Identity is important for everyone. Most of us question at some point who we are and why we are here.
For diaspora communities identity is often bound up with ethnicity, culture and religion.
These are important factors for many people, but tend to take on more significance for those who are away from their country of origin or who belong to a minority ethnic group. The simple question ‘where are you from?’ can cause angst. Is it a polite question asking where you live? Are they implying that you’re not from here because of your ethnicity? Or is it simply because they’re interested to hear about your ethnic origins?
“It’s particularly complicated if you’re on holiday. When people ask where I’m from, I feel like I need to give an explanation of my answer ‘England’ in response to their confused expressions.”
For the South Asian diaspora, ethnic, religious and cultural identity can be a way of connecting with their heritage and family ‘back home’. This is why you find enthusiastic support for the Indian cricket team from people who were neither born nor raised in India. For some, to play down these aspects of their identity would be a betrayal of their roots.
Others feel that people should identify more with their country of residence, especially if they are citizens of that nation. So while they may incorporate aspects of the ‘home’ culture into their lives, they believe their ultimate loyalties should be to the country in which they live.
Second and third generation diaspora feel the pressure of getting the balance right more acutely than older generations. While many are proud of their cultural heritage, some have never even been to their countries of origin. It can also be difficult balancing traditional beliefs and values with life in increasingly secular societies. What is considered normal for their classmates or work colleagues might be unacceptable to their family – drinking and dating being prime examples.
Racism and stereotypes can affect how far people are willing to identify with their country of abode. The South Asian diaspora is often a visible minority and this, coupled with the fact that they often have distinctive cultural traits, can lead to others being unwilling to accept them as ‘genuinely’ belonging. In the UK, for example, few people from ethnic minority groups feel able to call themselves ‘English’, using ‘British’ instead. For many, English identity is linked to ethnicity, so they feel they will never be accepted as long as they ‘look different’.
“While visiting Italy, a friend introduced me to a white English acquaintance explaining that I was English too. The other person replied ‘She doesn’t look English to me’.”
For some, religion is closely linked with ethnicity and/or culture. In the UK many people associate ‘Christianity’ (especially the Church of England) with being English. According to the 2011 census, 58 per cent of the population claimed to be Christian, yet other surveys suggest that a smaller percentage actually practice their professed faith. In a similar way, some South Asians identify with the religion of their ancestors, without necessarily believing it.
There is of course much more to a person’s identity than ethnicity, culture and religion, but these are likely to continue to be important for the South Asian diaspora for a while.
What’s the most important aspect of your identity?
Multiculturalism is a word embraced by some and scorned by others, but what does it mean and why is it so contentious?
The Oxford Dictionary has a very simple definition of ‘multicultural’: “relating to or containing several cultural or ethnic groups within a society”.
For many, multiculturalism means much more than this.
Opponents believe it encourages separateness. To them, a multicultural society is one where cultures are distinct and in certain areas may even compete or conflict with one another. In the UK and certain other European countries, some believe ‘Muslim culture’ in particular has been encouraged to thrive and that aspects of it are at odds with ‘host’ European cultures. They feel multiculturalism has created an environment where people are more loyal towards their particular sub-culture than to their country as a whole.
Others believe multiculturalism is a positive thing and should be celebrated. It widens people’s experiences and understanding of others and adds more colour to society. They feel that people should not be forced to assimilate to one uniform culture, but bring aspects of their culture into the wider social mix. For them it need not mean separateness but variety. The challenge, however, is to identify the key, overarching values that hold society together.
‘British culture’, like many others, has evolved over the centuries and incorporated various elements of other cultures into it, so defining what is meant by British culture is no easy task anyway.
The debates around multiculturalism are likely to rage on for the foreseeable future. Key questions are ‘How far should ‘host’ cultures incorporate migrant cultures, and how far should migrant cultures adapt?’ and ‘How do you encourage integration without uniformity?’
While some South Asians have enjoyed great success in their adopted countries, many have experienced discrimination at some point.
During the first big wave of South Asian immigration to the UK in the 1950s and ‘60s it was not uncommon to find signs stipulating ‘No blacks, no Irish, no dogs’ at guesthouses. Not all migrants encountered outright hostility, but few experienced a warm welcome either.
Some of the reasons for this frosty reception can be found in history. The theory that so-called ‘coloured’ people (i.e. non-whites) were inferior to Caucasians was well-entrenched in the European psyche. This had been reinforced by colonialism, where most of these ‘coloured races’ had been conquered and put under European rule. Accepting them now on equal terms was not easy for some.
Another factor was fear of the unknown. These newcomers were visibly different, spoke in strange languages, or with funny accents. They ate exotic food and practised foreign religions. Some felt they were too different to be part of Britain.
Things have changed in the UK, in general attitudes and law, but some South Asians still face discrimination and remain disadvantaged in areas such as access to jobs and services. Discrimination can be faced not only by new migrants, but also by the children or grandchildren of the first generation of settlers.
The reasons behind discrimination have evolved in the last 50 years, but are essentially the same as before, with a few new dynamics.
There are still those who hold the belief that white people are superior to other races and therefore do not believe in treating others equally. Some may not explicitly subscribe to this, but have fixed stereotypes of Asians, believing they are incapable of certain activities, such as jobs they feel may be too physically or mentally demanding. Others are simply ‘uncomfortable’ working or dealing with people who are ‘different’.
Some deny being prejudiced in any way, but believe their country is ‘full’ and there are not enough jobs, homes or resources to go round. They may also feel that the British way of life is under threat from migrant cultures, which they consider to be at odds with British traditions.
Although the last attitude has been prevalent from the beginning of mass migration, it has been exacerbated in recent years with the rise of Islamist terrorism. Some Muslims in Britain have experienced increased hostility and mistrust, regarded by some as ‘the enemy within’. As most Muslims in the UK originate from South Asia, it has occasionally led to other South Asians being targeted. There are similar issues in the rest of Europe and the United States.
In countries where a non-white ethnic group is the majority, the issues are slightly different. These are often countries where South Asians, in particular Indians, were brought over as indentured labourers during the colonial period. In the 1970s, a backlash against South Asians in Kenya and Uganda led to the expulsion of many families. There have also been ethnic tensions in Pacific nations, like Fiji, and Caribbean countries. The reasons for this are complex. Disparities in the way the colonial authorities treated ethnic groups, differences in culture, the economic success of many South Asians, as well as prejudice on both sides, are all factors.
The UK has experienced migration from all over the world for centuries. Those from Europe have blended in over the generations, betrayed sometimes only by slightly unusual surnames. Great strides have been made in the past 50 years, but as a visible minority, it will not be as easy for South Asians.
This phrase was first used in the 1999 MacPherson report on the Metropolitan Police’s handling of the Stephen Lawrence murder investigation. Stephen was a young black man who was stabbed in a racist killing in London in 1993.
The report described institutional racism as: ‘The collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture or ethnic origin which can be seen or detected in processes; attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantages minority ethnic people.’
The words ‘unwitting’ and ‘thoughtlessness’ suggest it is possible for an institution to be racist even if it does not intend to be.
For example, a doctors’ surgery may insist on patients seeing the first available doctor. This might be a practical measure to ensure patients are attended to promptly, but may disadvantage many Asian women who would only be comfortable seeing a female doctor. Whether the surgery does this deliberately as a way of screening out Asian families, or ‘unwittingly’ through ignorance, it could be considered institutionally racist.
Similarly, an organisation that prides itself on being multi-ethnic, yet fails to promote minority ethnic workers to high-ranking positions because of an ‘unwitting’ reluctance to upset shareholders or other employees, would be considered institutionally racist – in the same way as one that had no minority workers at all because of the employer’s dislike of non-white people.
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