The man who convinced me to become a journalist came on the radio every weekday at 8.17 am. I timed my breakfast so I could catch him on the kitchen set before heading to high school. Bernard Guetta* explained foreign news in a 3-minute editorial on French public radio most days for 27 years. And most days, I was listening. Radio was always my window to the world.
So why did I never attempt it myself until this year? When I entered journalism school in the US, I quickly dismissed the idea. I didn’t agonize over it, no one told me I couldn’t, but it was obvious I wasn’t good enough. Who would want to listen to my accent on the radio? Who would even hire me sounding as I did? Writing I could do, and editing would take care of smoothing any foreign feathers. But talking? They would know.
That was shame, Marcela Kunova tells me. “I know so many foreigners or people who just go to a different country who suddenly freeze,” she says in this week’s episode of the Borderline podcast. “You function at 10% of who you are because you are just ashamed to open your mouth and speak with an accent, because of the fear of being judged or maybe being laughed at. Or being just told you are somehow not good enough, your accent is not good enough, you don't belong. And this fear of not belonging, or the need to belong is one of the fundamental human instincts.”
Shame is a common emotion of the immigrant, one so internalized that I had not realized how it had impacted me until I talked with Kunova. She’s been an immigrant in four countries over the past 20 years. She’s had time to deconstruct this emotion and its ties to xenophobia, and shared her observations in a deeply personal interview for the Borderlives series, a collection of episodes exploring the experiences and identities of global citizens.
See excerpts from our conversation below and for much more depth, listen to the episode here.
On learning to internalize shame
One of the things that I learned very quickly was to feel shame. Shame is something that gets put on you in a way. You are made to feel unworthy or inadequate. I didn't have words or concepts to think about how someone is making me feel. I genuinely believed I was not good enough. Or “I probably deserve to be treated this way because I am trying to live a life that doesn't belong to me. I don't belong to this place.”
It took me years to understand that I don't have to accept this, that there's absolutely nothing to be ashamed of. But shame is a very powerful emotion that truly paralyzes you, that stops you from doing things, that stops you from aspiring, that stops you from trying.
I didn't understand it at the time, I understand it now with hindsight: when you talk about the far-right and racism, the hostility that you feel, one of the purposes is to make you feel ashamed and to hinder you, to make sure you don't act, or you don't aspire, or you don't fight back.
On the importance of a support network
You don't have to accept what you hear, but to arrive there, you need to have some degree of a sense of self worth and you need support. I don't think anyone can just do it on their own. You need to have some kind of roots, some kind of base where you can draw this strength from and push back.
Many people, when they go abroad, this support network weakens. Family and friends are far away. They are not so much part of your everyday life even with all the technology and WhatsApp and Skype and whatnot. You don't feel that safe and when you don't feel safe, you (respond by) flight, fight or freeze.
On the dangers of shame
Guilt is when you do something wrong and then you feel you've done something that is not in line with your values. You feel guilty, and that will correct your behavior. Shame is not “I made a mistake.” It's “I am a mistake.” It's not, “I've done something wrong.” It is, “I am wrong.” So this shame, when you internalize it, might very well contribute to self-harming, but it might also contribute to violence. This is where my biggest fear is.
Communities feel like they have been somehow downgraded because of immigration and they feel shame for not protecting their national pride, etc. And then the shame put on the immigrants: “you don't belong. You're not good enough.” That can actually escalate into violent conflict, of which the basis is really shame.
Making people feel somehow not worthy is an attempt to discourage them from trying to blend in or to assimilate. Because lots of people see multiculturalism as a genuine threat to their coherent community and making someone feel not safe is an attempt to say "don't even try to settle."
On the perks of vulnerability
Being vulnerable to me is the condition of innovation or change. You need to admit: anything can happen, I'm not safe, and yet I try, and yet I act, and yet I do something. This vulnerability is the fundamental condition of actually making a change or doing something that has never been done before.
When you're a foreigner in a foreign country, you are more vulnerable. You don't have a support network. You don't really know how the system works. If something happens to you, you might not have a safety net. You are objectively more vulnerable than if you were back in your country.
And sometimes this vulnerability just gives you the opportunity to be creative and to try something new, to turn your life around or to create something, at work or in your personal life. It can be a fantastic source of strength and of inspiration.
More episodes in the Borderlives series:
- “I don’t know what you are.” (Ferdous al-Faruque 🇧🇩 🇸🇪 🇵🇱 🇺🇸 🇨🇦)
- “Living here is a choice that people before me made. I can make a different choice.” (Janet Matta 🇺🇸🇳🇿🇦🇺🇨🇦🇩🇪🇬🇧🇸🇰)
- “I don’t want to be strong. I just want to fix things so it doesn’t happen anymore.” (Lynn Chouman 🇱🇧 🇦🇪)
- Wanna be next? Get in touch.
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*Bernard Guetta has left journalism and is now an MEP. I’m still not over it.