
And for someone to be shutting that door on the basis of one word that I didn’t totally identify with is the root of the problem. My being Jewish is a part of me to be sure, but no more important a part of me than my gender, than my nationality, my sexuality, my interests, my dreams, in fact the whole sum of my experiences! I can’t splice myself into pieces just to please others.
But for some people – this bit player in my identity puts me firmly in the box they’ve allocated to me, along with all manner of preconceptions and stereotypes. And we all do this to an extent; when we meet someone we neatly try to slot them into some pre-allocated segmentation. And at the same time, we also then gravitate towards those that seem most like us, most like a part of our ‘tribe’.
Because in essence we are tribal. Whether we’re genetically programmed to be, or have evolved to be, or learnt to be – I’ll leave that discussion to the nature/ nurture, chicken and egg brigade. Essentially, we gravitate to those that are like us. Think of any new group setting, first day at college, a wedding or conference and you can see tribalism in action. When we come in independently and we’re on the lookout for a welcome and recognition, then we look out for that person who most resembles us. Whether on grounds of gender, faith, style, background (public schools boys can spot each other at 100 paces!) – we find each other.
And although in most cases this isn’t really a problem, the problems happen when one tribe believes that they are better than the other tribe. Then we start to see that group as the ‘other’ as somehow threatening or lesser than us.
Migrants today are being blamed for all of our woes. Can’t get a house? Blame the migrants. Can’t get a job? Must be the migrants. Traffic jams? It’s those pesky migrants again. Fungal foot infection?? Ok so I made that last one up, but I actually wouldn’t be surprised to see it in the headlines of a certain paper that shall remain nameless!
And at the moment, there is a growing sense of outrage that ‘our’ tribe is under attack, that our tribe’s values are being diluted, that we need to protect our tribe from those evil, scrounging tribes from over there in otherland, Ug.
But what exactly is our tribe? Notwithstanding the fact that we all (yes all of us) are descended from some otherland (think Romans, Normans, Angles, Saxons, Jutes etc, etc.) – migration to and from this country is a long standing and established British tradition. We now even seem to be trying to subdivide our British tribe to devolved maps of yore.
Membership of any given tribe is not written in stone. We are all members of multiple tribal groupings. Our national tribe, our gender tribe, our family tribe, our hobby tribe, our team tribe to name but a very few. And every day, we become tribal brethren in those shared situations that can be as fleeting as being on a train that’s delayed. The camaraderie of looks of woe and joint sighs, makes us for the duration of the delay part of yet another tribe. It’s shifting and it’s fluid and that’s what gives me hope.
Throughout our history we have thrived and prospered due to the input of diverse communities of migrants to Britain. The Britain we have today would not be recognised by people of 100 years ago, and nor would the Britain of that period be recognisable to people from 100 years before then and so on. With the benefit of hindsight, we can now see how much these changes have been for the better. And in 100 years’ time, we will feel the same again. And it is the ability of any tribe to welcome new people who bring with them new ideas, new ways of doing things, innovations and inventions that make the tribe stronger. And we all know what happened to those tribes that didn’t!