Oct 6, 2020 10:09:00 AM / by Dr. Michael Woolf

"Thoughts on Education Abroad" is a monthly column written by CAPA The Global Education Network's Deputy President and Chief Academic Officer Dr. Michael Woolf.


How is solidarity formed and practiced? In this month's column, Dr. Mike Woolf sifts through the layers within communities such as class, religion, color, and more to unpack why we must understand uncomfortable realities.

It means a great deal to those who are oppressed to know that they are not alone.
—Desmond Tutu

A Community of Suffering

Events in the USA have generated welcome signs of solidarity across many parts of the world. “Taking the knee” has become an act of symbolic identification with those who suffer systemic discrimination and, in more doleful circumstances, persecution. It is, however, a selective empathy that does not inevitably extend to victims of oppression in other international contexts.

The oppressed are not united in a community of suffering, nor is resistance to injustice always inclusive. On the other hand, civil rights movements in the 1960s had a profound impact and altered reality in many ways. In Africa and the Caribbean, for example, American Civil Rights inspired resistance to white domination and hastened the death throes of political colonialism.

Civil Rights Movement - Africa & CarribbeanCivil Rights Movement - Africa & Carribbean

Women’s rights also became part of an inexorable reform agenda but, at the same time, did little to alter the embedded nature of discrimination in much of the Muslim world or in parts of Asia. Legal discrimination against women has by no means been eradicated. Decriminalization of homosexuality followed heroic struggles for Gay Rights although it remains a crime in a significant number of countries. Same sex marriage is far from being a universal human right. Solidarity engendered by various civil rights movements has had profound impacts on many lives but virtually none upon other vulnerable communities such as Roma in Europe, Rohingya in Myanmar, or Kurds in Turkey.

The persecution of Christians has similarly not generated much international protest. Religious tolerance is largely outside of the scope of public concern. The subject of the First Amendment of the US Constitution (1791) was reiterated over 150 years later in The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948):

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance (Article 18).

In direct defiance of that principle, in the Middle East, the region where the religion was founded, Christians suffer persecution by the state and exclusion from political life. At the beginning of the 20th century, Christians represented circa 20% of the population of the region; the figure is now around 4%. They have been systematically eradicated or driven out by prejudice and religious nationalism. Additionally, radical secularism in parts of South East and East Asia has led to state discrimination. A 2019 report by Rt. Rev. Philip Mounstephen, Bishop of Truro, argues that: “Evidence shows not only the geographic spread of anti-Christian persecution, but also its increasing severity. In some regions, the level and nature of persecution is arguably coming close to meeting the international definition of genocide, according to that adopted by the UN.”[1] Freedom of worship is by no means a universal human right. Solidarity, with persecuted religious groups where it exists, tends to be expressed primarily by co-religionists.

Despite Desmond Tutu’s inspirational call, many of the oppressed are indeed alone. Solidarity is a fragile, selective concept. In education abroad, we are committed to teaching students something about the world beyond their doorstep. Broadening perspectives unearths uncomfortable realities.


"Workers of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains!" The injunction of Marx and Engels in The Communist Manifesto (1848) fell on deaf ears in Northern Ireland. Sectarian alienation was far more powerful than working-class solidarity. Thus, Northern Ireland is a major problem for a Marxist reading of history. At the height of the troubles, the Republican and Unionist/Loyalist factions were drawn from essentially the same lower socio-economic class. In West Belfast, the Protestant Shankhill Road and the Catholic Falls Road are adjacent. Augustus Spence (1933–2011) was leader of the Ulster Volunteer Force, a group committed to violence against the opposing Irish Republican Army. Spence, imprisoned for murder, began to move towards a sense of communities connected by economic hardship across the sectarian divide. From prison, he wrote:

We have known squalor. I was born and reared in it. No one knows better than we do the meaning of slums, the meaning of suffering for what one believes in, whatever the ideology…we have suffered every bit as much as the people of the Falls Road, or any underprivileged quarter. [2]

A pattern of physical proximity and common socioeconomic deprivation was not however strong enough to overcome “sectarian geography” (Dillon, p. 65): “two warring factions lived opposite each other, each side riddled with suspicion, fear, and prejudice” (Dillon, p. 2). Common conditions for many within both communities did not create cohesion that bridged the divisions of embedded prejudice, history, religion, and politics. Metaphorical and literal walls rent apart Unionists and Republicans with deadly consequences.

Loyalist UVF ParamilitariesLoyalist paramilitaries.

Provisional IRA Paramilitary Group
Provisional IRA paramilitary group.

Even within the two communities, there were complex schisms that reflected those within the American Civil Rights movement. Disagreement over tactics were deeply divisive. Paramilitary groups believed that they were involved in a civil war that could only be resolved through violence. Other groups were committed to non-violent resistance. At the same time, the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Fein were political parties ostensibly distinct from the paramilitary wings of the sectarian divide.

For over 10 years I led a three-week seminar in Northern Ireland for faculty from US universities. These were engagements with paradox. Common conditions of deprivation and poverty were subverted by profound fractures that were often bewildering to the stranger. In discussions with political and paramilitary representatives, well-read and thoughtful faculty frequently struggled to comprehend the intense and intractable alienation of groups that resembled each other in many and various ways. Race played no part in the splintered landscape of Northern Ireland. Historical, religious, and ideological traditions are not always written on the faces of those who mistrust and hate each other.


Shared faith is also no guarantee of common purpose. In Islam, divisions between Sunni and Shia Muslims go back some 14 centuries. In the late 20th century, this schism erupted into increasingly bitter conflict. In Christianity, Catholic and Protestant conflict is manifest throughout European history.

In England, Henry VIII’s break from the Church of Rome in 1533 led to 300 years of varying degrees of conflict and persecution. In the short reign of Mary Tudor (1553–1558) Catholics were restored to political authority. The outcome was that over 280 Protestants were burned at the stake. During the long reign of Elizabeth 1st (1558-1603) Protestantism was restored and a period of intense persecution of Catholics followed. Catholic worship was banned for over 230 years. The Emancipation Act of 1829 restored most civil rights, but the residue of anti-Catholic feeling was exemplified by the fact that until 2013, any heir to the throne who married a Catholic was excluded from the succession.

The Thirty Years' War (1619–1648) offers another example of prolonged and bitter conflict between these two branches of Christianity. Over 8 million people, approximately 8% of the population of Europe, died in one of the most cataclysmic and savage conflicts in history prior to the 20th century. [3] The religious divide may and did obscure other potent political motivations in all these examples but, in any case, belief in Christ was not strong enough to moderate hatred between Catholic and Protestant interests.

30 Years WarThe Thirty Years' War.

The history of Jewish immigration into the USA and the UK offers a less dramatic example of the limitations of common faith and shared experience. Jews of German and Spanish origin had settled in both countries for decades before the mass migrations from eastern Europe in late 19th century. For the most part, earlier immigrants had come from relatively educated, relatively middle-class backgrounds. They were not as visibly foreign as the later arrivals.

Eastern European immigrants mostly came from rural communities who had been excluded from urban centers by government discrimination. They were small tradesmen, artisan workers, who had little access to secular education in the small villages (shtetls) where they resided. The phrase “beyond the pale” originates in Ireland. Idiomatically the term is used to define behavior that is unacceptable or deviant. In the history of Imperial Russia, the pale defined a region from which many Jews were excluded from the late 18th century until 1917. Exceptions were made for elites but the vast majority of the Jews who came to the USA and England in the 1890s lived “beyond the pale.”

The generation that settled in the East End of London and the Lower East Side of New York were distinctively foreign, in ways that distinguished them from early Jewish immigrants by education, background, and language.

Lower East Side of New YorkLower East Side of New York.

East End, London
East End, London.

In short, their customs, dress, behavior, language, and mode of worship caused unease for the earlier immigrants who felt themselves to be integrated in American mainstream life. There were at least two consequences. Reform Judaism was a movement designed in part to make worship less alien, more like Christianity. Another outcome was an increase in anti-Semitism in America.

The term “greenhorn” used in a pejorative sense characterizes the gulf between the settled and the new arrivals. The phenomenon is found in other immigrant communities and demonstrates how solidarity is conditional, shaped by diverse histories, customs, and beliefs.


The default distinction in US society is race, a product of histories that need no retelling here. However, the assumption of common purpose, solidarity within African American communities should not be assumed as inevitable. The Black Lives Matter movement has certainly created a sense of common purpose as a response to clear injustice. The Civil Rights movements of the 1960s similarly united, at least for a time, disparate people in a common purpose. The division between non-violent and more radical forms of resistance were, as in Northern Ireland, also apparent. Solidarity was temporary and conditional except in broad terms.

Fissures within African American society complicate a sense of community consciousness. In How to be an Antiracist Ibram X Kendi points to the fact that racialized groups are not immune from ironically reenacting the prejudice to which they are subject. Of his own youth, Kendi writes: “I wanted to be Black but did not want to look Black”. [4] The use of skin whitening products reflects inherited prejudice ironically drawn from a history in which hierarchies derive from the dominance of the lighter over the darker, racism that persists as “colorism”: “Skin color influences perceptions of attractiveness most often from Black women. As the skin tone lightens, levels of self-esteem among Black women rise, especially among low-and-middle income Black women” (Kendi, p.111).

Kendi identifies an ironic persistence of constructed notions of beauty that align with a reenactment of colonial standards. “Fairness” as a sign of beauty and status has created a global industry: “skin lighteners are used by 40 percent of women in China, Malaysia, the Philippines, and South Korea” (Kendi, p.119).

The assumption that tolerance should be a tenet of faith among those who have been the subject of intolerance is also a fragile concept. “African American” signals an identity created at the intersection of an idea of Africa and an idea of America. It is no guarantee, however, of shared ideologies. A problematic reality for LGBTQ African Americans is that homosexuality is a criminal act in over 50% of African countries. Furthermore, in Homophobia in the Black Church, Anthony Stanford argues “the reality is that the contagious scorn and repudiation towards homosexuals emanates from the community’s cornerstone, the Black Church”. [5]

It is glib to use these selective examples as indicators that solidarity is inevitably an illusion. Solidarity is a reality most commonly as a reaction to injustice rather than as a proactive construction with a shared social or political agenda. The Solidarity movement in Poland in the 1980s, Solidarność, was, for example, a movement that gained influence as a response to communist governance. After the fall of communism, it did not survive as a cohesive political force. The power of solidarity and a sense of common purpose is, most often, a reaction to external oppression. As such, it may be limited in time, often a temporary alliance of disparate interests brought together by the impact of unjust conditions of discrimination.


Solidarity is not inevitable or all pervasive. Experiences unite and divide us. The emotional solidarity of the Irish diaspora is manifest in any number of customs, habits, and behavior. Sport is also a catalyst for demonstrations of unity. Cricket is, for example, the mechanism by which the disparate countries of the West Indies have forged a national identity and have also enabled reconnection with those who emigrated to England. [6] The African diaspora has created a form of community that transcends national boundaries and has had a profound impact upon transnational global dynamics.

However, those realities should be balanced against the limitations of solidarity. Religion, race, ideologies, proximities, class, and histories, do not necessarily create shared interests or identities. Movements committed to resisting oppression are also commonly selective rather than inclusive. They demand social justice and an end to discrimination but ultimately for those they hear and see most loudly and clearly. We need to explore that paradox. We have an ethical and intellectual imperative to bring Dr Martin Luther King’s international perspective into our agenda: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” [7]



[2] Cited by Martin Dillon, The Shankhill Butchers. London: Arrow Books, 1990.

[3] This included an estimated 20% of Germany’s population.

[4] Ibram X Kendi, How to be an Antiracist. London: Vintage, 2021 (first published 2019) p.109.

[5] Anthony Stanford, Homophobia in the Black Church: How Faith, Faith, Politics and Fear Divide the Black Community. Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2013 p. xix.

[6] This theme is explored at greater length in

[7]  Letter from the Birmingham Jail, April 16, 1963.


Thanks Mike!

CAPA_Michael Woolf Headshot

Dr. Mike Woolf is the Deputy President for Strategic Development here at CAPA. His unique role at CAPA takes him around the world to conferences as a frequent presenter and attendee. He serves on a number of boards and committees, including the Curriculum Committee of the Forum on Education Abroad, the Editorial Boards of Frontiers and the Journal of Studies in International Education, EAIE’s Knowledge Development Task Force, and Braun Stiftung für Internationalen Austausch. He has written widely and has published extensively on international education and cultural studies. Most recently, he published work aimed at critically reviewing the core assumptions of study abroad. 'Thoughts on Education Abroad' is a monthly column of short essays sharing his thoughts and expertise on the subject.


Topics: London, England, Diversity Abroad