Monday, 7 February 2011

Let us talk about racism when discussing identity, belonging and multiculturalism

I read the speech of David Cameron, Prime Minister, to the Munich Security Conference with more than a little anger at the partial nature of his analysis.

He was talking about Muslim young men turning to extremism and violence because they did not feel British, and this is all he had to say about racism:

So, when a white person holds objectionable views, racist views for instance, we rightly condemn them.’

That is it. Not mentioning impacts of racism on feelings of identity and belonging not only shows a complete lack of understanding, but decontextualises the situation and denies the reality of the power dynamics at play.

‘…we have allowed the weakening of our collective identity. Under the doctrine of state multiculturalism, we have encouraged different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other and apart from the mainstream. We’ve failed to provide a vision of society to which they feel they want to belong. We’ve even tolerated these segregated communities behaving in ways that run completely counter to our values…. instead of encouraging people to live apart, we need a clear sense of shared national identity that is open to everyone.

If this analysis is correct, I should be among the immigrants to the UK most likely to feel British. I moved here when I was five. I have never lived in areas with big Asian communities. We have always been one of very few black families in the area so I have never experienced these ‘segregated communities.’ So why did it take me until I held a British passport, age 18, to even start feeling English? Why did I, at the age of seven, automatically support the football team playing against England even though I had no idea which country it was?

The reasons, as for many black immigrants and communities, is not due to the ‘failures of multiculturalism’ or 'living in separate communities.' Rather, the cause is years of racism, everything ranging from the direct attacks to the daily grind of living in a country that has policies, institutions and discourse that do not take you into account,

We lived in Oldham when we first moved here in the late 80s/ early 90s. Believe me, learning to read ‘Paki go home’ and getting beaten up regularly because I was a ‘Paki’ was not a fun induction for a five year old Indian girl to the ‘British way of life.’ While at university, I had stones thrown at me on the street in Nottingham because 'your people bombed the Twin Towers.’ My Asian male friends were asked to leave a pub in Leeds because they were making others feel uncomfortable. Obviously a group of Asian men together are terrorists plotting to blow up the country. Last year, I had a skinhead spit at me on a Sunday afternoon while I was waiting for the bus at Finsbury Park tube station in north London. I had told him to stop harassing an Asian couple, quite newly arrived in the UK. Apparently 'their lot' had not only stolen his mates' jobs, but also beaten them up. Luckily the bus came before he hit me but nobody waiting at the bus stop did anything to stop him in the meanwhile. I was told afterwards that perhaps I should not have intervened because it was not safe. However, I can handle this more than the couple that was getting harassed in the first place, having experienced similar things ever since I can remember. I wonder if David Cameron has ever felt as ashamed of the United Kingdom and ‘being British’ as I did then? It is not surprising that I felt closer to this woman and man who had spent just arrived in this country than the British people waiting at the bus stop who, like me, had grown up here.

I know I am not the only black person who has had such experiences.

Saturday morning (perhaps just before Cameron delivered his speech?), I passed a group of men walking down the road singing/ chanting. I first thought it was a protest that I’d missed out on finding out about. They joined their mates outside a pub. I noticed the England flags and actually thought of going to check out the England match that had somehow slipped under my radar. That’s when I noticed the men wearing the EDL jumpers. I later found out that they were on their way to the demonstrations in Luton.

I do not think David Cameron will ever know how I felt at that moment; an instinctive physical and visceral reaction. It was broad daylight, there were plenty of people around but I was still scared. Why did he not talk about the fact that I, in the country in which I was brought up in, did not feel safe walking the streets of London this weekend? What sense of belonging are we supposed to feel?

I know I am not the only black person who feels this way when they walk past EDL or BNP supporters.

What and whom was he trying to signal, knowing the EDL were marching the same day? He says it was an unfortunate coincidence, but this is the effect it had:

Some of crowd were jubilant, saying that Cameron "had come round to our way of thinking". Paul Bradburn, 35, from Stockport, said Cameron was "coming out against extremism". He added: "The timing of his speech is quite weird as it comes on the day of one of the biggest EDL demos we've ever seen. If he wants to start sticking up for us, that's great."

Coalition approval ratings are down, but is going for the BNP/ UKIP vote really the way forward?

I know the EDL are not reflective of the majority of Britons. However, I can say the same to David Cameron. He talks about Islamic extremism. Why is he not talking about the racism on the streets, in our schools (it would be good to learn about slavery, the British empire and colonialism by the way), in our policies, in our institutions and perpetrated by individuals?

They point to grievances about Western foreign policy and say, ‘Stop riding roughshod over Muslim countries and the terrorism will end.’ But there are many people, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, who are angry about Western foreign policy, but who don’t resort to acts of terrorism. They also point to the profusion of unelected leaders across the Middle East and say, ‘Stop propping these people up and you will stop creating the conditions for extremism to flourish.’ But this raises the question: if it’s the lack of democracy that is the problem, why are there so many extremists in free and open societies?...These are just contributory factors.

Really? The UK has invaded Afghanistan and Iraq in the last 10 years, propped up Middle Eastern governments and dictators for their own ends for decades and that’s not to mention Britain’s historic and continuing role in Palestine and Kashmir. Surely anger and despair over foreign policy decisions is more than just a contributing factor here. Don’t take this from me. Michael Scheuer, the CIA analyst who led the CIA’s hunt for Osama bin Laden has said attacks are motivated precisely because of foreign policies: ‘They hate us for what we do, not who we are.’ I don’t particularly trust CIA analysis, but I assumed it carried some weight with David Cameron.

…we have encouraged different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other and apart from the mainstream…

Integration into society works both ways. I’m guessing by speaking against these segregated communities, the Tory government is going to get rid of faith schools, free schools and even private schools as well? I cannot think of a way to divide people faster than have children spend hours every day in the company of others just like them. How well are government ministers integrated into ‘mainstream’ British society? What is the mainstream anyway? This kind of language assumes a model of the white person, with anything outside it as deviant and ‘other.’ How many close black friends do people in the government have? I am guessing David Cameron does not have many friends in his inner circle from outside a narrow white, upper (middle) class background. I do not consider that to be mainstream either.

The failure, for instance, of some to confront the horrors of forced marriage, the practice where some young girls are bullied and sometimes taken abroad to marry someone when they don’t want to, is a case in point… do they believe in universal human rights – including for women and people of other faiths?

Can everyone please stop using the rhetoric of fighting for women’s rights to justify any of this? Quite frankly, I have had enough of white people and black men talk over the heads of black women about black women, about our bodies, our experiences and our realities, using gender equality and culture/ tradition arguments to justify their racism, imperialism and sexism. The continuing occupation of Afghanistan is now justified in the name of the liberation of women. As Kandiyoti argues, ‘the challenge to platforms for gender equality comes not just from actors with fundamentalist agendas, but from a conjuncture where women’s rights have been opportunistically intrumentalised to serve geopolitical goals, and neo-liberal policies have severed social justice from gender equality concerns.’

Implicit in all this is a positioning of ‘liberated’ white women against the oppressed black women that smacks of orientalism. Of course, neither characterisation is true. Black men are not savages, black women are not victims and white people, including the government, are not saviours for black women. Yes, ‘the horrors of forced marriage‘ are very real, but violence against women is not limited to black communities. Let us not forget only 6 percent of reported rapes end in a successful prosecution and that 2009 showed a dramatic increase in the numbers of women killed by violent partners in the UK. This includes all women. White women are not living in some feminist fantasy utopia of equality and opportunity and black women are not all oppressed.

I do not trust that Cameon has the best interests of black women truly at heart, I really don't. He may say he does, he may even think he does, but he really does not. If he really cares about black women, he would talk with us and listen to us seriously when we identify what we need.

The reason why some people living in this country do not feel British is not solely because of the nature of the communities in which they live but rather also the nature of mainstream British society and UK government policies. It would have been much more honest of Cameron to acknowledge there continues to be problems with racism, systemic, institutionalised and individualised, in this country. By not mentioning the role entrenched racism plays in all of this, he just ignored our lived reality and experiences. David Cameron needs to stop perpetuating a white-centric view of race relations and have a long hard look at himself, as well as at British society, institutions and policies.

Frankly, I’m just bored by this whole debate. The speech showed a lack of new analysis and seemed aimed at bolstering the popularity of the Tory led government. It seems David Cameron has missed it but we have been having this same debate about multiculturalism since 2004. There is nothing new in his speech, just as there is nothing new in what I have written here. Why do we have to keep saying the same things over and over again? Can we move forward please to the proper debate that is needed?


  1. I was thinking about this today- and came to the conclusion that Cameron must have been speaking some sort of political code. The multiculturalism I know and is nothing like the one he speaks of. For those of us who have grown up in, experience and live multiculturalism every flipping day, it's very much alive and kicking. He speaks of multiculturalism like its some sort of top down policy that trickles into society's consciousness rather than a concept that people LIVE EVERY DAY. How can he say that it has failed?

  2. Well said! It really annoyed me when he starts saying we need more of a sense of national identity at the same time he is short-changing education, welfare and health. Maybe that's our national identity. We're greedy money-grabbing assholes?

    And then he suggests our national identity is about human rights and equality. Convenient that just as his cuts short-change women and ethnic minorities and increase inequality. While he's refusing to sign the EU directive on human trafficking, putting thousands of women and girls at risk of repeated gang-rape.

    Personally I feel more like the main thing that unites the UK right now is bitter hatred of David Cameron and his white, male, public school educated millionaires cabinet.

  3. Reni, I think you're right. Cameron is signalling certain sections of society in code. When I was in the States, my friends in the anti-racist movement would talk about the purpose of discussions about 'state's rights.' Politicians were no longer able to be openly racist and so using 'state's rights' was a code to signal to a certain constituency. After all, it was the federal government which had passed constitutional amendments banning slavery and giving the civil rights of black people. Perhaps 'the failures of multiculturalism' and talk of 'segregated communities in which extremism is allowed to flourish' does a similar thing here? Signalling to the anti-immigration, not racist but the BNP make sense brigade? What do you think?

    Kate, I'm not sure what kind of national identity the UK will have without post offices, libraries, massive cuts to welfare, privatisation of the NHS and increase in unemployment which will fall disproportionately on black communities and women. I always thought the welfare state - free education, healthcare, pensions etc was a core part of British identity. I guess David Cameron and I are living in two very different UKs.

  4. Fantastic piece, Chitra - you've managed to articulate everything I've been feeling since Saturday. I particularly agree with your comments about education, and the othering discourse that permeated his speech.

    Cruella - When he was giving his speech, particularly the part about saving all black women from savagery, I kept thinking about the ways in which the Tories are trying to water down the Equality Act, the (albeit shortlived) rape anonymity proposals, unequal impact of the cuts, etc. In this context, I almost thought I was watching some kind of bizarre attempt at satire.

  5. I agree, fantastic piece where you've been able to flesh out the inadequacies in many people's views on multiculturalism which must be discussed in conjunction with racism. Not only this, the need to explore this idea of 'the mainstream' which you point to also, is not defined and I don't think it can be considering the pluralism of experience of life in Britain for all who live here.

    The point about white, liberated women saving black, oppressed women is just the kind of thing that needs highlighting, and not to mention the diversity of school about segregation

    Many thanks and hopefully more to come!

  6. This is absolutely the best takedown of Cameron's horrible, conflating, dog-whistle speech that I have read. Well said, every word.