Why must an individual sound or look Maltese in order to stand up for the good of our society? Not only does bigotry discourage sound debate between individuals of different nationality, it also backfires in the most unexpected way.
by Raisa Galea
Collage by the author (assisted by Pixabay)
Go back to your country! How often do people residing outside their country of origin hear this semi-rage, semi-insult? Although, fortunately, I have not experienced this kind of hostility too often, irritated ‘patriots’ did advise me to return wherever I came from a few times.
From my observations, hostile exchanges are far more common in cyberspace than in the physical one: the chance of having an argument with strangers is greater online. The comments sections of Malta’s most popular publications and social media groups quickly turn into a battleground whenever a non-Maltese resident drops a few condemning comments. Blazing with indignation, the ‘trueborn’ Maltese rush with if-you-don’t-like-it-here-go-back, prompting a continuous spin of clashes with no possibility of a sound debate.
I believe that, in person, many of us would never utter half of the insults with which we generously shower one another online. When a small profile picture and a name on the screen is all that represent the other’s humanity, hurling abuse is just too easy. Much trickier, however, is guessing an opponent’s nationality from their social media profile. Turns out, we are pretty bad at telling the ‘proper’ Maltese from ‘foreigners’; and despite the confusion and embarrassment it elicits, this could be a lesson to learn from.
Becoming Maltese: Crafting a Surname
Now, I do not pretend that all opinions about Malta’s state of affairs fall into a ‘genuine concerns’ category. There is plenty of patronising mockery whose aim is to scorn the country for not meeting one’s superior demands. Such opinions are a different kettle of fish: they focus exclusively on the individual’s own discomfort from construction noise, traffic or the partisan political climate, and never consider how all of those impact the rest of the community. Admittedly, such egocentric complaints sound as troublesome as the problems they decry (especially in the context of Malta’s postcolonial anxieties), but this attitude is not uniquely a foreigners’ pastime.
Although I did not expect a standing ovation for my passionate pledge against the approval of Townsquare project in 2016, some feedback still struck me as beyond unfair: it implied that, as a ‘foreigner’, I had no right to a critical perspective. The very first comment was unequivocally clear: “Go back home and use your energy to fix things back there.” Strange, I thought. How would my departure prevent the eco- and socially harmful project from being built?
Strange, I thought. How would my departure prevent the eco- and socially harmful project from being built?
Why did an opinion piece in favour of the environment and the good of society provoke such indignation? Moreover, if foreign nationals are expected to become part of the community, a genuine concern for the host society is the best indicator of successful integration.
Clearly, the irritated patriot did not bother to engage with the message. But why? The answer seemed to point at my foreign surname. Apparently, a critical opinion coming from a non-Maltese national was dismissed a priori, with no due consideration nor attempt to distinguish genuine concerns from patronising mockery. To some people, my surname seemed more important than the causes I wrote about.
When after my wedding I was able to choose whether to adopt my husband’s family name, the decision came quickly.
If my foreign surname fed into prejudice—if it truly was an obstacle to sound debates—then a Maltese surname was an opportunity to support just causes without prompting unnecessary animosity. Unlike principles, changing a surname is relatively easy. In addition, being aware of the stereotypical ‘elite’ connotations that a double-barrelled surname brings to mind, I decided to keep only the first—Galea—on my public profile. A double-barrelled or a foreign family name promised greater respect in upper middle class circles, but this was not my goal. Indeed, crafting a new surname (not the marriage!) felt like an exciting social experiment.
Read More: How I Have Become a Local in Malta.
A Rose by Any Other (Sur)Name Does Not Smell as Sweet
The experiment was a success. If Raisa Tarasova (a Russian) was told to return home whenever she protested an ODZ development, the very same arguments stirred engagement when they came from Raisa Galea (an ordinary Maltese). The contrast in feedback was so stark, it called for an investigation of its own. I decided to find out whether this was a common experience that other foreign residents encountered after having adopted their Maltese spouse’s surname. The findings were even more insightful than I expected.
Not all respondents had to face hostility online, but many agreed that taking on a Maltese surname helped them to be treated as locals. One of the respondents, Katya, stressed that Maltese were always nice to her. But after changing her surname she is taken for a Maltese most of the time: “Katya Grech sounds Maltese. When people see an email from me, they automatically assume that I am Maltese”.
The newly-minted locals noticed a change in attitude outside cyberspace, too. As Steve observed, “I felt a difference when I sought assistance… or asked for an appointment, or for a service. I simply say that I am Steve Cauchi and I most probably get more than if I say Steve Blondelet.”
Most surprising, however, was to find out that the opposite was also true: the change in surname had an alienating effect on many Maltese nationals who were getting flak due to their foreign spouse’s family name. As though by some malicious spell, these born and bred Maltese transformed into much-maligned foreigners on their wedding day. The examples abound.
Charlene L., whose married family name sounds Scandinavian, laments that, in certain groups, she was told to “ f*** off and go back” to her country because her views did not match her opponents’.
Jana Sadeh shares a similar story: “I am Maltese but took on my husband’s surname. I get a lot of attitude and questions about my belonging because of it. For sure, on Facebook you are not ‘one of us’ if you’re not obviously Maltese.”
I am Maltese but took on my husband’s surname. I get a lot of attitude and questions about my belonging because of it. For sure, on Facebook you are not ‘one of us’ if you’re not obviously Maltese.
Another Maltese woman, Danielle, whose social media profile displays a Dutch surname, concurs. Frequently, she gets responses on the lines of “you shouldn’t have an opinion as you are not Maltese… Leave it up to us… Tindaħalx.”
The Maltese who changed their surnames due to marriage are not the only ones treated with suspicion. A foreign parent’s surname often causes the same effect.
Yet, the role of having a ‘proper’ Maltese surname (and appearance) is even more decisive when it comes to discussing socially sensitive topics or behaving ‘outside the box’. In this case, speaking Maltese is another game-changer capable of boosting credibility. Sarah P., who kept her Maltese family name after marrying a foreigner, but whose public profile displays a stage name, says she has often been mistaken for a tourist: “I was yelled at by Maltese people at tourist sites […] ‘Do you do this in your country?’ So I yelled back in Maltese: ‘This is my country!’” In the words of Nicole M., “more than once, when I speak Maltese, [people] turn around and say ‘Ahhh you’re one of us!’ […] ‘Erm, Yeah! I’m human!’”
The experience of Mel Hart, a writer, is another case in point. “Since I took my husband’s surname I do sometimes get attitude from people thinking I’m not Maltese. (The usual go-back-to-your-country, especially when talking about being Pro-Choice). I’ve been accused of having a false identity because of my surname too.”
Conclusions? Engage With the Message!
What do these experiences say about our ability to discuss matters of public interest and our (limited) understanding of national identity?
Some seem to hold that all Maltese are one and the same—a uniform mass with indistinguishable opinions. According to such a view, the ‘trueborn’ Maltese are happy bunnies eagerly embracing every announcement as a sign of national progress. Since all critics, by this definition, are either ‘foreigners’ or ’traitors’, the nationality of arguments—and not the motive—becomes the crux of the matter.
Patriotic pretension is a poor means of self-defense from being challenged.
If amending a social media profile is all it takes for a person to safely express their concerns, ‘solutions’ to intolerance are at hand. But why do we have to resort to such measures in the first place? Why must an individual sound or look Maltese in order to stand up for the good of our society? Not only does bigotry discourage sound debate between individuals of different nationality, it also backfires in the most unexpected way. While foreigners who take on their Maltese spouses’ family names gain an advantage, Maltese adopting foreign surnames are subsequently alienated from public debates.
While foreigners who take on their Maltese spouses’ family names gain an advantage, Maltese adopting foreign surnames are subsequently alienated from public debates.
So, if most of us fail to tell a ‘proper’ Maltese from a foreigner, especially on social media, does nationality matter?
Anyone genuinely concerned about the social, economic and environmental aspects of our current status quo should be welcome to share their perspective. Maltese or not, we should join forces to defend the interests we have in common. We desperately need an inclusive, democratic debate on the future of this over-exploited and increasingly stratified country, before it is too late.