Alienation and Xenophobia in Europe: Where Do We Go From Here?

Many of the arguments that are dominating politics today seem to be discussed as extremes – a middle ground is almost never considered or is sometimes even dismissed as being unobtainable.  I believe that this is the common theme among the readings assigned for this week and could quite possibly be a solution to many of the issues being discussed around the world today. The readings make you wonder: it is that a middle ground is truly impossible, or is it our own limited thinking that is preventing us from obtaining it? Furthermore, it could be argued that it is from this tendency to look at issues as black-or-white that we are seeing a political shift and an influx of populist movements which, some argue, are threatening democracy as we know it today. I think that the driving force behind these polarizing issues, when really boiled down, is a lack of empathy and a willingness to put yourself in someone else’s shoes – regardless if you like or agree with the other person or culture.

For example, think of the refugee crisis and rise of anti-immigration protests. When this is being discussed, many people fail to remember and visualize that these are real people who are being bombed and driven from their homes. In the instance of Black Pete, many people who expressed outrage over anti-Black Pete protests failed to think for a moment how a person of color might feel and instead were hyper focused on what they perceived as an attack on their culture as a whole. In the instance of homelessness, someone may see a person on the side of the road and easily reduce them down to a good-for-nothing bum and walk by, instead of thinking of the culmination of instances and experiences that may have pushed that person to be in this situation (childhood abuse, lack of resources for mental health and substance abuse issues, etc).

The Black Pete reading resonated with me as I am biracial with a predominately black family, and I found myself offended and extremely saddened by the responses from the Dutch in regards to the anti-Black Pete protests (the author describes it as like taking a dose of undiluted poison and I have to agree). But, I made myself imagine the viewpoint of the Dutch and how Black Pete and has been embedded in their culture – thus their national identity – even though I don’t agree with what they are saying. It saddened me as well that so many people claimed it was an attack by immigrants on Dutch culture, while almost forgetting that not everyone born and raised in the Netherlands is white. There are some Dutch people who might be offended and feel rejected by their own culture! This made me question if there could be a middle ground that would appease both sides of the debate. Could it be possible to keep Black Pete, but instead of having him portrayed offensively as a white person in black face with exaggerated lips and idiotic mannerisms, maybe he could be portrayed, in the media and in-person during parades and other celebrations, as a person with soot on his cheeks? Black Pete wouldn’t have to be erased from the culture but would be portrayed in a way that is less offensive and objectifying and also more true to the original story (for he is apparently only black because he is covered in soot).

Finding a common middle ground is so important if we want to be able to co-exist peacefully. I know that there are some who do not want to co-exist (racists, xenophobes – but that is another problem altogether, unfortunately). The argument over Black Pete could be compared to virtually any other majority versus minority struggle as the underlying psychology remains the same. Empathy and the ability to truly listen and compromise (instead of alienating ourselves and sticking our heads in the sand) is the key to many of the issues we are facing today and might be the solution to some of the troubling populist movements we have seen. I don’t claim to have all of the answers, but approaching disagreements from a common ground and attempting to see the common humanity among all groups of people from all walks of life seems to be a good start.

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