Bust the fixation on being different

Many progressive Dutch individuals, with good intentions regarding diversity, still struggle to make their living and working environments more diverse. This is due to a fixation on the notion of being different and the perceived disadvantage of individuals with a migration background. As a result, these groups are always left out, even when they make an effort to belong.

By Halleh Ghorashi

Halleh Ghorashi is a professor of Diversity and Integration at the Department of Sociology at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. She is also a member of the Social and Economic Council (SER) and a member of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW) and the Royal Holland Society of Sciences and Humanities (KHMW).

The Path to an Inclusive Society

In 1988, I arrived in the Netherlands as an asylum seeker. In Iran, I had been involved in a revolution that later turned into an Islamic revolution. I felt connected to leftist movements all around the world, and the idea of international solidarity gave me strength and hope for the future.

With that baggage, I entered the Netherlands – and then everything fell silent for a moment. It felt like my background suddenly meant nothing. I had to start all over again, learn a new language, and summarize my thoughts step by step in simple sentences. At times, I felt deeply desperate.

During those first years of uncertainty, I wanted to engage in conversations in Dutch at the intellectual level that I was accustomed to in Iran. But due to my language limitations, this sometimes came across as completely wrong. Occasionally, people would be curious and attempt to converse with me, but more often, they would abruptly walk away in shock, leaving me behind.

After a year, I was able to start studying anthropology at the Vrije Universiteit, and gradually, I immersed myself in the academic world which brought me great fulfilment and joy. Although it was quite a leap at the beginning. I constantly felt a gap between my intellectual abilities and my linguistic limitations. Yet, the sense that I had a lot to catch up on and now had an opportunity (in Iran, I was not allowed to attend university due to my political background) filled me with tremendous energy.

Taut Spring

Many refugees, like myself, experience the first year in their new country as a taut spring that releases after years of oppression and violence. Those who can quickly harness this energy and make it productive can overcome a lot of setbacks. I was fortunate to encounter individuals who nudged me in the right direction, even when I didn’t believe in myself. Not only my own efforts but also the people around me and the spirit of the times, helped me get to where I am today.

Illustration: Elis Wilk for Green European Journal

I did not have to follow an integration course, stay in an asylum center, or deal with a negative discourse that portrayed refugees as a burden and a danger to society. Additionally, I was allowed to start my studies without a residence permit, which enabled me to build a lot in the Netherlands in a short time.

However, I was taken aback by the image of a refugee back then as someone who mainly needs help and has little to offer. But compared to now, it wasn’t that bad. Moreover, there were hardly any institutional limitations back then (now, for example, I wouldn’t be able to study without a residence permit).

I often think of the words of Ernst Hirsch Ballin: “It is precisely in the space of what we cannot describe in rules that something meaningful happens: a moment of attention to the particular situation of someone’s life, a moment perhaps of administrative and legal creativity.” And that space, which truly saved my life, is now hard to find.

After completing my degree in anthropology, I got a PhD position in Nijmegen. I was pleasantly surprised by the friendly and leftist atmosphere. When I got a room in a living community, I couldn’t have been happier. As a former Marxist, I found it special to live in a sort of commune, and I had high expectations. I expected to meet like-minded individuals who would help reduce the feeling of being different that I sometimes experienced in the Netherlands.

But it turned out completely different. I felt no connection and was surprised that people weren’t even interested in what I, as a refugee with a leftist background, experienced in the Netherlands. After this, I adjusted my romantic expectations of international solidarity and affinity and focused mainly on my academic home in the Netherlands. After 25 years of researching the experiences of refugees, I have come a bit closer to answering a question that has intrigued me: how is it that many progressive-minded Dutch people, with good intentions regarding diversity, still struggle to make their living and working environments more diverse?

Norm Thinking

Our research, situated within a broader critical literature on diversity, demonstrates that diversity intentions and efforts without inclusive frameworks cannot lead to the necessary change in the status quo. Therefore, these attempts remain superficial and their impact is short-lived. To make a difference, it is essential to connect diversity programs with inclusion. And that means adopting a more structural approach in which norm thinking is questioned.

The power of norm thinking lies in the fact that migrants always fall outside the norm, even when they strive to become part of it.

What do I mean by norm thinking? In a democratic society like the Netherlands, the greatest challenge is the invisibility of processes of exclusion. Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman describes our time as “liquid modernity” because the functioning of power processes has become more invisible and fluid. Power is not inherently vested in individuals in positions of power oppressing others, but rather in everyday images and processes that we often consider as given.

All language that leads to a certain normalization of (thought) patterns (referred to as “discourse” by Foucault) makes its power more subtle and invisible than before, thus making it more challenging to resist. The thinking and practices become entrenched in the routines of everyday life. In scholarly literature, this form of power is referred to as “the power of the obvious,” and this is what I mean by norm thinking.

An example of this is what I have previously referred to in my work as categorical thinking about migrants in the Netherlands. This categorical thinking has two components. The first is that migrants are, by definition, socially and culturally divergent from the Dutch norm. The second component is that migrants are presumed to have a socio-economic disadvantage from the outset. The result of this thinking is a strong fixation on cultural differences and on deficits or shortcomings in terms of the qualities of migrants and refugees.

This fixation on their otherness and disadvantage is so persistent that these images are rarely challenged. The power of norm thinking lies in the fact that migrants always fall outside the norm, even when they strive to become part of the norm. This mechanism is contextual and historically formed, and therefore more internalized than imposed. Consider, for instance, the harsh language about migrants that was entirely inappropriate in the 1980s but is now even accepted by centrist parties.

The current negative and hierarchical approach towards migrants stems from the categorical thinking that emphasizes the otherness of migrants: people who reside in the country but don’t fully belong. Even in times when the discourse about migrants was less negative, they were seen as a “problem category,” vulnerable individuals in need of assistance from the welfare state.

Diversity as a Moral Obligation

This approach to migrants is not unique to the Netherlands. According to researchers Holvino and Kamp, the diversity issue in Northern European welfare states has primarily focused on assisting ethnically “vulnerable” groups since the 1990s. This turned the diversity issue into a moral obligation of the state, as opposed to countries like the US where there is more emphasis on the added value of migrants.

While this approach in the US also has its limitations, this comparison shows how a concept can take on completely different meanings in different contexts. The specific context of the welfare state, according to research, contributes to the perception of migrants as needy and deviating from the norm. As a result, migrants are consistently addressed based on their (presumed) deficiencies rather than their qualities and strengths.

Once this fixation on disadvantage is normalized, it often serves as an automatic explanation for the lack of diversity in various arenas. The problem is not attributed to an exclusionary structure, but rather to the individuals from these groups who are “not as advanced.” The purported solutions often lie in helping these individuals become more competent (i.e., more conforming to the norm), rather than implementing interventions to make structures more inclusive. At the same time, generations of migrants and refugees are constantly reminded of their otherness. Thus, a paradox emerges: they are expected to adapt, yet they always remain different.

The problem is not attributed to an exclusionary structure, but rather to the individuals from these groups who are ‘not as advanced.’

This results in many diversity efforts being destined to fail. As a result, we are witnessing increasing inequality in positions and distance between groups, even without an explicit intention to exclude migrants and refugees. Some organizations even claim to be doing everything in their power to become more diverse. However, good intentions do not lead to inclusivity if the normalized images (both individually and collectively) are not challenged.

Therefore, a different approach is needed, more of a reversal. Being inclusive means truly creating space for diversity by challenging the dominant normative thinking and daring to disrupt the normative images. To achieve this, it is important to invest in the spaces between worlds that are far apart for various reasons. Inspired by the work of Hannah Arendt, I have previously called this an “in-between space.” But what are the conditions for an in-between space?

The transience of our late-modern era brings impatience along with it. The art is therefore to create moments of slowdown, allowing interactions and stories more chances to be seen and heard. Additionally, for intercultural dialogue, the temporary suspension of one’s own judgment, one’s own righteousness, is an important step. This can create a common in-between space, devoid of judgment, making it possible to listen to the other from their perspective. Placing the ego at the forefront makes contact with the other impossible, especially when assumptions about the other are loaded and negative.

But common in-between spaces are also daring. These spaces create a safe environment in which minorities have the opportunity to be disruptive, and for people in influential positions or from privileged backgrounds to be receptive enough to allow for this disruption. It is the task of politics to, on one hand, align with the diversity of lifeworlds in society, and on the other hand, to create the frameworks for a truly inclusive society and thus counteract polarization. The Black Lives Matter movement has further pushed this task onto the agenda of politics and society.

Only then can people with migration or refugee backgrounds not only be admitted to various arenas, but they can also truly participate from their own perspectives and experiences, often differing from those without migration backgrounds. Consider, for example, how the mobility of many migrants and the resilience of many refugees can invigorate different societal, institutional, and organizational arenas.

A clear example of this mobility is the increasing number of children of migrants who have received higher education while their parents are low literate. Despite this unique form of social upward mobility, this group is predominantly approached based on their otherness.

Naturally, they are different from the norm, as their cultural and socioeconomic background differs from the privileged group often considered the norm. Their presumed disadvantage is part of their story and is necessary to present a different perspective, one that deserves recognition. It is possible to give these social climbers a real chance, but that can only happen if they are approached based on their mobility, not their disadvantage.


Another valuable insight to challenge normative thinking for those who consider themselves progressive is a statement by Anil Ramdas. “Uprooting is liberating” read the headline of an interview with him in the monthly magazine Humanist. In those words, I saw a beautiful description of what the Palestinian-American literary scholar Edward Said calls intellectual exile.

An exile must constantly translate between different contexts, thus having a dual perspective. Nothing is fixed, or in isolation. Due to their state of ‘in-betweenness,’ exiles can escape the power of the obvious, or normative thinking. Said uses the ‘in-betweenness’ of exiles as a metaphor for progressive thinkers who do not wish to conform to the status quo. They are the bearers and guardians of the free spirit because, like exiles, they reject rigid (visible and less visible, and therefore internalized) patterns.

These free spirits, in a way, never want to assimilate. However, for both exiles and those who think differently, this freedom of spirit is a potential that becomes productive only when someone reflects on the self-evident structures and images that unconsciously influence their daily lives and shape their actions.

Good intentions are insufficient and can even hinder true inclusivity.

This choice to distance oneself from dominant normative thinking entails being able to go beyond good intentions and truly invest in inclusive spaces and relationships. This requires embracing the notion of being different and constantly disrupting compartmentalization in one’s own life and within organizations. People with good intentions often believe that they are doing well, which can lead them to not feel the need to reflect on their perspective or approach.

Above, I have attempted to outline why good intentions are insufficient and can even hinder genuine inclusivity if people do not question the hierarchical relationship towards vulnerable groups. In such cases, normative thinking is more likely to be reproduced than questioned. Only through disrupting normative thinking is it possible to be inclusive and get closer to people who are far from our own lived experiences and frames of reference.

By connecting diverse worlds, and creating a fusion of horizons, various minority groups can find a dignified and equal place where their presence and contributions can play a meaningful role. This ideal shifts from merely helping the other to also helping ourselves to look beyond and see more than our immediate surroundings.

This essay was previously published on De Helling.