The chubby teenage girl with somewhat shapeless clothes thought “hopefully everything is all right” when the customs officer approached her on the train. How uncomfortable she felt, how embarrassed she was, how uneasy she felt in her skin, to be the only pupil out of her entire class picked to be checked by the guards. Visibly frightened, she pulled out the pastel-colored shell of something like a residence permit, hoping that everything was fine.
Yes, it was fine. But the feeling was not. And she would never again get that feeling out of her system.
Only a few years later, she was again stopped at the border as she was walking full of joy and confidence towards her loved ones. This time, it felt like a whole different world when she was picked out from a mass of travelers. This time, she pulled the deep red Swiss passport from her pants pocket, looked into the officer’s eyes with a piercing gaze, and said mischievously, if not boldly:
“Hmmm, so you probably did not expect that!”.
The officer, not knowing whether to flirt with or admonish her, waved the young lady on, but she was already long gone, with her head held high.
No, this is not a story with a happy ending.
When these events happened many years ago, the situation seemed harmless. There were no pictures of alleged masses of refugees and ISIS. And the media were not designed to evoke a clash of civilizations every time it became apparent that different groups prioritize cultural values differently. However, what was the same then, as now, was the fear of strangers and the instinct to judge people on appearances.
Today, we speak about profiling in cases where the police stop and control people because of externally perceptible characteristics such as race, religion, language, nationality or national or ethnic origin. Thus, it’s not that this person did anything suspicious. Rather, this person is only suspected because of something for which he or she is not responsible and cannot change, namely a part of his or her identity.
Quite apart from the fact that racial and ethnic profiling is not effective, it is discriminatory on the part of the state and degrading for the person concerned. But it is not only about what the police do or do not do. It’s about all of us. It’s what we think every day when we encounter refugees and migrants. It’s about what images we have in mind and how we deal with our fear of the “foreigner”. It’s about our daily racial profiling.
How often do we think, without knowing the person at stake, that he or she is an Iraqi, Syrian, Afghan, Muslim, terrorist, woman oppressor, a headscarf wearer, oppressed, disrespectful , or someone who benefits from social services? We define, categorize and pigeonhole. We always do this. We do this because we do not know such people well, we have no information about them and no experience with them.
Our prejudice is our knowledge. But how much attribution can a person endure?
We do not see people as they are but as we are, said the American author Anaïs Nin. We do not ask who these people really are or how they see themselves. We define them by our cultural conditioning and our fear. And if one wants real connect with the stranger, one has to overcome fear first. In second place comes empathy and, only at the end, knowledge of the foreign culture might help.
Now, there is also a question about how people who come to us experience our assumptions and how they actually see themselves. A person has several parts to his or her identity that characterize him/her and ultimately constitute the person as a whole. These parts may, in addition to the person’s origin, race and refugee status, include characteristics such as gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic class, religion/spirituality, intimate relationships (father, mother, brother, sister, daughter, son, husband, wife, etc.), professional role, language, moral identity, or disability.
Of course, the combination of the various elements of identity results in the personal uniqueness of every person. Some refugees were asked what parts they were least aware on a daily basis. They did not choose one of the identity-defining features such their intimate relationships or sexual orientation. They did not opt for their professional role that they often cannot exercise or their language that they cannot speak or their personal uniqueness that they cannot unfold. No, what was the least relevant for them on a daily basis was their ethnic origin or that they were refugees.
For them, it was much more relevant that they were a father, mother, daughter or sister. That they were workers or experts. That they were moral people and, finally, personally unique. They are not mainly what we attribute them primarily with refugees and foreigners. They are like us – uniquely varied. It is time, that we also see them that way.
Dr. Nora Refaeil is an attorney at law. She works as a mediator, trainer, and facilitator. This article was first published in German in “Tachles” on 27 May 2016.