Unless we leave the comfort of our own society and culture, we could often be unaware of the dehumanisation taking place right in front of our eyes. We might even unconsciously perpetuate the prejudice taking place around us. We would not know anything else, we would not know it could be any different, and therefore we assume that it is the same all over the world and that it is ‘normal’. But if studying Social Anthropology in the past year has taught me anything, it is that there is no such thing as ‘normal’, because the notion of normalcy is always a reflection of an individual’s social, cultural, religious and political environment. And therefore, there are just as many definitions of ‘normal’ as there are people in world.
That I had not seen the degree of ‘other’-ing taking place right in front of me was most certainly my conclusion when four years ago, I came to reflect upon the culture I grew up in. In 2009, I migrated from Germany to the UK. It was meant to be a short trip that would only last twelve months and serve as a sandwich year between grammar school and university – quite a typical move for a 19-year-old Abiturient*. The original plan was to return back to Germany, to study something at some university and find some job in some city, eventually settle down in some house with some husband and maybe have some kids. But I arrived in London and things started to look very different. And apart from a few stints here and there in Germany, I’ve remained in the UK ever since.
Within only ten months of working in London I met people from all over the world.. And due to the cosmopolitan environment I was suddenly exposed to, my personal outlook on other cultures changed so much that I started questioning the way the ‘others’ were being treated in Germany.
Contrary to the middle-class German belief I had been exposed to, having many siblings did not necessarily mean you came from a ‘benefits’ family without clear goals or aspirations in life. I also learnt that a lot of my new friends had very strong connections with their parents, their siblings, their aunts and uncles. Wherever they went, they had a network of people they could always rely and lean on. They would Skype almost every day and have extra international SIM cards for calling home. They would fill their families in on all that was happening in their lives. Some told their siblings more personal stories than I tell my best friends. So when I then came back to my hometown for a brief visit a few months after having left Germany, I was rather startled when I heard my own friends talking about ‘Asi-Familien’, a derogatory German term for big families that often live off benefits (or so they assume). I started noticing that people around me would twitch uncomfortably if they heard that someone they were talking to was Turkish and had five brothers and sisters. I no longer understood where they were coming from. What gave them the right to judge people they barely knew – or worse, not knew at all?
It made me realise that – at least in my hometown and in my immediate environment – people had a rather negative attitude towards foreigners and big families. In fact, they judged anything that was ‘other’ to their own lifestyle. Mentioning someone was from Turkey would often be followed by a hasty “but he’s totally integrated and has done really well for himself.” Why the ‘but’?
Of course, I realise that my own view of the interaction between different cultures in London might be very distorted. I have very few English friends here, and studying at a very international university has confirmed the experiences I’ve had living in London. Had I come from a different environment and gone to a different university with a much lower proportion of international students, had I found myself a job with a much less diverse team – then yes, I might not have had the same experience here. But all in all, I believe that London is amongst the most diverse and accepting cities in Europe. Nowhere else do I see as many female shop assistants with hijabs. Nowhere else have I heard of or seen such diverse working environments as I have over here. Nowhere else have I felt as home no matter where I went. Living in Haringay, surrounded by the Turkish diaspora, I was immediately accepted as one the Manor Housers. The people at the local shops knew me, they would be just as happy to see me as they were to see anyone else. It did not matter that I was white, sounded English and did not speak a word of Turkish. I lived in the same part of town, was a regular customer, friendly – that’s all they needed to know.
But what can we do to make this a reality in other places – and not just Germany, but also in other parts of England where racism and classism is also a big issue?
There is of course no single answer, and I do not aim to come up with an all-encompassing solution to this problem in my petty little article. But earlier this year a lecture about anthropologist Evans-Pritchard’s move from depicting cultures as ‘other’ to ‘otherwise’ really struck a chord with me. He saw the ‘strange’ not as irrational, anarchic or pagan. Instead, he argued that although the ‘strange’ is different, these differences do not account for much. So whilst one culture might believe in science as a source of truth, another might put the occult in that place. One culture might be structured through religion. Otherwise another might also use a lineage system to organise itself.
Some cultures might refer to each other in terms of states – otherwise, another culture might make use of the tribal system. Some people might value a highly individualistic life with small families. Otherwise another group might value having a bigger family, a strong network to rely on. None is better or worse than the other. They are just simply different answers to the same questions. I find that view to be incredibly powerful as it challenges us and allows us to stop and think, to not make hastened, general assumptions about the ‘strange’. To develop this attitude, we need to mingle more, and we need to challenge ourselves more. We need to meet as many people from as many different backgrounds as we possibly can.
I’m not suggesting that we ‘collect’ international friends like trophies. What I’m saying is that we should embrace the colourfulness that we are surrounded with in London. Make use of it wherever we can. Breathe it in, smell it, eat it, experience it. Leave our comfort zone. Immerse ourselves into all that London can give us. Then, when we leave (as many of us will do – this is a very transient place after all), take these experiences with us. When you find yourself falling into old patterns, immediately question yourself. Question others. Don’t take our views for granted, don’t see them as normal. Because the notion of normalcy is always a reflection of an individual’s social, cultural, religious and political environment. And therefore, there are just as many definitions of ‘normal’ as there are people in world. Stop othering. Start otherwising.
* the German term for someone who has just passed their A-Levels
Katharina Massmann is a Social Anthropology student at SOAS and is interested in all things culture, language, identity, art and photography. Being half-German and half-English, she moved to the UK five years ago and has been a Londoner by choice ever since.