Often when talking about migration people will raise the question of integration, and perhaps make claims that a group is ‘not fitting in’. This is often based on a model of ‘unilinear assimilation’, where at one end of the scale is the outsider and at the other end is the perfect citizen. When you set up a scale to measure how well a person fits into your ideal vision of society you are effectively arranging a threshold for who can be considered a valued human being. Across history this scale has had different markers attached to it, and different ideas about the extent to which a person can move across this scale.
An essentialist approach might be to argue that someone’s birth determines the extent to which they can move around this scale. This is built on the idea that our qualities are unchangeable and determined by universal truths or typologies. This essentialist approach is easiest to understand in the context of racial segregation, where different regimes have determined that someone’s body must have certain features to be considered a legitimate citizen. One example of this is the ‘Brown Paper Bag Test’, a cruel but widespread way of determining someone’s position in society based on whether their skin was lighter than a paper bag. Failing the test would mean being excluded from schools, social clubs, and all sorts of opportunities. Today we see parallels in how certain politicians argue that “people with Muslim heritage can never fit in to our society” or that first generation immigrants will never be “true Danes”.
Another approach to this scale suggests that people can be elevated through the scale by receiving education, cultural knowledge, and other forms of ‘enlightenment’. This approach has a worrying history in Western society because of its relationship with forms of colonialism and genocide. In the United States, Canada, and Australia there was a long history of taking children with indigenous, First Nations, Native, or Aboriginal heritage and attempting to ‘civilise’ them by kidnapping them from their families, isolating them from their cultural heritage, and imposing ‘enlightened’ Western values through education, punishment, and even attempting to ‘fix’ their bodies through skin-bleaching and dress codes. There has always been a strong link between regimes which promote assimilation and active attempts to control, stigmatise, or erase culture. Many modern-day citizenship tests still carry this philosophical heritage.
It is very rare that when people discuss integration they talk making an environment more inclusive, instead they tend to attach all the blame to the person that needs to be ‘fixed’ or ‘corrected’ to a set of nonsense criteria. We can promote inclusivity through social initiatives that develop dialogue or providing spaces where we can celebrate differences. There should never be pressure put on an individual to abandon their identity and heritage if they are going to be accepted in a space. Instead of talking about integration (in the sense of assimilation), we should talk about being a welcoming space that acknowledges and supports differences and attempts to build bridges rather than homogenise.
By Simon Fern
Image: Hennessy/Creative Commons