In the run-up to France’s 2015 regional elections, a controversial campaign poster from the Illes-de-France region around Paris went viral. The poster showed two women facing each other, one with flowing hair and the French tricolour painted on her cheek, the other wearing a burqa. “Choose your suburb: Vote for the Front!” proclaimed the text.
The poster leaves little doubt to what sort of immigrant the Front National’s Marine Le Pen hopes to block with her proposed crackdown. Such anti-immigrant sentiment is not confined to France. A palpable fear of immigrants—and in particular Muslims—has been propelling the nationalism overturning liberal political dynasties across the Western world.
In the face of this renewed nationalism, grassroots networks try to create cultural bridges to undermine fear and growing intolerance—and food can be a way to open connections.
Unlike civic nationalism – cheering for your hometown’s sports team for example – populists like Le Pen and US President Donald Trump ground their nationalism in a nativist narrative of race and tradition. This ethnic nationalism unites citizens by painting an image of their country under siege. Trump spoke to this logic when he alleged Mexican immigrants are “…sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems to us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime.” Although Trump’s claims have no factual basis (both legal and illegal immigrants have crime rates dramatically lower than native-born Americans), they serve as a shortcut to national unity against a visible and easily identified foe.
While scapegoating might be a response to legitimate social ills—drug abuse has skyrocketed in recent years among White middle-class Americans—it oversimplifies the complex causes of the problem. Scapegoating serves as a shortcut to political unity, a pillar of ethnic nationalism. Trump’s infamous comment calling for, “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” takes a similar tact.
Such narratives have wide appeal because they are simple and accessible, but they are generally grounded in ignorance and segregation. The non-profit Public Religion Research Institute reports that only 16 per cent of the American public say they know a lot about the religious beliefs and practices of Muslims. Roughly 29 per cent say they at least occasionally interact with someone who is Muslim, while a majority say they seldom (26 per cent) or never (36 per cent) have conversations with Muslims.
The idea that increased exposure to minority groups builds tolerance stems from the contact hypothesis, first published by American psychologist Gordon Allport in 1954. But this theory comes with some important caveats. When a majority group perceives a threat to their status they often respond by supporting stronger racialized state control, for example tighter immigration policies. The impending majority-minority shift, in which historically dominant Whites no longer constitute a majority, is one such threat. Researchers at New York University found that White subjects’ racial bias increased when they were exposed to articles about this shift. While increasing diversity and contact might open the door to tolerance, perceived group threat could mitigate that effect.
Researchers at the Oxford Centre for the Study of Intergroup Conflict argue that direct contact between diverse groups may not even be necessary to increase tolerance. A series of seven studies carried out between 2002 and 2011 in England, Europe, the US and South Africa found that even highly prejudiced people who did not mix with those of different ethnicities became more tolerant the longer they lived in mixed areas. “It isn’t even confined to those whose friends have contact with minorities. Simply living in a neighbourhood where other people are mixing with minorities is enough to reduce racial prejudice,” says Professor Miles Hewstone.
To some grassroots organizations, the implications of this research seem obvious. In the US, restauranteurs with a social mission are responding to minority scapegoating the best way they know how. “New Jersey, despite its remarkable cultural diversity, is strikingly segregated,” Kate McCaffrey, co-founder of the Syrian Supper Club, tells Quartz. The twice-weekly fundraiser, held in a suburb of New Jersey, pairs refugee cooks with American hosts to hold extravagant dinner parties. “A central focus of these meals is to bring people together to break bread,” McCaffrey continues, “to challenge some of the hateful rhetoric percolating out there, and to diminish isolation for our newest neighbors.”
Similarly, refugees in Seattle are segregated from the broader city. Project Feast, a local social enterprise, works to bridge both geographic and cultural divides by organizing Migrating Meals, a monthly rotating food and discussion event. Immigrant-owned businesses host Migrating Meals, and past discussions have focused on the legacy of colonization and the intersection of food and ritual. Project Feast aims to mix dining and interaction, “There’s a special thing that happens when we eat together,” says Molly Payne, Project Feast’s Program Coordinator. “The discussion becomes more comfortable, and it opens a safe space to ask difficult questions.”
Project Feast and the Syrian Supper Club could be preaching to the choir. Those most at risk of falling for scapegoat narratives may be the least likely to voluntarily interact with refugees. But as Payne notes, “There’s always work to be done, even in a place like liberal Seattle. You might learn something and tell your less tolerant relative. Ending Islamophobia and racism is all about relationship building, and food offers a soft entry point for people to join in the conversation.”
These grassroots efforts do little to directly change policy or to pressure politicians. But they do help build a sense of community for refugees arriving in a hostile political environment. Alqaysi, an Iraqi refugee and participant of the Syrian Supper Club, tells NPR, “I want to make more friend, because I don’t have friend. I need to know this culture. I want talk to them, like I talk to you.”
As former Czech Republic president Vaclav Havel says about politics, “The issue is the rehabilitation of values like trust, openness, responsibility, solidarity, love.” Food is as good a place to start as any.