On bodies that don’t belong

Home and belonging

The concept of home carries multiple meanings and symbolism. The ultimate home, arguably is the womb. As such it represents (although does not always provide) sanctuary, nurture and protection. Home also has a geographical and homogenising dimension. It is a place rooted in a particular socio-historical location wether real or imagined, which gives us a sense of ‘us’, a collective continuing identity sufficiently distinct from other groups.

Psychologists have long recognised that belonging is a primal human need, we are after all social beings. In Maslow’s hierarchy for example, belonging is located midway between basic physiological/safety needs and esteem/achievement needs and, self-actualisation, whatever that means. Belonging needs include having fulfilling interpersonal relationships, intimacy, trust and affiliation. Affiliative connections are fostered when we feel part of a group.

A home thus is also a place of kinship and connection to a cultural collective and from which we can draw a sense of who we are from. Nonetheless, it can also be a site of conflict or more precisely a site of contestation with clear links with power and whiteness. It is with that latter meaning that this article will primarily engage; although of course all meanings will bear some relevance. Considerations of homeness therefore include but go beyond, the individual and their sense of belonging and have serious implications for the psychosocial and the structural.

Where are you really from?

The mother of (racial) microaggressions… Microaggression have been described as brief everyday indignities. They can be verbal and non- verbal and either intentional or unintentional, but all the same communicate hostile, derogatory, prejudicial messages to marginalised bodies. Microaggressions as their name indicate are acts of micro violence but, they are full slights and leave their targets feeling othered, denigrated, devalued or excluded. Microaggressions can leave you somewhat disorientated too, as their subtle and contestable nature may make you doubt your own reality and leave you, questioning and second guessing yourself and your experience, over and over again, hours if not days, after the casual act of Othering.

Thus although, ‘where are you from?’ may appear to be an innocuous question, when your body is black or brown and in white supremacist contexts, it is a loaded question discursively and historically. And it is a question that often hurts. It hurts because of the invisible assumptions it contains. It is therefore a question that does more than ask a question, it is a question that makes statements. It states that you look like you do not belong here. It states you are not quite part of this ‘us’. It states that there is something exotic or unusual about your body that is worthy of curiosity and attention. It is thus a question that can violate your sense of home.

As a French migrant in the UK recurrently I find that my French accent attracts curiosity. ‘How come you have a French accent?’ I am often asked.  It took me a while to decrypt the implicit messages and make sense my body’s response to the question. I came to the realisation, it is really another way of saying ‘where are you really from?’ Your home is not your home or at least is not what appears to be your home. It’s all in the English subtlety…Many will not get it. They will argue that there are plenty of people with French accents who are not French.

This is how microaggressions work. And how they injure. Embodied knowledge is difficult to share and does not easily translate. But let me try. What if I was to write, I have been referred to as the woman with the French passport, the woman who speaks French, the woman with the French accent probably as frequently if not more so, than I have been referred to as the French woman, would the point land? It’s difficult to imagine that if my body was white and held a French passport, spoke French and had a French accent that so many would struggle to locate me as French.

If you don’t like it here, go home 

A few days ago the President of the United States told four congresswomen women of colour to ‘go back’ to their (‘crime infested’ and corrupt countries) instead of ‘loudly and viciously telling the people of the United States’ how to run the government. All of the women targeted are American citizens. Only one of the politicians insulted was actually born outside the country. And of course, part of their job as lawmakers is indeed to tell their country, the United States, how they think the government should be run. These facts became immaterial to the thousands who chanted in unison ‘send her back’ as Trump spat his racist bile. It is clear then that being black and brown, reduced both their claim to the land as their home and, their authority on the politics of the same.

As previously written, this country, which quite likes to see itself much above the politics of hate, saw a rise in hate crimes post-Brexit. Some have said many have taken their (white liberal) gloves off, emboldened by xenophobic and racist referendum campaigns. And quelle surprise, one of the most recurrent abuses to have made a comeback — though we could easily argue, it had really never left — is ‘go back to your country’.Fantasies that the leave win would result in black and brown people being sent back to some Other land, their *real* home, came out en force.

That the bulk of these abusive words were targeted at British people of colour with no other home tells us something important about home and belonging. Once again that these notions are racialised. More than they are nativist. Being home here is clearly not dependent on being born here. It is primarily about belonging and specifically looking as though you belong. In the same vein Trump did not target white skinned politicians born abroad. Nor has he ever asked white political opponents to leave the country if they don’t like it here. Pretty basic stuff. Still…many are continuing to deliberate on whether his words were racist, with many denying they were. This is the state of race literacy in 2019. Or the depths of white denial. 

Last February, Shamima Begum saw her UK citizenship removed from her for joining the so called Islamic State, while aged 15, by the then home secretary Sajid Javid. This was not a decision without controversy, but it was not a decision without support either. Stripping those who have committed serious offenses of their nationality may appear perfectly legitimate and racially neutral, until one realises that it is only possible to strip someone of their UK nationality if they are eligible for citizenship elsewhere and doing so would not leave them stateless. In the case of Begum, who is reported to have been born to a mother of Bangladeshi descent, it was assumed that she had in fact another home or, a real home in Bangladesh. This is despite Bangladesh denying her citizenship and her entry into the country.

Precarious homes, precarious identities 

Without engaging with the legal arguments, it is possible to assess one key implication of this decision. If both of your parents are British and you have no possibility of claiming citizenship anywhere else in the world, you will have no access to dual citizenship and, are therefore protected from ever being deprived of your UK nationality. In other words, it is really disproportionately people of colour, migrants and their children who are in reality at risk of losing Britain has their nation, rendering the policy at best racialised. At worst, white supremacist because it reinforces the pernicious and utterly racist discursive notion that ‘real’ Britishness is anchored in bloodline and, peddles the mythology that Britain is not the real home of people of colour. That they are eternal guests who can be sent packing, when required.

Precariousness to state homelessness intersects with experiences of homelessness at other levels and impact people of colour’ sense of identity. For example, people of colour and migrants are also at risk of cultural homelessness. Individual of dual or multiple cultural heritages are said to be culturally homeless when they report a sense of marginality and insecurity whereby they do not feel fully accepted within either cultures, leading to recurrent feelings of ‘not belonging’, isolation, identity confusion, and a constant quest to finding a home. Navigating two or multiple cultures can be emotionally taxing and when one feels no solid grounding anywhere or experience double or multiple discriminations, the psychological costs can be significant.

Racial violence today is often subtle, pernicious as such it can easily be denied (and indeed is constantly denied) which can also increase distress and isolation and, lead to what I have termed epistemic homelessness. You may think about it as response to racial gaslighting. I have proposed that epistemic homelessness is the subjective experience of losing anchor in a situations of epistemic injustice or when people in position of social power deny or invalidate your lived reality. The sense of homelessness here is a form of embodied displacement from one’s truth base causing self-distrust and the devaluation of our bodies and minds. Homelessness is again reproduced but not only does one loses their sense of internal home, it becomes inhabited or colonised by people with more social power.

Whiteness and homeness

I often say whiteness belongs. I have argued this is one of its fundamental characteristics. Belonging in that sense is independent of cultural affiliation rather, it is rooted in white supremacy. Hence, white Africans are naturalised. Black Europeans remain an aberration, in the collective imagination. Or at best a ‘new’ phenomenon, erasing the reality that Britain has never been exclusively white. In the same way that inhabiting of Others’ space geographically, geo-politically or epistemically, is a function of social privilege, belonging wherever one finds oneself, reflects the racialised social order.

I used to have this white ‘friend’, she had been born in the Congo, she spoke Lingala. She used to love telling me about her country the Congo but would still subtly raise her eyebrows when I spoke of my country France. I did not belong in France, but she sure belonged in the Congo. Belonging is rarely a two-way street, because power and colonialism has rarely been. That is why new white Europeans migrants to the US can, with full assurance, tell African Americans who have been on the land for centuries to go back to where they come from. They belong much more. Entitlement to space and claim to the same are rooted in the historical configurations of colonialism which are anchored in the white European psyche. They get reproduced at all levels of human functioning, often despite ourselves and unconsciously.

That is why the presence of white people in space is usually deemed legitimate hence, it takes very little time for them to acquire native status; often above and beyond the indigenous populations whose land they settle in. Imagine telling Trump that he is in fact a migrant living uninvited on colonial land whose rightful owners are people of colour. A historical fact. And that if he does not like people of colour telling him how the country should be run, he can always leave and go back to where he came from. It would amuse. But you can be certain that he would roll his eyes and, that society will, by and large, discount these words as an aberration.

He is a white man. He belongs. And that’s that on that.

Thank you for reading

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  1. The thing with micro-aggressions is that we rarely know the context in which a person speaks and we can feel agressed when the person had nice or neutral intent, which we misinterpreted because we didn’t ask for clarification. We can also miss bad intents at time, and not notice it.

    1. Thank you. Common response, this. However do remember ‘nice’ or innocuous intent is not a defense for racism, racial violence, race discrimination and indeed racial microagressions, hence their very definition acknowledges that they can be dished out unintentionally. Further intent and effect are separate and largely independent issues.
      We operate at various levels…and many of which escape our conscious awareness.

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