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Social integration and 'British values': what's human about that?

I am human, and nothing of that which is human is alien to me. - Publius Terentius Afer

At the end of his 2016 Reith Lectures, Kwame Anthony Appiah left us with this striking quotation. Written by a man who was ‘ a slave from Roman Africa, a Latin interpreter of Greek comedies and a writer from Classical Europe’, the words attest to a profound appreciation of what it is to be human, and how our humanity, once acknowledged, transcends concepts of nationality, identity or status.

The term ‘alien’, still used within US federal law to describe those born outside the country, is rightly considered an embarrassing and derogatory term in the UK, with connotations of dehumanisation and scapegoating that we prefer not to own. But in my experience of working with marginalised migrant and refugee communities, it’s often a term which recent arrivals, or even those who have lived here for decades, use to describe their treatment by UKBA officials, UK institutions, and even their lack of welcome by the Great British majority.

This painful reality is the opening precept to my Provocation Piece which I developed as part of my fellowship with Clore Social Leadership. The piece explores our current preoccupation with social integration and asks whether we can reconcile this with often fearful or nostalgic concepts of ‘British values’. If, as the Casey Review maintains, we are really looking for a ‘common life’, I argue that we need to be more questioning, more courageous, and more open to a reflexive discussion about ‘who’ we are and what ‘our values’ might look like in collaboration with those who arrive from abroad. What can we learn from people who have experienced themselves as ‘outsiders’; what reality checks can they give us about ourselves and our assumed cultural values; how might their experiences of migration and integration contribute to a dynamic model of cultural heritage for the future?

These questions have framed my Clore Social fellowship in a tumultuous year for issues and debates on migration, culminating in what can only be described as a crisis of national consciousness. Amidst the confusion and strife, it has also encouraged me to look for good practice in advocating for a model of social integration which addresses how we welcome and learn from new arrivals at ground level. From this, I’ve come up with four suggestions:

  • We need to acknowledge that citizenship is not a birthright, but is earned by those who want a stake in society. Instead of an Integration Oath, why not use a Citizenship Celebration which brings together and rewards anyone who actively contributes their values and culture to their local community?
  • Developing relationships across cultures takes curiosity, empathy and patience. Whether at work, in your neighbourhood or in the school playground, simply making eye contact, exchanging a friendly word is a great start; thereafter, accept that the normal social codes don’t necessarily apply – ask, explain, invite, explore, adapt, exchange and don’t give up.
  • You can’t support social integration simply by saying nice things on social media. Stepping out of our comfort zone is what enables us to appreciate what it’s like to feel like an outsider: offer to teach English to your neighbour; ask them to teach you how to cook their cuisine; provide a night stay for a homeless refugee; join in with local or school activities which seem to be ‘for minorities’- you will be amazed by what you learn.
  • Let’s offer experiential diversity training for our statutory services which doesn’t balk at exploring cultural difference and can promote empathy, intercultural awareness and cross-sector collaboration.

Whilst it’s a good thing that we starting to have ‘difficult conversations’ about values and identity, we have a long way to go on understanding the dynamics of privilege and power. Step into the shoes of a new arrival, question yourself and your assumptions in relation to those different to you, and you will awaken your own precious humanity.

Please share your comments about Emma’s blog and provocation piece below, or you can join the conversation on Twitter.

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