Overheard: Contested Spaces

by nick foretek | 8.2.18

"Building 1"  // Photograph by Trevor Gowan


couple overheard speaking at a South London party on July 10, 2018:

Mark:  …and you have the Rees-Mogg editorial followed by Johnson’s resignation.

Nadiya: I’m not interested.

Mark:  In my opinion or in Brexit shenanigans more broadly?

Nadiya:  I care about your opinion.  I just refuse to devote time or emotional energy to a country whose own choices have made it clear they don’t respect foreigners and, at base, has spent the past two years arguing over a policy predicated on a xenophobic view of the world.

Mark: Did not know you felt that strongly.

Nadiya: I do.

Mark:  But you’re overstating it.  Obviously, not all people are raging xenophobes in Britain.  It’s a country that’s been good to both of us.  The Foreign Office did give you a scholarship to come here, after all…

Nadiya: I don’t owe Britain anything.  The Foreign Office gave seventeen people from my country a scholarship.  Well done.  It also colonized the country, suppressed popular movements and murdered protestors, and played factions against one another in ways that continue to do harm.  So, sure, they gave me a scholarship.  Great.

Mark:  I mean everyone who participated in the colonial project is long dead.  The ramifications still exist but those people aren’t these people.  Or put aside Britain, London’s been good to us.  And it’s a model city for a sort of soft cosmopolitanism.  People want to come here. Over a third of the city is foreign born, about a quarter are from outside Europe.  That’s a model to aspire to.  It’s vibrant and multicultural and diverse.  That’s a good thing.  Losing significant parts of that is why what happens with Brexit matters.

Nadiya: How can you say that?

Mark:  What do you mean how can I say that?

Nadiya: How can you speak about London’s diversity?

Mark: I’ve lived here for over 18 months.  I’ve walked most of this city, eaten in its restaurants, made friends.  It’s a place I’ve called home.  More importantly, these are observable facts, not some normative judgment.

Nadiya:  You shouldn’t speak about its diversity—you’re really not entitled to.  You’re a white guy from America.  You speak the language.  Your friends are all native English speakers.  Your group of friends is all white minus one rich brown guy.  You don’t have access or insight into the problems of inclusion or exclusion.  Your experience literally cannot be relevant and it shouldn’t be the basis of any of your views.  Just because the places from which people come aren’t always models of toleration or diversity, doesn’t mean you can put this city on a pedestal.

The very notion of Britain’s power, that bullshit glorious yesteryear Brits voted for during the referendum, constitutes a veiled way of hearkening back to a time in which Britain oppressed people, stole resources, and dominated others.  This city benefited inordinately from that subjugation.  Those halcyon days were halcyon days for white men.  That’s barely even subtext at this point.  Remember the Leave posters.  They all but said, “Get the marauding Poles and assorted brown people out.”  

You’re blinded to it because you’re a white, male, American who doesn’t agree with Brexit so you see the referendum as some sort of random deviance, a one-off mistake.  You believe that if given the opportunity to do it all over again, this right thinking country would correct their error.  You comfort yourself with a broad narrative of optimism and progress punctuated by occasional hiccups because border patrol smiles at you.

Mark:  I mean…look, there’s no question that racism exists.  There’s no question that we should continue to focus energy and time on improving cross-cultural understandings and emphasizing difference as a positive attribute in society, but to reduce a country to the worst of its history and to a highly divisive vote simplifies a complex issue.  This city draws enormous amounts of people from diverse places all over the world. 

Forget my situation and zoom out a bit.  London experiences positive net migration.  People make choices, size up options, and decide coming to London offers the best opportunity for them.  People choose to be here instead of Turkey or China or Sudan or Venezuela.  No one puts a gun to your head and says, “London.”  You may be forced to leave home due to violence, but rarely are you forced to come here.   I’m not arguing it’s perfect—far from it.  I’m arguing it’s pretty damn good.

This isn’t some attempt to universalize my experience.  No question I’ve benefited from the absence of barriers and comments and smirks and assumptions from those who don’t share my skin tone or my dress or my accent.  I’m not trying to posit that a city like London can’t be improved upon.  Merely that in a complicated world, it’s a pretty useful model.  Nothing’s perfect and it’s all more nuanced than you’re implying.  You make Britain something greater than its constituent parts.  Britain is just people, some better and some worse.  No state is greater than the contradictory, flawed population it comprises.

Nadiya:  I think you do make your experience more central than you think.  It’s evidenced by your always seeing the problem as a discrete one.  You analogize a racist encounter with some experience you had when someone was cruel or rude to you.  You say cosmopolitan and see only its unadulterated ideal.  You acknowledge there are issues by pointing out nothing is perfect and then you move on to praise London relative to less savory places.  You encourage a certain paralysis, best-of-all-worlds thing.  Honestly, your optimism confirms your advantage.

I have heard comments made about my accent, my skin tone, and my dress throughout my time in this city.  I am targeted as different—not through violence, but through dismissal or the offhand comment.  This city can’t be a model when I can call over four people at this party right now who will happily tell you about some comment made at their expense this week by an asshole who can’t decide whether he wants to come onto them or lash out at them.  My difference gets marked always, in gratuitous moments of kindness or gratuitous moments of cruelty.  That is your cosmopolitanism.  I hate that word.

Think about it this way: The government of the United Kingdom gave me a scholarship to study here.  Why?  On the one hand, they want to encourage education for those in “developing” countries—never mind the fact that overwhelmingly those who receive scholarships are from their country’s elite.  On the other hand, it’s a diplomatic ploy.  I’m meant to go back home, enter politics, become Minister of Finance and then make it easier for rich Egyptian families to invest in London property. 

And what’s worse?  I’m reminded at every step of how grateful I should feel to have this opportunity.  The scholarship admins literally host parties so we can meet each other and all genuflect at the great British altar—you’ve seen it when you’ve come with me!  Meanwhile, since I’m in Britain, I’m supposed to conform completely to standards imposed upon me, while at the same time representing the poor girl from the poor country whose very presence soothes the sanctimonious. 

It’s not just me.  Ask Leila how welcome she felt.  People act like her life from the moment her asylum was granted should be spent in offering thanks.  The country plays the good guy because it joined the coalition, destroyed Iraq, and now has the decency to let in a fraction of the people it uprooted and displaced.  Then, when it does grant her residency, she gets shit from the bus driver, shit from the grocery store clerk, shit from the security officers at the airport and train stations.  Talk about a welcome.

While her asylum application was going through, she literally got £37 per week that she couldn’t augment because she’s not allowed to work while waiting for her decision.  That’s her experience.  How do you explore a culture when you can’t afford a bag of crisps at a pub?  And the self-satisfied well-meaning people with signs saying “Refugees Welcome” couldn’t tell her the first thing about the actual process or the logistics of improving her decision time turnaround.  They’re the type who Google “pro bono legal help” and send the link as if she couldn’t do it herself.  That’s the welcome.  That’s the level of empathy.  That’s your cosmopolitanism.

Mark: Not all people treat Leila that way and you’re being way too tough on people who are trying to help and who mean well.

Nadiya: No, not all people.  But enough people overhear a comment and say nothing.  Enough people Instagram themselves at a rally and leave it at that.  Enough people supported Brexit.  Or, in your case, enough people supported Trump.  And enough people do not make it an issue on which they cast votes.  And the proof is in the fact that those policies cross parties.  It takes longer to process an asylum claim in the US than anywhere else in the world and that’s before Trump.  What you miss in the figures and statistics of your foreign-born migration numbers is the utter ubiquity of an experience of exclusion.

Mark:  I don’t disagree with anything you said.  Honestly, I don’t.  I disagree with the underlying pessimism of what you’re saying.  I acknowledge there are problems.  But you browbeat me with examples and all it serves to do is create this end state of complete hopelessness.  Further, I’m excluded from the conversation and made to feel culpable since, according to you, I’m not allowed to speak on diversity.  If I’m deemed compromised by virtue of my own race, gender, and nationality then I’m excluded in the same way you protest.  I might as well give up and acknowledge the issue exists and can’t be changed.  I’m made to feel shame without a productive way out.

But the fact is that change does happen.  Diversity in the boardroom and in parliament and in many other spheres of life besides has increased.  No one’s arguing we should turn complacent.  To simply state London is a diverse place is a fact.  And it’s way better than most other places.  We should celebrate that while admitting there’s clearly more work to be done.  We should celebrate it because there are a lot of people who don’t hold “Refugees Welcome” posters and they’re the ones you and I and everyone who agrees with us need to persuade, instead of creating some sort of circular firing squad.

I don’t want to sound cavalier, but of course people can be racist.  Of course, people can be cruel.  That’s not news.  Race remains one axis of many which motivates animus.  I’m not blind to that fact, even if I don’t experience it.  I may not ever know what it feels like to be told to go back to my country, but I can sympathize with the alienation and hurt.  If you allow only for a closed conversation of critique built off personal experience, then you don’t engage the people you want to persuade.  You’re not actually helping to solve the problem.

Nadiya:  You’re invited to the conversation; you just don’t get the microphone.  The answer is to stop talking and let people who do not look like you explain something to you.  Because the better you understand its impact, the better you can be at changing behaviors.  What you mistake is how much your experience renders you incapable of actually approaching any sort of interaction with difference from a position of uncertainty or insecurity.  You always enter into interactions with someone different as the person comfortable within the defined terms of the interaction.  And I’m sorry to say it, but you can’t escape that.  And recognizing that, which you clearly don’t, remains the most important step in solving the issue.

Even when you traveled across West Africa last year, you interacted on that footing of privilege.  You interacted with an American passport.  You interacted with the knowledge that if something happened to you, it would be newsworthy.  If someone hurt you, your government would give a shit.  You always have that comfort.  As a result, anything that creates a fissure in your sense of unremitting comity reads to you as unrepresentative and self-evidently wrong, which means it becomes underserving of serious consideration.  You dismiss it as wrong but, more importantly, as aberrational.  Then, you move on.  But it’s a feature and not a bug.

Mark:  I don’t think you understand my point.  I can recoil in horror at every story you tell.  I can acknowledge to the best of my ability the sadness and isolation of every experience you have.  I can point out to you, as someone who cares about you very much, how much rage each and every story you tell me engenders.  Truly, rage.

But I worry that an exclusive focus on that renders people unengaged.  You’re not trying to convince me at the end of the day, I don’t think.  You’re trying to convince—or should be trying to convince at any rate—those with real prejudice.  Or, I suppose, if we all have some prejudice, then those who inflict harm on others, be it through discomfort or physical harm.

But the whole debate becomes stuck in this endless repetition of personal stories.  That can be cathartic for the teller, but ends up being marginally less productive with every additional story.  At a certain point, it’s not productive.  People either buy into the existence of a problem or they don’t.

Nadiya: They are not the same stories told over and over again.  Your conflation proves you don’t understand.  And those who will commit physical harm aren’t persuadable, it’s precisely the middle who you need to grab and shake.

Mark: Okay, so I listen and then what?  When can I show you I do understand the core issue?  It feels like no matter what I do, I’m stuck because of who I am.  When you don’t allow a space for people who don’t share your experience to get involved, they just end up moving on.  I’m repeating myself.

Nadiya: If they move on, then they weren’t interested in legitimate change in the first place.

Mark:  Or maybe they were and they felt pushed away.  Obviously, I agree we should allow people to tell their stories.  But we also need political solutions.  Why not make it easier for people to move and thus naturally encourage interaction.  Familiarity may breed contempt but it rarely breeds fear, which is the most destructive motivator.  Why not work to elect politicians who run on platforms making immigration easier and, as a result, stimulate diversity?  People tend to want to get along with their neighbors.  It’s hard to say an ugly thing to someone when your kid goes to school with their child.  Obviously that’s a slow process, but it seems an impactful one.

Nadiya:  You need to change minds before you implement a policy, otherwise you’ll have really hostile blowback.  Make borders really porous and people will start eating each other alive.  Think about the outrage generated by asylum seekers in Europe.  They constitute a fraction of the EU’s total population and yet everywhere you look we’re told civilization is on the precipice. 

You’re also doing this thing again when you assume significant cultural overlap between your abstracted immigrant and your abstracted native.  Since you assume everyone loves their kid in the same way and everyone wants to send their kid to the same school and everyone speaks the same language and wants to build the same community, all it takes for you to solve the problem is to create some sort of mixed neighborhood.  You’ve built your idealized London in miniature.   You’re not confronting how severe the distinctions between your two neighbors actually are. You’re presupposing this smiling, nice immigrant who looks darker but otherwise shares the same values as your longtime neighborhood resident.  But it’s in the distinctions between your patronizing version of the good immigrant and the real immigrant where the bigotry begins.

And because you do not understand the problem in concrete ways, you’re ill equipped to offer solutions. You don’t turn to someone whose read a couple books on medicine for a heart transplant.  That’s why your opinion, stemming fundamentally from your person, is of limited value.

Mark:  But I also don’t need to be stabbed to understand stabbing is bad. You’re promoting a world in which we compete over each other for who’s had it worst in order to have the most legitimate claim to diagnose the situation.  Your entire argument is based on retrospective retellings of bad moments without any focus on moving forward.  You build an authority for yourself only to engage in pure critique without any constructive plan.

Nadiya: You’re not listening. The good ideas come from recognizing the problem and its effects.  That means listening to alternate experiences, because there are inevitably things you underestimate or miss completely.  Those interactions I talked about earlier, their effects end up being completely pervasive and pernicious.  It becomes easy to continually doubt people’s motives.  Did my apartment application get turned down because of how I look? I can’t ever be certain. Why do my European friends have better luck?  Am I just an idiot or is something else going on?  It’s paralyzing.

That affects my character and my personality.  Of course, this isn’t every interaction.  But a lot of interactions on which I’m evaluated lend themselves to a persistent doubt of other people’s motives.  In turn, that can mean I misunderstand interactions, approach people with a skepticism they don’t deserve.  And that reaction is looked upon as defiance and ends up fitting perfectly into the stereotype of the standoffish outsider.

Mark:  Isn’t what’s pernicious the line from effect to cause.  You end up erasing your individuality by privileging your skin tone or gender in those interactions.  You privilege it over all other possible explanations.  Take your landlord example.  You’ve just reduced yourself to a brown woman with an application and so you render opaque, both to yourself and others, the very grounds on which you do want to be considered.  Namely, your unique set of characteristics. 

You are deserving of esteem not by virtue of your race or gender, but by virtue of the intelligence and empathy you embody.  In that sense, maybe we should work towards considering race as one of a whole range of categories that define who you are as a person instead of always foregrounding it.

Nadiya: But I shouldn’t have to be empathetic or thoughtful at every moment.

Mark:  No, you shouldn’t.  You’re deserving of respect by virtue of being a person.

Nadiya: But isn’t my humanity precisely what so often needs demonstrating?  It’s a question of bridging the gap between the interpersonal interaction between equals—on which our relationship is based, for instance—and the abstracted, dehumanized view of an Arab or African or whatever, because that reductive abstraction serves political purposes.  We don’t question the violence inflicted in far away lands because of that reduction.

Because, for all the goodwill of thoughtful people like you, it’s rare to see genuine outrage about the actions your government takes concerning those peoples in far away countries translate into any sort of action.  The abstract Yemeni person gets a groan and an acknowledgment but no one votes on weapons sales.  And so all parties in Britain and the US end up selling weapons to be dropped on those abstracted, dehumanized people.  We bitch and moan at a party like this but how many people here actually donate money or sacrifice real amounts of time toward a cause that presumes the Yemeni child’s humanity?  How many people actually think about those abstracted people as if “those people” could be their own mother, as if it is possible one day our own societies might be plunged into violence and instead of helping, the most powerful governments in the world continued to sell the bombs that killed our neighbors.   The point is that once you break down the abstraction, it becomes almost impossible to look away.  That’s the purpose of what I’m trying to say.  That’s why I give you the examples.

Look, to be put in the position to have to be representative and to explain that I am a person and people who look like me or come from where I come from are also people is exhausting.  You may say you see me as someone with dignity deserving of respect, but your democratically elected governments do not.  And then you make it sound at times like there’s some pleasure in being the victim.  It’s not about victimization but recognition and it’s depressing and taxing and nothing else.

Real difference is uncomfortable for everyone.  It is one thing to acknowledge intellectually that different systems of behavior exist and quite another to put up with them at your dinner table. That’s the distinction I’m trying to draw between your encomium to cosmopolitanism and my lived experience. And, in this metaphor, I’m the constant guest at dinner and so must conform and confirm for fear of not being invited back, which ends up erasing my person.

So let’s pretend for once that you’re coming over for dinner to my house and, for however long it takes, you’re my guest.

Mark:  Let’s grab a drink first.

Nadiya: Yes, let’s grab a drink first.

Overheard: Contested Spaces is part of a forthcoming series. 



About the Author

Nick Foretek is a PhD Student in History at the University of Pennsylvania.