I had a very pleasant holiday with my family in Grindelwald, Switzerland, earlier this month. It is a quite beautiful location, roughly in the middle of the country, with views towards the Jungfrau and the Eiger. There was much to see and do and it was fun to chat in German with the locals, whom I actually understood, except when they spoke amongst themselves.
It was not surprising that the area attracted a lot of tourists, but I was surprised to see how many of them were from the Middle East. We did bump into two Finnish families, but they formed only a fraction of the visitors. For some reason I had assumed most of the tourists would be European or American. Maybe this assumption was based on what I had seen on previous visits to Central Europe, I don’t know. In London I had rubbed shoulders with Middle Eastern tourists, but not perhaps anywhere else on such a large scale.
Why was I surprised? The middle class is growing in many parts of the world. Many Iranians, Brazilians or Chinese can afford relatively expensive holidays in Central Europe, unlike decades ago. Somehow, the media does not prepare us for this. Whenever the Middle East is in the news, it is for negative reasons – riots, religious bigotry, terrorism, war. And yet there are milliions of people living there doing exactly the same things that we do – going on foreign holidays with the family, for example, taking selfies, buying souvenirs, struggling with the local language and local prices. These people are never in the news, because their reality does not fit in with the stereotype of the Middle East.
As a child I genuinely believed the Irish were stupid because of all the jokes I heard about them. I wonder if the stereotype of the silly Irishman came from the days when lots of uneducated Irishmen from the countryside moved to British cities in search of a better life? Perhaps they did seem foolish to the locals. The locals never met any Irish schoolteachers, doctors, nurses or university professors, so the stereotype stuck.
When I was at university in the 1980s I met a Communist who was campaigning for a revolution in South Africa, which in those days had the racist apartheid system. He believed the struggle there was ultimately a class struggle, and wanted a violent solution to it. Thank goodness this never happened, and South Africa enjoyed a peaceful transition from apartheid to democracy. Years later, though, I had to admit that he had a point. The whites were basically the upper class there and the blacks the lower class. There was a vast gulf in income and education levels between the two.
Quite simply, people from country (or nation) A stereotype people from country or nation B as being inferior in some way. There probably would not be any racism at all if every country consisted of exactly the same proportion of upper, middle and lower class people. There certainly would not have been any problems in Northern Ireland if the Catholics and Protestants there had enjoyed a comparable standard of living.
I think we should all be inspired by the biblical passage Ephesians 2:19 to think of each other no longer as foreigners and strangers, but as fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household. First and foremost, we are ALL God’s children. Everything else is secondary.