6 Actions to Move From “Us/Them” to “We”

A version of this post was publish in Concordia University Public Scholars Blog: http://www.concordia.ca/cunews/offices/vprgs/sgs/public-scholars/2017/06/20/victims-or-terrorists.html

Consider this scenario: You hear a knock on your door. You check through the peephole. It is your new neighbor, the Syrian terrorist, with his/her school bag. Well, you guess he/she probably is a terrorist. He/she looks exactly like the terrorists you read so much about on your Facebook News feed. You do not really know who this person is. You just saw him/her moving next door few days ago. Do you open your door? Or do you just pretend there is no one home? Let’s say you do open your door, do you let him/her in? And, if you let him/her in, do you genuinely feel willing to let him/her stay in your own safe environment? Would you foresee any kind of relationship with him/her?

Consider this other scenario: You hear a knock on your door. You check through the peephole. It is your new neighbor, the Syrian refugee, with his/her school bag. You bumped into him/her the other day in the grocery store next door and you spoke for 10 minutes or so. You could have never imagined the many things you had in common. You both were born into families for whom being educated was mandatory. You both valued your parents and respected them for the sacrifices they did for you. And you both were sick tired of hearing and reading about terrorists and hoped one day they all vanish off the face of the earth. This Syrian refugee had been through an inhumane journey to finally get here in Canada, safe from the insane unstoppable war in his/her country. This war is forcing all these innocent people to flee and risk their lives in overcrowded unsafe boats you read so much about on your Facebook News feed. You do not really know who this person is. You just saw him/her moving next door few days ago. Do you open your door? Or do you just pretend there is no one home? Let’s say you do open the door, do you let him/her in? And, if you let him/her in, do you genuinely feel willing to let him/her stay in your own safe environment? Would you foresee any kind of relationship with him/her?

What were your answers to the questions at the end of each of these scenarios? Were they different? If yes, why? If no, why not?

I am almost confident that most of you would not open the door to a Syrian refugee if you have the slightest doubt that this person could harm you in any way. I am also confident that this doubt and fear could be explained and dissolved.

The similarity-attraction hypothesis, the integrated threat theory(ITT), the contact hypothesis, the common in-group identity model, and the mutual identity differentiation model could clarify some of the factors that are at stake when it comes to the inclusion and the integration of the Syrian refugees in host societies.

First claim: In order for the host society to develop any kind of positive relationship with the Syrian refugees, they need to perceive some sort of similarities between themselves and these newcomers.

Byrne’s (1971) states through his similarity-attraction hypothesis that human beings are attracted to others whom they perceive similar. Rosenbaum (1986) argues that while it is yet to be confirmed that similarity leads to liking, dissimilarity does lead to repulsion. However, both researchers assert that the level of similarity plays a fundamental role in the nature of relationships. This could explain why, despite the Canadian multicultural identity, many individuals still prefer cultural homogeneity. In fact, Van Oudenhoven, Ward, and Masgoret (2006) discuss how the acculturation literature relies on the similarity-attraction hypothesis to explain why newcomers from dissimilar cultures are perceived less positively than those with similar backgrounds. Zami (2015) also uses the hypothesis to explain the residential concentrations of immigrants leading to the development of ethnic enclaves. By being with similar others, within a similar group, one feels more secure, more appreciated and his/her beliefs and values less challenged.

So let’s focus on what we all have in common!

Second claim: As long as the host society perceives the arrival of the Syrian refugees in its country as a threat, or the Syrian refugees perceive the position of the host society towards them as a threat, integration and inclusion will remain at risk.

Stephan and Stephan (2000) affirm through the integrated threat theory(ITT) they propose that people precipitate prejudice when they feel threatened by one of four kinds of threat. The first kind is the realistic threat. It occurs when one’s safety, well-being, health, or the political or economic environment one is living in is put at risk. The second is the symbolic threat. It happens when one’s morals, values, attitudes, beliefs or standards are jeopardized. The third is intergroup anxiety. This is considered one of the most dangerous threats because it involves and dictates the nature of relationships between groups. It is felt when an individual is in the presence of out-group members and is unsure or worried about how to behave towards them, dreading their reactions to his/her behaviour.

Oskamp (2000) explains: “People feel personally threatened in intergroup interactions because they are concerned about negative outcomes for the self, such as being embarrassed, rejected, or ridiculed” (p.40). The more one anticipates negative reactions from the out-group members, the more prejudiced and biased he/she is towards them, which eventually leads to conflicts between groups. The forth kind of threat is negative stereotyping. It occurs when in-group members are obstinate when it comes to what they believe are the characteristics of the the out-group members and they base their anticipation of the out-group members’ behaviours on these characteristics. ITT is particularly relevant to religious intolerance, public attitudes towards refugees, racial profiling and stereotyping.

So let’s identify the sources of our fear and challenge them!

Third claim: Prejudice and negative attitudes held by the host society towards the Syrian refugees and vice versa are caused by the lack of contact and thus of knowledge about the other.

According to Allport’s contact hypothesis:

Prejudice (unless deeply rooted in the character structure of the individual) may be reduced by equal status contact between majority and minority groups in the pursuit of common goals. The effect is greatly enhanced if this contact is sanctioned by institutional supports (i.e., by law, custom or local atmosphere), and provided it is of a sort that leads to the perception of common interests and common humanity between members of the two groups (Allport,1954, p.281).

Contact allows people to verify and validate any hypothesis they have about the Other. When they are in the presence of the Other, engaging in interactions, they have the chance to test their assumptions and confirm or correct their prejudgment based on concrete experiences.

So let’s meet!

Fourth claim: Once the Syrian refugees are defined as part of the host society, they will be treated in a similar way to any other citizen or permanent resident.

Socially categorizing people into different groups leads to an increased bias in favor to one’s own group and against all the others’. In order to rectify this situation, Gaertner and Dovidio (2005) hypothesize through their common in-group identity model that:

If members of different groups are induced to conceive of themselves as a single group rather than as two completely separate groups, attitudes toward former outgroup members will become more positive through the cognitive and motivational forces that result from in-group formation—a consequence that could increase the sense of connectedness across group lines (Gartner & Dovidio, 2005, p.628).

In other words, for members of the host society to be able to demonstrate positive feelings, behaviours and attitudes towards the Syrian refugees, they should be encouraged to re-categorize themselves and the Syrian refugees using a superordinate level of inclusiveness category, such as emphasizing common identities. Once the refugees are perceived as members of an overarching group that equally includes the host society, they will be entitled to “in-group-favoring biases” (Dovidio, Gaertner, & Saguy, 2015, p.1524).

So let us find out to which group we all belong!

Fifth claim: The key to assure the transfer of the host society’s inclusiveness from including one specific Syrian refugee to including all Syrian refugees, the newcomers’ identity traits should not be concealed. 

Contrary to the common in-group identity model, Brown and Hewstone (2005) argue that intergroup relations are positive only if members from each group embrace their own characteristics and acknowledge the differences that exist between them and the others. Grounded in the contact hypothesis, the mutual identity differentiation model’s authors insist on the importance of maintaining individuals’ identities when contact is established between members of different groups, as these traits are integral to what makes the individuals who they are, and what characterizes the group they belong to. By acknowledging the differences and yet finding some common ground, inclusion has the potential to spread to other group members with whom no contact ever happens, despite group differences. If a member of the host society meets a Syrian refugee and finds some sort of similarities between him/herself and the newcomer, they could assume that these similarities could be found in other Syrian newcomers regardless of their believed dissimilarities.

So let’s value our differences!

Kind Reminder

Almost 4.8 million Syrian refugees have fled an inhumane cruel war zone and are now in need of urgent humanitarian assistance and a place they could call home.

Baumeister and Leary (1995) state that belongingness is a fundamental need that urges human beings to form and maintain “at least a minimum quantity of lasting, positive, and significant interpersonal relationships” (p.497). But once this minimum is reached, the motivation diminishes and the urge to develop new contacts fades away. One’s need to belong is only satisfied if the interactions he/she is involved in are1) frequent, 2) positive, pleasant, and free of conflict, 3) perceived as a stable bond, foreseeable in the future, and 4) with individuals who he/she perceives as supportive and genuinely caring about his/her well-being (Baumeister & Leary, 1995). The quest for belonging could explain many emotions and behaviours exhibited by the individuals who suffer from lack of belongingness. The feeling of not belonging or of being rejected could result in less empathy, aggression, antisocial behavior, and self-defeating behavior (Case Western Reserve University School of Law, 2012).

Which leads us to our last claim:

Sixth claim: To strive in any host society environment, Syrian refugees need to feel that they belong.

So let’s make them feel that they do belong!


  1. Allport, G. W. (1954). The nature of prejudice. Cambridge/Reading, MA: Addison- Wesley.
  2. Baumeister, R. F., & Leary, M. R. (1995). The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 117(3), 497-529.
  3. Brown, R., & Hewstone, H. (2005). An integrative theory of intergroup contact. In M. P. Zanna (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology (37, pp. 255–343). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.
  4. Byrne, Donn. 1971. The Attraction Paradigm. New York: Academic Press.
  5. Case Western Reserve University School of Law. (April, 2012). How Rejection Affects People. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NSqRZNNZd3Y
  6. Dovidio, J. F., Gaertner, S. L., & Saguy, T. (2015). Color-blindness and commonality. American Behavioral Scientist, 59(11), 1518-1538.
  7. Gaertner, S. L., & Dovidio, J. F. (2005). Understanding and addressing contemporary racism: From aversive racism to the common in-group identity model. Journal of Social Issues, 61(3), 615-639.
  8. Oskamp, S. (2000). Reducing prejudice and discrimination. Mahwah, N.J: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
  9. Rosenbaum, M. E. (1986). The repulsion hypothesis: On the nondevelopment of relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 51, 1156–1166.
  10. Stephan, W. G., & Stephan, C. W. (2000). An integrated threat theory of prejudice. In S. Oskamp (Ed.), Reducing Prejudice and Discrimination (pp. 23-45). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
  11. Van Oudenhoven, J. P., Ward, C., & Masgoret, A. (2006). Patterns of relations between immigrants and host societies. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 30(6), 637-651.
  12. Zaami, M. (2015). ‘I fit the description’: Experiences of social and spatial exclusion among ghanaian immigrant youth in the jane and finch neighbourhood of toronto. Canadian Ethnic Studies, 47(3), 69-89.

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