Can you name a stereotype that has a negative influence on public debate? What are its consequences?
I keep thinking about an article I read recently on the Project Syndicate website. The headline was “Migration is Development” and the author, Peter Sutherland, an Irishman who also happens to be a chairman of Goldman Sachs International and the former director general of the WTO, argued that “there is no greater symbol of the world’s growing interdependence than the movement of people. If we can make meaningful economic progress in the coming generations, one of the pivotal reasons will be that people are allowed to move more freely. Advanced countries, with their adverse demographic trends, need migrants, as do developing countries – not only for migrants’ economic contributions, but also for the social and cultural diversity that they bring.”
Sutherland is well known for advocating liberal immigration policies and mass immigration into the European Union. As a result of his many far-out opinion pieces, some of the most prominent European policymakers and pundits now consider him a foolish contrarian. In these times of economic crisis, the political instinct has been about capping immigration and keeping foreigners at bay. Several right-wing nationalist parties have flourished in Europe since the start of the financial crisis, because globalization and offshore outsourcing, coupled with record unemployment, have resulted in the anti-immigrant rhetoric making sense to a lot more people. These days, is anyone even surprised that Marine Le Pen emerged from the 2012 French presidential elections with 17.9% of the vote? Or that Geert Wilders’ PVV party has become such a force in the Dutch House of Representatives?
Xenophobia is defined as “an unreasonable fear of foreigners or strangers, or of that which is foreign or strange.” And so many of the xenophobic parties are doing well in Europe precisely because they have succeeded in defining foreigners (especially non-white foreigners) as strange. The stereotypical depiction, often by elected officials and government ministers, of foreigners as strange people looking for asylum and handouts has exacerbated social tensions and led to the ostracizing of many hard-working, law-abiding foreigners who chose Europe as their adopted homeland. As a French citizen myself, I feel it every time I am in Europe, I hear it when I walk the European streets, and obviously I read about it all over the European news media.
In February of 2012, Business Insider (another website I have become obsessed with) published a list of the 20 cities that may be the most xenophobic in Europe. Using data from the EU’s “Perception Survey on Quality of Life in European Cities,” the results were based on interviews with 500 randomly selected citizens in 75 cities across Europe. In total, more than 37,500 interviews were conducted. The main question was whether the presence of foreigners was good for the city. Lo and behold, the denizens of Nicosia and Athens were the ones who most strongly disagreed with the presence of foreigners!
So what is my point here? I write about these transcultural issues all the time, but my point is that instead of understanding, as Sutherland has, that immigration is both inevitable and desirable in our globalized economies, many European citizens and companies continue to cling to the false notion that strange, foreign-born immigrants are the ones who are taking their jobs and eating their lunch. Fear is the driver, and I was not surprised, when I first analyzed the Business Insider list of cities, that those Cypriots and Greeks who admit to fearing foreigners are often the very ones who are underperforming on various economic levels and relying on the IMF and foreign nations in the European Union for bailout money.
Take the point of view of a Chinese, Brazilian or Nigerian. Now look at a European. What do you see?
There are more children born in Nigeria every year than in the entire European Union. The exact demographic math might be fuzzy down in the paper-stacking registries of the West African republic, but that much we know. So what does that say about those six or seven million Nigerian children who are born in Africa’s most populous country each year? When they grow up, are they destined to rot in decaying academic institutions before getting involved in 419-type organized financial crime schemes? Or will they, like the main character in the Nollywood comedy “Usuofia in London,” choose to swap village life for the bright lights of London and the glamour of modern European lifestyles?
Although the main character in Kingsley Ogoro’s Nigerian blockbuster is obviously fictional, many African immigrants can relate to the ways in which Nigerian villager Usuofia manages to navigate – and sometimes circumvent – the mazes and contradictions in metropolitan European life. Usuofia is visiting London for the first time because he is attempting to gain his share of an inheritance from a recently deceased relative who was able to marry a white British woman. His trial and tribulations – not to mention his epic battles with British bureaucracy – say a lot about the minor apprehensions and dashed expectations that come with that kind of immediate culture clash.
The Nigerian commoner comes to Europe because Europe is where the money is supposed to be, but once he gets there he realizes that freedom comes at a price, that the simple life and traditional African values are not so bad after all, and that when transposed into certain European contexts the spirit of African improvisation can be turned into a powerful tool for creative problem-solving. The Nigerians I know are some of the most resourceful people in the world, and the stunning economic progress they are making as a nation attests to their resilience and incredible un-European creativity in these troubled times.