That fear of the outsider
The Malta Union of Professional Psychologists, in collaboration with the Maltese Psychological Association, would like to express serious concern regarding the prevalence of racist and xenophobic behaviours in the Maltese Islands as described in several reports in the local media.
Recent events, as well as the emergence of small-membership anti-immigration and extreme right-wing clubs with racist or xenophobic motivations, show that cultural discrimination along with “fear of the outsider” and racial bias is a present reality.
This fact is likely to have the potential to give rise to tension and cause harm within the Maltese community, especially when xenophobic and racist behaviours are directed openly towards ethnic minorities, immigrants and others individuals whose status, culture and identity ios different from that of the mainstream group.
Individuals and groups who are target of xenophobic and racist behaviours are often marginalised and excluded, becoming more prone to suffer discrimination. Locals witnessing such discrimination and especially those who are vulnerable or young, are often also not exempt from experiencing harm as they too are affected through coercion and experience of social injustice.
Eventually, longer established locals also face the negative consequences, having their immediate or eventual neighbours and peers living a poorer quality of life in marginalised circumstances.
Data released by the European Union in 2013 titled Perception survey in 79 European cities, quality of life in cities presented results that show that Malta’s capital, along with Athens and Rome, are Europe’s least tolerant capital cities towards foreigners. This likely suggests that the vast majority of Europeans are more tolerant than the Maltese.
This intolerance is probably exacerbated by the current immigration trends involving asylum seekers, immigrants and refugees from North Africa to Malta and the rest of southern Europe. Individuals react with immediate unexamined panic towards the influx of immigrants, especially those coming from the African and Middle Eastern regions.
While the initial negative fear reactions in people living in an overcrowded small island nation is predictable, the ongoing maintenance of racial and xenophobic attitudes can only create psychological unrest as well as delayed opportunities for economic, social and cultural development, and thus needs to be eliminated.
It is important to consider that various research and international historical accounts show how racism and xenophobia are damaging to the development of diversified group communities, often acting as catalysts for the development of inequality, fragmentation, poor social integration, reduced opportunities for educational and cultural development, social problems and at worst, crime and violence.
A total of 47,210 racist crimes were reported across the European Union in 2013, with the European Network against Racism (ENAR) warning that this is only the “tip of the iceberg”, as many racial crimes go unreported.
Reporting racist and xenophobic behaviours to the local authorities and those in charge of safeguarding people’s rights is important, especially considering the potential of individual and collective harm. This should be followed up with the necessary and appropriate action by those responsible for maintaining the wellbeing of all individuals on the island and not just Maltese nationals.
While it could be argued that even those with racist and xenophobic sentiments have a right to express themselves and their views publicly, such views still stand to be countered. The need to take a firm stance against the promotion of abuse, harm and violence is unquestionable.
It is also necessary to oppose and collectively distance young people and children from racist and xenophobic attitudes and motivations with the aim of limiting, as far as possible, future assimilation and manifestations of discriminatory behaviour.
Such an approach is necessary but does not suffice to guarantee long-term social justice and inclusion. What is ultimately required is the implementation of preventive measures which take place at all levels of the community, organisations and the educational system.
A large body of international research shows that the people most prone to having racist and xenophobic beliefs are those more likely to have a history of low educational achievement, low intelligence quotient results and limited opportunities for early integration and socialisation in settings open to diversity and tolerance.
It is however likely that more personal factors are involved in the development of racism and xenophobia. Such factors could be indicative of individual psychological dynamics taking place, especially when people exclude others due to cognitive distortions and biases, due to the need to project unacceptable in-group attributes to other out-groups, due to the need to gain approval and esteem in their close circles and due to the need to experience a feeling of coercive power.
Racist and xenophobic attitudes can also be transferred through socialisation in schools, families and peer groups. Such attitudes are also more prevalent in those who particularly have difficulty thinking independently and who have a high aversion to novelty and the unknown.
Unfortunately, the very nature of the personal psychological roots of racism and xenophobia is likely to be transferred to other dimensions of our thinking and behaviour. This does not apply to actions with others who have different backgrounds only, but also with our immediate peers, neighbours and families.
The innate rejecting psychological mechanism that lies at the source of intolerance to other races and ‘foreigners’, can quickly become a source of intolerance in our personal relationships, the way we relate within our communities and the way we relate with our friends and families.
Some may argue that it could also reflect a more subtle dialogue that is related to us having trouble with accepting ourselves and our personal weaknesses and differences. Human behaviour does not take place in isolation and the mind often transfers similar schemes for communication and understanding to a multitude of individuals and groups. It may not be long before we transfer the intolerance we have towards other groups to the same people in our closer circles, particularly those who are different in some way or another, or who have a different way of living and seeing things.
The key to preventing further the development of racism and xenophobia is in the hands of organisations, schools, churches and those involved in setting standards and policy, who should take the necessary steps to create an environment which promotes tolerance and opposes discrimination.
School curriculums and syllabi, courses and school literature need to be more inclusive of the presence of different cultures and races, while the local media, marketing and entertainment sectors should make an effort to represent other cultures and races too.
Authorities need to take both reactive and preventive action where necessary and people need to continue to speak out against racism and xenophobia so as to make it clear that the vast majority of the Maltese value tolerance and diversity.
It is not only those who are directly affected by racism and xenophobia that need to speak out through their pain but all of us who, in some way or another, will always remain indirectly affected too.
Paul Attard-Baldacchino is president of the Malta Union of Professional Psychologists.