When we talk about belonging: from whose perspective are we discussing it? Is it from the perspective of those who want to belong or those who want others to belong?
It is important to understand how people feel when we are looking at belonging, and explore whether it is valuable or of value for them, as we are all from different backgrounds. This means unpacking the idea of belonging rather than assuming it is a good for all.
Who wants to belong to what? What are we belonging to? For some cultures, belonging may not be understood in the same way and they may not wish to engage with it.
For some there is too much to lose, too much to give up, in belonging if belonging means sameness and one identity. We will return to this idea when we reflect on two-way or reciprocal inclusion or exchange. How can we then come to a dialogue so that we can understand what belonging means for one another?
Like many words, as we look more closely the more ‘alien’ it becomes. Perhaps it’s felt most when one finds one doesn’t belong somewhere.. Belonging (and not belonging) are very basic emotion.
Belonging and inclusion also relate to the question of difference. Sometimes this is only revealed when someone learns that they don’t belong.
The reason that we are reflecting on belonging in the context of thinking about educational responses to extremism is because extremist positions mark out very clearly who belongs and who does not belong. As Quassim Cassam said, they have a purity, or rather impurity, occupation. This can be on political, ideological or religious grounds. Yet as they exclude they ‘give’ something too – a sense of belonging, purpose, identity to those who exclude.
“This also means reflecting on complex dynamics. With migration, people seek security, comfort, familiarity. Yet, there are some who feel that inward migration impinges or undermines their identities. Perhaps, identity politics and identity cultures are confused with belonging. Must we share an identity in order to belong? Reflecting on what migrants need – security and comfort – there can be a belief that ‘if I attain a home, employment etc, that I will be well settled’, but then it becomes clear that class is not a protective factor against discrimination. This is difficult because someone may think when you get to a certain level, you’ll be protected from this, when you have been in a place two or three generations, and yet they still face discrimination. Why is this? Is it because people are visibly different? This is difficult for people whose class status might have made them feel that they belong, let alone those who are in minimum wage jobs. This can lead to a sense of disenchantment, a sense of not ever being what we imagined and thought we could be in this country. Feeling marginalised is not simply a socio-economic issue, it can also be a belonging issue. For example, the young person who despite all their other attributes is not allowed to belong because of the colour of their skin. This skin does not allow them to be seen like everyone else, and it stops them from being seen as a human being. The extremism of the system that others and marginalises as experienced by young people is something they feel subjected to, like a heavy weight”. (Reflections from workshop participants)
It is not surprising that some young people might become disaffected and disenfranchised when they feel (often correctly) that society does not welcome them or see them as belonging? How can someone relate to such a society? However, this is not only a problem for young people.
A further difficulty discussed in our workshops is the unwillingness to listen and explore this with those who are experiencing this, be it colleagues or staff. People, including colleagues, often do not want to hear the reality of one’s experience, they want to dismiss or minimise it. People need to commit to developing awareness of their reactions (and perhaps defensiveness) when certain topics like someone’s experience of racism are raised, or their thoughtlessness in making assumptions about who belongs and who does not belong.
If we can’t listen to what we don’t want to hear, what hope do we have?
Arguably when someone feels and knows they belong is when they are comfortable enough to be critical and where that criticism is accepted. ”When I do not have to try harder than others to be accepted but rather that I am accepted as ‘one of you’ so I have every right for my voice to be heard”.
So perhaps part of reflecting on belonging involves people reflecting on whether they feel they can speak freely but also the wider society reflecting on their reactions and responses to this speaking freely.
This could be what acceptance means – everyone having their say and people gauging their own comfort and beginning to reflect more deeply on this.
One of the difficulties with the language of ‘belonging’ is that, even when belonging is understood as ‘welcoming in’, it can presume there is a dominant society to which people are invited or welcome to belong. This kind of approach can be disguised in more universal language like ‘liberal values’ or ‘core values’ and may not be as reflective about the relationship to difference as they need to be. “This is how we do things here!”.
So whilst becoming welcomed into a host society can be positive, as Richard Kearney says in his writings on (radical) hospitality, host and hostis (enemy) are inter-related. https://guestbookproject.org/
When the host insists on assimilation or sameness and refuses to enter into exchange, everything is on their terms. Host societies can behave like this, where inclusion means inclusion ‘in’, but not exchange or reciprocal inclusion. It can also involve insistence on loyalty to one identity, rather than engaging with the richness of multiple heritages and the possibilities of learning and exchange.
When this happens there is too much to be lost in belonging for some – to belong one has to lose so much of oneself, one’s heritage and one’s community if belonging requires assimilation or sameness.
On the other hand, the host does not have to give up or lose anything, even if it, sometimes, ‘fears the other, the stranger’. It’s important to reflect on opportunities for the image of the host to change, and also to ask why some people continuously are positioned as the ‘stranger’, perhaps just because of their migrant heritages or different religious backgrounds.
Lyman Saÿen Daughter in a Rocker
We suggest thinking about belonging, not as a category of (fixed) identity or sameness, but belonging-in-difference. This draws on the work of Édouard Glissant who thinks about identity as involving change, becoming and exchange.
It is not enough to be satisfied with the language of inclusion. It is important to see how and whether inclusion is embodied, invites exchange, and whether this supports ‘belonging-in-difference’. A first helpful step is an ‘audit’ of spaces that asks ‘how does (this) space work?’
To understand this, questions that can be asked include: Who sits beside whom? What images are on the walls? What languages are represented? How is Irishness presented? Who is included in ‘Irishness’ (or any other nationality)? Are there outreach activities to those who may not be entering youth work spaces, or engagement with young people who might feel those spaces are ‘their spaces’ alone? Are relationships built with parents and the wider community inviting them into the space and helping them to feel like they belong? Are diverse cultures, beliefs and languages valued and welcomed into school spaces?
In Unit 1, we explored ways of becoming aware of cultures in organisations. Reflecting on inclusion as exchange builds on this idea. To begin, it can be helpful to reflect more carefully on ‘intentionality’ or ‘intention’. What is the primary intentionality or intention that orients and guides the space? If it is inclusion, then how is that embodied and realised? What would someone else say the primary intention is? (Discipline? Academic assessment?). This also means young people being asked to reflect on the space. Young people can claim spaces as their own, and exclude other young people, questioning why they should be in ‘their space’.
Suggestion: Artworks made by young people can be ways of not only creating spaces for expression but also ways of opening up conversations about questions and issues that can be otherwise be divisive. Since these are connected in different ways to lived experience, this can open up conversations in another way.
When young people engage with extremist groups, they often come from a place of injustice and may be completely correct to feel that injustice. The question then is what to do with the feeling and how to engage with it. This may mean agreeing with the young person that they are right to feel that way, but then exploring together or supporting them to explore together what can we do about it.
At the heart of this is supporting the empowerment and participation of young people. If they have a space and feel they are heard – beyond lip service and consultation – they can develop a sense of agency and active citizenship.
But if not, the motivation to keep engaging with society is lost. However, it is important that young people do not in turn silence others with their agency. How to think about agency collectively.
It is important to have those young people who feel powerless but want change to have a sense of agency supported by the system. There are lots of ways to do this. They can organise for themselves and build sustainability. It also means addressing diversity in the curriculum, not just by talking about different groups, but by foregrounding contributions, for example, to literature or science or the arts, so that young people know that they have cultural heritages that are acknowledged and valued.
What can change a life is being involved and active, in advocacy for example as a young person. This sense of being able to bring solutions to one’s own community, channeling the pain in ways that are creative, and offering supports to help young people to do this and to create actions.
“It can’t be always a matter of a minority always having to justify their value to the majority society without the majority society ever justifying their contributions. It can’t be about the minority always having to educate the majority on why they shouldn’t be doing something or having to disclose and discuss lived experience”.
Rather the bigger question is the essence of ‘what it is I am looking to belong to’. Identities involve movement. They are not fixed. If I feel I belong to, say, Irish identity, it’s with fluidity in my being, as I belong to so many other identities at the same time. And perhaps this is the issue – loyalty. Not being loyal to only ‘one’ identity, being suspect as a consequence and making the majority group feel it at ease by unsettling what community and loyalty want.
But with inclusion, what does this mean? Someone is outside, and is invited in? We need another word because inclusion has to happen on both sides. It is also you getting included in my system. The power of a word and how it resonates can be problematic. We need a two way exchange”.
🤔 Moment for Reflection : Reflect on the words of this workshop participant. What resonates with you?
From Glissant, E. (2020a) Introduction to a Poetics of Diversity. Liverpool: University of Liverpool Press.
“For there to be relation, there must be two or more identities or entities that are sovereign, that agree to change by exchanging” (2020a: 25)
“[..] No longer just to leave it to humanism, kindness, tolerance which are all so fleeting but to enter into the decisive mutation of a plurality to which we all consent’” (2020a: 34)
“How can one be oneself without closing oneself off to the other, and how can one open oneself to the other without losing oneself?” (2020a: 11).
From (2020b) Treatise on the Whole-World. Liverpool: University of Liverpool Press.
‘Imagination, Exchange, Relation” (2020b: 155)
Cathedral Window Quilt Viola Canady