What does it mean to belong?
There’s a lot of talk these days about belonging: who’s in and who’s out. Everyone seems to have an opinion. No one really knows who gets to decide.
For some, it’s the immigrants who don’t belong. They’re the outsiders who should go back to where they come from.
For others it’s the racists who don’t belong. Here in Sweden some politicians have articulated that racists are un-Swedish. They don’t belong. But if they don’t belong here, where should they go?
On the level of society, there tend to be two parts to the belonging conversation: immigration and integration. Immigration is about who, and how many should be allowed in. Integration is about how those who are allowed in become part of the bigger group: society.
But the question of integration is complicated, partly because those who have the power to make political decisions have never had to consider the process of joining society.
They were born into a family who already belonged. They learned how to belong simply by hanging out. The norms of society are their default settings, trained into them from birth.
Very few of those making the decisions about how integration should work are experts at integration. Those with immigrant histories are usually far enough removed from the integrational process that they might be considered not to have skin in the game themselves, even though their parents or grandparents did.
When you join a group, you do so by proving to the others in the group that you belong. That’s true of the political elite. To join them you prove to them that you can work together, that you know the rules of the game they are playing and that you can join in without causing too much disruption.
There are so many different ways of looking at what it means to integrate into society. Perhaps it means to learn the local language and get a job. Or maybe it’s to have a mixed group of friends that include those from the host culture. It could involve intermarrying, so that you have families that are blended into the host culture.
We should also ask on what level does integration happen? Is it something that takes place on a micro-level, when someone builds a friendship with one Swedish neighbour? Or is it about the macro-level, gaining citizenship and speaking the local language with a local accent?
Whose responsibility is this process? Should the host be the one accommodating newcomers, acclimatising them to life here? Or is it the responsibility of the newcomers to sink or swim as they try to assimilate?
There are so many areas of contention, so much uncertainty as to the basic definitions of the concepts surrounding belonging to society, that it’s no wonder that progress can be slow.