So what is it that makes people think this way about people from other cultures coming to Europe? Why is it that even ‘the good people’ have such prejudice towards the people who seek asylum and don’t even realize it? My first impulse was to believe that it is western arrogance. Resulting from our history, in which we were colonial powers and forced capitalism on other continents, we view ourselves as more successful, civilized, educated, and secular than other people. This is what in Anthropology we call ‘Social Darwinism’; the belief that there is a linear evolution of culture – in the same way there is a linear evolution of biology – and that Europe is the most progressed in this evolution. The theory was developed in the 19th century and has been discredited in the social sciences since the early 20th century. And yet, from what I see around me, it is still deeply anchored in the minds of Europeans. We believe that other cultures – especially the Middle Eastern ones – are ‘still’ religious and conservative and therefore less educated. Compared to our success in capitalism, we perceive them as poor and underdeveloped.
But the people who volunteer or work in this field are usually very educated in exactly the social sciences that challenge beliefs like this one. So Social Darwinism and the resulting western arrogance don’t fully explain the behavior of people who want to support asylum seeking people. Or is it possible that this education is even part of the problem? In my six years of university education studying different social sciences, I have been confronted with my privileges as a white European day in, day out. Of course, learning about other cultures and my own privileges strongly challenged the western arrogance inside of me. But I don’t think that any amount of education can eliminate core beliefs that we were taught our entire childhoods. This education also created a huge amount of white guilt in me. So now I have western arrogance and white guilt coexisting inside of me.
Putting a layer of white guilt on top of our inherent Social Darwinism seems like the perfect recipe for white saviorism.
When asked where the narrative of the poor refugee comes from – besides the lack of education that results from and reproduces western arrogance – Abode mentions the media as the “main birth source and long life of this narrative.” What do we see when we follow mainstream media representations of the Middle East? War, extremist religious groups, oppressed women, poverty. But this is far from everything there is. As we learned from the interview with Pepper and Varun, not all people coming from the Middle East are poor, uneducated, and religious. But these are the things the media shows us because it is what catches our attention.
This media representation of the countries most asylum seekers in Europe come from reinforces white guilt and western arrogance equally. We see people acting in the name of religion and we generalize what we see across the whole Middle East, equalizing religion with lack of education and conservatism. On the other hand, we see people fleeing, suffering, and poor and we feel even more guilty for the wealth and freedom we have.
Realizing this has led me to questioning my own motivation to work with asylum seekers. Am I actually a ‘good person’ who genuinely wants to help others, or am I working in this field to prove to myself that I’m not the problem, that I don’t have western arrogance in me? Am I only trying to release myself from the guilt? And is the narrative of the poor refugee really the same as white saviorism? In this case, the narrative of the poor refugee would be the motivation for people to work in this field in the first place. In Abode’s opinion this seems to be the case for many people.
To go back to the supposition that started all of my reflections on this topic: there are two kinds of typical thinking about people coming to Europe from other places. One group sees them as a threat to their safety and privileges. The other one is empathetic and wants to help them. The members of both groups usually act on a deeply anchored western arrogance, which is the result of one hundred years of Social Darwinism and media representation. The difference between the groups is that the members of the latter group have a layer of white guilt on top of their western arrogance – resulting from education and media representation. This causes them to think of people who seek asylum as uneducated, poor, vulnerable, and in need of our help. So, while the anti-immigrants group acts on a ‘dangerous refugee’ narrative’, the pro-immigrants group acts on a ‘poor refugee’ narrative.
However, my further research showed me that there is more to it; that there is an actual scientific theory around the narrative of the poor refugee that compliments hypotheses in this article. Read the next article in this series to learn more about it!!!
- The names of the informants have been changed to nicknames, chosen by themselves.