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The role of nativist discourse in racist ideology

Cross-posted from Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power – Blog post by George Newth

‘Refugees must be taught how to best fit in’: so reads the title of Times columnist Clare Foges following the fall of Afghanistan in August 2021 to the Taliban and the subsequent mass exodus of Afghan men, women and children towards Britain. This wilfully juxtaposes a ‘non-native’ other with the presumed ‘natives’ of the UK and places expectations on the new arrivals to adapt to ‘our way of life’. This emphasis on assimilation and the eradication of difference and is one of the core demands often placed on the racialised ‘non-native’, ‘foreigner’ or ‘non-integrated’ co-citizen on their arrival to the West. It is but one of many recent examples of a far right discourse of ‘nativism’ being published in a mainstream broadsheet, and passed off as ‘sensible politics’.

Much of the scholarship on the far right has taken an ‘ideational approach’ to nativism which entails the following three assumptions:

  1. Nativism is an ideology, and thus as a belief system, which gives preference to ‘natives’ and considers ‘non-natives’ as a threat to the homogenous nation-state
  2. What defines this ideology is a combination (to varying degrees and extents) of xenophobia, nationalism, populism and racism
  3. Nativism is predominantly a far right (or radical right) phenomenon.

The ideational approach has spawned a wide range of paradigms which define nativism as a ‘combination of nationalism and xenophobia’, a ‘subset of American racism and nationalism’, as ‘non-racist’, ‘race neutral’, or a blend of ‘nationalism and populism’. Such an approach tends to neglect the fuzzy borders between these concepts, underestimate of the process of racialisation in the juxtaposition of the native against the non-native, conflate nativism with populism, and ignore the presence of nativism in the mainstream. This euphemises and conceals the racist ideology behind anti-migrant and anti-refugee messages.

My Identities article, ‘Rethinking ‘Nativism’: beyond the ideational approach’, while not negating the importance of ideology, shifts the focus from what is the assumed ‘ideational content’ of political phenomena to how political actors formulate this supposed content. Rather than representing a form of nationalism, nativism is interpreted as:

a racist and xenophobic discourse structured around an exclusionary vision of ‘the nation’ in which the ‘native’ is discursively constructed as a disadvantaged and threatened ‘in-group’ through its juxtaposition along antagonistic and horizontal lines to a racialised ‘non-native’, ‘foreigner’, or ‘non-integrated co-citizen’.

My definition helps identify how nativism operates in the blurred lines between exclusionary nationalism, xenophobia, racism and racialisation. By presenting nativism as a political logic and discourse the article represents a departure from the aforementioned ideational approaches which have tended to conflate the term not only with racism, but also populism, thus equipping such ideas with a veneer of ‘popular will’.

It is my hope that my new definition of nativism may help scholars identify such discourse for what it is: a discursive feature of racist ideology. I advocate for a more critical engagement with the term nativism, avoiding its use as a proxy for racism. This can be done by bearing in mind the following three rules of engagement:

1.  Nativism’s logic is racist not populist  
The logic of nativism relies on the three following elements:
The presentation of immigration as a threat to the nation (or region)
A racist and racialised process of othering

An emphasis on ‘assimilation’, ‘acceptable transformation of the problem of difference’, or ‘stopping the invasion’.Identifying this logic allows us to draw a clearer distinction from that of populism which in its juxtaposition of ‘the people’ versus ‘the elites’ does not have to eradicate the differences between the different groups and demands that are grouped under ‘the people’.

2.  Nativism is a racist and xenophobic discourse  
Viewing nativism as ‘non-racist’ or ‘race-neutral’ contributes to the euphemising of racist ideology. Instead, by viewing nativism as a key discursive feature of racist ideology it is possible to see it as operating very much within the same logic of exclusionary practices which cause so much harm to marginalised and racialised groups. It ties race and nationality together to portray the ‘native’ as a disadvantaged group being exploited by ‘non-natives’

3. Nativism forms part of the ‘extreme’ and the ‘mainstream’  
​From Nigel Farage’s ‘Breaking Point’ posters in the Brexit campaign and Theresa May’s ‘Go Home Vans’ to Gordon Brown’s pledge of ‘British jobs for British workers’, nativist discourse operates from the right to the left and both within the extreme and the mainstream. The Times’ proselytizing tone of ‘teaching refugees how best to fit in’, therefore, provides but the most recent example of nativist discourse, which is far from new to mainstream media or politics. Understanding the fuzzy borders between the far right and the mainstream, and that the mainstream is not inherently progressive or good, is therefore essential in identifying nativist discourse.

​While a discourse of ‘strong national borders’ that accompanied the so-called ‘migrant crisis’ has accelerated in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the previous decade has also witnessed a rise of Islamophobia in Europe and the US, the Windrush scandal in the UK and the mobilisation of the Black Lives Matter movement. All of these events have raised questions about ‘in-groups’ and ‘out-groups’ with perceived ‘non-native’ and racialised groups being excluded from national belonging.

One of the most pressing issues for ‘far right studies’ is a continuous and robust engagement with how racism operates as a key part of far right ideology and how this relates to the mainstream. This entails a move away from paradigms and approaches which (consciously or unconsciously) act to euphemise racist ideas and policies. I maintain that ‘nativism’, as a concept, only has any purpose if it is recognised as a discursive element of racist ideology.
Concepts require constant interrogation and evolution; I, therefore, encourage critical engagement with my definition to further examine the way in which ‘natives’ and ‘non-natives’ are discursively constructed by both extreme and mainstream political actors.

Image credit: Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash