Tracing difference in Kilburn, from xenos to ego, and from fixity to fluidity
Farhan Samanani (University of Oxford)
Paper short abstract:
This paper explores everyday conceptions of difference in the diverse London neighbourhood of Kilburn. I argue that such emic visions of difference are best understood through two continua, one of proximity, from xenos to ego, and another of malleability, from fixity to fluidity.
Paper long abstract:
When asked if the 'multicultural experiment' in Britain had failed, the novelist Zadie Smith replied that "as a child I did not realize that the life I was living was considered in any way provisional or experimental by others: I thought it was just life." Smith's native Kilburn has famously been depicted as a cosmopolitan milieu, where encounters with difference have become normalized. Here, difference takes on a liminal status, imagined as accessible and so never wholly alien, yet perpetually out there, and so never wholly capable of becoming familiar. Yet in focusing on such liminal conceptions of difference, scholars looking at Kilburn have come to overlook where difference is conceived in more absolute terms. Indeed, in Smith's own writing, intercultural differences remain stubborn sources of significant friction. Drawing on my own ethnographic work in Kilburn tracing locals' own visions of what 'differences make a difference', I argue that there is a need to understand our imaginaries of difference along multiple dimensions. In this paper, I focus on two such dimensions, tracing how for Kilburn's diverse residents, an imagined continuum of strangeness, running from ego to xenos intersects with imaginaries surrounding the malleability of difference, ranging from fixed to fluid. While xenophobia may emerge when others are seen as both fixed and alien, ethical projects of xenophilia may emerge when difference is seen as collectively malleable. To illustrate this, I draw on ethnography of a community centre run by and for young Muslims, and on a local radio station, as settings where the meaning of difference is continually reworked.
Moving between self and other: Navigating hierarchy and alterity in cosmopolitical encounters