How the government’s Hostile Environment touches different people in different ways because there is not always public sentiment to protect them...
More than once, many times.
And I’m not talking about subtleties here.
Not about the sideways looks, the sinking feeling in the stomach when I read articles online and in the newspapers.
Not the furtive scanning of social media on a fragile day, hoping I won’t get ripped by the rusty hook of ‘you’re not like us’.
No, what I’m talking about is very direct, straight-forward. Yes, it’s completely in your face. In my face.
At all sorts of gatherings, regardless of political affiliation, when I speak, or after I have spoken (and, eerily, sometimes even when I don’t speak — can they see it? In my face? In my clothes?).
Someone will come up to me. Uncomfortably close, usually. Stand so that I can’t easily circumvent him (sometimes her). Or, worse, in a group, someone will address me directly, not on the subject of conversation, but me, me personally, in order to other me.
‘Where are you from?’
Or, even more aggressively: ‘You are from...’ This assertion is sometimes correct and sometimes incorrect but it achieves the main objective: I am forcibly othered.
That’s an act of aggression.
I feel excluded, shown up for not belonging, shown the exit sign.
The speaker often wears a smirk. Proud of having sniffed out a foreigner.
Every time it happens, I feel the pain.
The pain of not belonging, and the fear of being evicted. Since Brexit, it’s also the fear of being deported.
And, along with it, there is a kind of undertone that the clever otherer has been able to detect somthing dodgy in me. That I’m trying to ‘pass’, pretend that I am British. That’s what the smirk is about. My accent is very British, you see. It takes the very fine ear of the British-accent-sniffer to detect the hint of foreignness.
So it leaves me, always, with the feeling that I’m an impostor who’s been unmasked.
Of course, in the UK, I am now treated as an impostor anyway. As someone who is going to have to apply to please being allowed to stay with less rights.
And then we get to the second step of othering: The person who’s sniffed me out as a foreigner will pause, a very pregnant pause indeed, a pause that demands confirmation.
Like a police officer, or rather an immigration controller.
More and more, I don’t comply.
I don’t meekly confess my otherness, an act that almost always leads to being pressed for more and more detail of my otherness.
Like an interrogation. With satisfied smirks on the other side.
More and more I ask back.
‘Why do you want to know this?’ ‘Why is this important to you?’ and, as a last resort: ‘I would really prefer to talk about something else.’
Can you guess what happens next?
Consider the situation.
This is the start of a conversation between strangers.
The stranger who initiates the conversation has just forcibly othered me, in public or in the relative privacy of a side conversation at a public gathering.
I say that I’m not comfortable talking about this.
If the aim of the conversation was to make contact, to connect, what would that initiator do? Wouldn’t they say ‘oh, sorry, yes, let’s talk about something else’? if they were interested in making contact with me as a person.
But that’s not what happens. On the contrary.
The otherer usually gets offended.
Most of the time he (sometimes it’s a she) repeats the question with an even stronger smirk on their face. I didn’t understand why until I realized: in their mind, I’ve just confirmed that I’m an offender. I have been forcibly othered because I am indeed very much someone who shouldn’t be there.
When I still refuse, or ask them back about where they come from, how they acquired their accent, if they are local to the place we are in etc., when I do that, most of the time, the otherer insists even more, coming closer, staring me in the face. Very much in the manner of an immigration officer who has the authority to interrogate me on whatever he wants, and then the authority to refuse me entry.
Often, this interrogation leads to the otherer lecturing me, hectoring me. On the subject of why I have to answer their question or confirm their assessment of my otherness.
I ask you, reader, what kind of conversation is this?
Where you are trying to force the other person into talking about something they don’t want to talk about?
Isn’t this some kind of verbal and emotional coercion?
And if a conversation between strangers is the beginning of a relationship, what kind of relationship dynamic are these otherers trying to establish?
That they can coerce me? That I have to do what they want?
This, readers, is how I feel when you pounce on me to ask me your ‘simple question’.
I feel violated.