This was published on The Vibe in response to a battle raging about Britishness and national identity. I can’t find it anywhere but as soon as I do, I’ll post it here!
I came across The Vibe online magazine by chance when I was mindlessly browsing the w4mp.com website to see what kinds of jobs are out there. It’s a great little blog, one of the “Top 10 non-aligned political blogs of 2010” in fact, and I was delighted to be able to write for them. I’ve written more here than anywhere else.
My first article was about multiculturalism and how this idea, to my mind, has done more harm than good. I’ve pasted it below – for the moment, I can’t link to the original piece as The Vibe website is down after being hacked but, once it’s up and running properly, I’ll post it here.
Tell me what you think
In reading Anushka Asthana’s piece in The Observer on Sunday, I was glad to see that ‘multiculturalism’ and the decorations that surround it are finally being recognised for the tokenism it is. I was disappointed to read, however, that Asthana fails to recognise some very fundamental things.
Let me set the scene. I was born and raised in London to Muslim parents, one from Pakistan and the other from Bangladesh. I was educated in a public school in Essex, which had a sizeable Asian population (though the majority where white) and worked for a private bank where, at one point, I was the only Asian male in a building of about 300 staff.
Growing up, I wasn’t allowed to speak English in the house and eventually learned to read, speak and write in Bangla and Urdu. A bit of Punjabi was mixed in whenever I visited my Nan. Both my parents speak English – my father a paramedic and trade unionist and my mother being educated in one of the few English-language schools in Dhaka in the 60s and 70s. I’ve been a choirboy at school, continue to act in plays (musicals and non-English language too), recited poems in Bangla, presented shows in Urdu and, of course, written articles in English.
Did or do I feel multicultural? Well, no. None of the activities I do are supposed to be multicultural. When someone tells me they are, I start thinking ‘is this something I’m not supposed to be doing?’ When clients would be surprised that I was fully Asian after speaking to me on the phone, I’d be entirely confused as to why my accent is the subject of such attention just because it comes out of a brown mouth. It’s only then that I realise that I’m in some way ‘different’.
My issue with the term ‘multicultural’ is that by formally defining what should be an inherent existence within a liberal, democratic society, the lines of demarcation are made clear and, actually, those who are behaving ‘multiculturally’ are being viewed as entirely ‘different’. Whilst it is clear that people are more aware these days of what happens in different cultures, this has only given rise to political correctness which, in turn, has driven communities even further apart.
Take the simple matter of handing out Christmas cards. It seems people have to make the painstaking decision of whether or not we should hand out Christmas cards to certain people lest we offend ‘them’. Once it’s established that it might be okay to hand out the cards, the greeting on the card becomes the next bone of contention – ‘Season’s Greetings’ or ‘Merry Christmas’? I can’t think of a single Muslim person who would threaten jihad upon receipt of a Christmas card. And it’s because you’re ‘seen to be doing the right thing’ that we end up exacerbating already frayed relations between communities.
A lot was made of the community cohesion agenda during the last government. Another misleading idea. It is impossible to make people get on with each other (targets included: % people from different backgrounds who get on with each other). By all means, build greater understanding of different communities and build tolerance, but you certainly can’t make people get on with each other. Having ‘The Hallows’ living next door to you is no more or less cohesive than ‘The Khans’ living next to ‘The Patels’ and sharing potato curry.
Fundamentally, the problem lies in the basic premise of the idea of ‘multiculturalism’. The word seemed to enter common usage in the early noughties and was synonymous with the seeming ‘rise’ of Muslim extremism. Even Asthana’s piece highlights that the discussion around multiculturalism was framed within the debate surrounding tackling violent extremism and specfically, though no one will say it, Muslim violent extremism in the UK.
These are two entirely different things. Multiculturalism has nothing to do with preventing violent extremism – in fact, it’s partly because of it that we have extremists in the first place.
We now have a problem with shaking off this idea of multiculturalism that seemed to be met with such approval by a society too keen to show its willingness to embrace other cultures. Liberty and freedom is about being allowed to express your own individual self and being tolerant of others who are different to you. Multiculturalism fails to do any of those things, breeding intolerance and discouraging people from expressing themselves as they wish as they are restricted by the confines of the word.
So the very first article I ever wrote was a random submission to the BBC Asian Network who were running a series called Asian Nation, looking at various issues around identity. I remember working at Barclays Wealth at the time and taking some time out at the end of my working day to write it.
That evening, I got a call from a friend of mine at BBC AN who asked if I’d be keen to talk about my article on radio the next morning. Naturally, I said yes so wandered into the office for 6am the next day, called into the station and spoke about it on radio! So a successful first article I’d say.
Posted below for your reading pleasure. I’ll try and tag it to see what comes up on Tag Cloud.
The issue of identity is a vicious circle and I’d be inclined to say that much of it comes down to situational choices. That is to say that amongst a group of Asians (young or old), Asians will find it much more accessible to behave…well…Asian. Regardless of whether the conversation is in English, jokes about mum packing chappatis for lunch and using carrier bags as bin liners will inherently make those around you more comfortable. Similarly, at drinks after work where colleagues are likely to be of mixed backgrounds, stories about how you tied yourself to a lamppost in Amsterdam while completely bladdered wearing nothing but suspenders and a thong for your mate’s stag do will get you a few giggles and guffaws.
I’ll go out on a whim here – the issue of identity boils down to one thing only – skin colour. My mother is Bangladeshi and my father Pakistani. I was born, raised, schooled and work in London. My colleagues in this “rawther stuffy old Private Bank” are predominantly Old Etonians who are talking about the great times they had fishing over the weekend before going to watch the polo. The latter probably has more to do with wealth (and I definitely saw a few Asian people at the polo when watching it on Sky yesterday during lunch at Headingly) but there are lot of things I simply cannot relate to and that is mainly down to a different culture. I’ll be honest with you, when I have kids, if they misbehave, I’ll smack them one because that’s what my parents did to me (I sound psychologically wounded here but it’s not about revenge. It’s discipline). A great number of my white colleagues will be aghast and bring out the charter which explicitly states that redness on any part of the body constitutes grievous bodily harm and can lead to charges. I remember my mother’s response to the smacking ban, “good thing you’re brown then huh?”
I regard myself as a British Asian, celebrate St George’s Day, sing the National Anthem and support England in any sporting endeavour (except when they play Bangladesh because they’re the minnows and mum threatens not to give me dinner). But, I know that in any foreign country, if a person on a street asks me where I’m from and I say England they’ll probably say “no…where are you REALLY from?”. If someone British with Irish or Western European roots (i.e. of white skin colour) says the same, the conversation would probably move on to the best place in Wisconsin for a mean Full English with best bacon money can buy. Er…I’m Muslim. Could we make them Turkey Rashers instead?
What do you think?