Where are you really from?
Chessington or South West London. That’s usually my answer to the question “But where are you really from?” having just answered “London” when they asked the question first time around. Of course the reason they ask twice is because I’m brown and the answer they are looking for is “I’m from Bangladesh”, but that’s simply not the case. In this blog post I’ll be focusing on the topic of Race, Identity and Integration in the UK; the idea for this article arose during the summer of 2020 shortly after the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent dialogue that was created around underrepresentation of ethnic minorities in the UK in all aspects of life.
Why is it so hard to believe that a person can be Brown and British?
Growing up in the early 2000s
My parents are from Bangladesh, from the Sylhet district, they came to the UK in their early twenties and I was born here in Orpington Hospital, SE London. That makes me and my siblings second generation immigrants, the phrase itself is odd as I can’t technically be an immigrant if I was born here, but it describes very well my heritage in two words so I’ll stick with it. We moved to Chessington when I was seven, growing up in SW London was not the most diverse environment. As a child in primary school I was very innocent and not really aware of any racism; additionally kids so young aren’t really aware of race and skin colour as a concept, it’s just a characteristic and nothing more.
The situation was very different in secondary school when children start to become aware of their surroundings. Firstly, there was academic ability; classes were sorted into H band and F band (higher and foundation) ranking from F2, F1, H3, H2, H1 in each year group so it was immediately obvious how smart you were. Secondly, there was wealth; if you came into school wearing jumpers with holes in the elbows and ripped trousers or scruffy shoes, it was assumed your parents couldn’t afford new uniform for you. Lastly, there was race and class; if you were non-white then you’d fall into either British born or foreign; and if you were white then you were either a ‘chav’ (a young person of a type characterised by brash and loutish behaviour usually with connotations of a low social status) or just ‘normal’ which isn’t really a category. Unfortunately, it was mainly children from lower socio-economic backgrounds that I experienced various forms of bullying from. I was regularly called a ‘Paki’, told to go back to where I came from, and people just assumed I was from India without even asking. My regular teachers were all lovely, but substitute teachers wouldn’t even attempt to pronounce my name as it was first on the register and would speak slowly and loudly to me assuming I couldn’t understand or speak English.
Nobody knew the difference between Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi or Sri Lankan. Black is black, despite West-Indies culture differing greatly from African culture. Chinese and Japanese were used interchangeably to refer to anyone from the twenty or so countries in East Asia. On the whole, cultural awareness was non-existent in the early 2000s.
There’s usually one major event that has a long lasting impact for each generation and I would say for my generation the 7/7 London bombings in 2005 was a turning point in creating an ‘Us vs Them’ mentality where we saw a huge increase of racial abuse and a tidal shift in the political agenda to increase foreign intervention in the Middle East. For many years there was this sentiment that every brown person was to blame for this attack; fortunately by the time I had become an adult these feelings had subsided.
A sense of pride and acknowledgement
As a young adult I attended university and everything had completely changed, it was a very diverse environment on campus, and anything negative to do with race or skin colour had vanished. Reflecting back on those first few years of university, I realised that I had completely rejected my cultural heritage as it caused me a lot of difficulty as a child. Up to my final year of university I hardly had any Asian friends and frankly wasn’t interested in any of it, but that changed when I joined more societies. Suddenly I was meeting so many other British Bangladeshi, British Indian, Pakistani and Sri Lankan students who were proud of their heritage, they would show off their panjabis (kurta) and sarees, they loved cooking traditional home recipes and would celebrate their festivals with pride. It was so odd to see all of this, as their parents weren’t around forcing them to do any of this, it was out of their own choice. That’s when I slowly started to feel proud of my own heritage and much more comfortable with my identity.
I did my masters abroad in a few countries across Europe and during that time I experienced a very specific issue. When I was asked where I’m from, I would say I’m from London, which many people would find difficult to accept. The question they really wanted to know was where I was ‘really’ from. After explaining my parents are from Bangladesh, they would say “Ah, so you’re from Bangladesh…” and follow up with something along the lines of “...I have an Indian friend//housemate/classmate”. Cool story Bro, but completely irrelevant to me. Sometime later I would be complemented with “You have a really British accent!”, only after I explained that I was born and grew up in London would they understand. This was a bit frustrating as I was constantly having to validate my own identity; why is it so hard to believe that a person can be Brown and British? I have experienced those types of occurrences a lot while travelling. Fortunately, I live in London where you are accepted for who you say you are without any doubt and living abroad has made me appreciate how valuable such an environment is.
Is the struggle for representation over?
Since working in the UK, I haven’t experienced any discrimination which is great, but also how it should be. I wanted to highlight some of my personal experiences; some people would look at me and think well he’s very social and well integrated into British society so surely he didn’t experience anything bad. As the current group of second generation immigrants from Asian ethnicities go onto establishing their careers, creating a family and building up wealth and knowledge that we can pass onto the next generation; one might assume that the issues we faced growing up have been eliminated. While the statement is true for those of us who have been lucky enough to have a stable family situations, attended university and worked in professional sectors; there are still large amounts of inequality in the UK that is disproportionately skewed towards people of foreign ethnicity.
Furthermore, living in the UK which once ruled a quarter of the world means we have sustained wave after wave of immigration. European refugees in the 40s. Labour workers from the Caribbean in the 50s. Indian refugees from the Ugandan expulsion and Pakistanis fleeing post Partition turmoil in the 60s. Bangladeshis escaping the war of independence from Pakistan in the 70s. Africans fleeing civil wars and famine throughout the 80s and 90s. Eastern Europeans searching for better economic opportunities in the early 2000s. In the last decade we’ve had an influx from the Middle East as a result of catastrophic foreign influence fighting the ‘War on Terror’ which has become a self-igniting fire. The unavoidable fact is that all of these people and regions were once under British rule and many of these issues occur due to the Exit Policy put in place during the decline of the British Empire. What does the current decade hold for UK immigration? For the current decade, political instability will likely be a major driving factor for mass exodus and subsequently immigration into the UK. As we emerge from a global pandemic and enter a recession, many right-wing parties will use the opportunity to seize power and as a result there will be a lot of suffering for the most vulnerable in society and persecution for any opponents of these regimes. Looking further ahead, I believe climate change will be the biggest factor in forcing people to leave their homes behind to find a better life in the 2030s. Wildfires, floods, droughts, and rising sea levels will make many populous regions around the world uninhabitable. While the UK has many issues, it still remains one of the most popular destinations for people searching for better lives.
As each wave and community enters the UK, many restarting from scratch, they will strive towards the fundamental needs of any human, as Maslow describes best in his ‘hierarchy of needs’. A first generation immigrant struggles to achieve the most basic needs; food, shelter, financial stability and community. With the foundations in place, many second generation immigrants endeavour for freedom, recognition, representation and fulfilment. Therefore, the answer is “No”, the struggle is not over and each community will have to fight to be recognised as equals in this country and campaign for representation in all levels of society for people from their community.
But are we really entitled to the same benefits?
This is a message for people who might currently be in the same situation I was in over a decade ago; who might be contemplating “I’m a foreigner here, this isn’t really my country. Do I belong here? Will I be seen as selfish or ungrateful for asking for better living conditions?” We can take an example in the early 2000s when many WW2 veterans were still alive and the descendants of these soldiers might have said that their great grandfather fought in the Great War and their Grandfather fought in WW2; their ancestors made a sacrifice for this island so they were rightfully entitled to these lands. Could the same argument not be made for many immigrants of the Commonwealth? A Caribbean person could say their ancestors were enslaved and forced to work on plantations with the ultimate beneficiary being the UK trading cheap cotton, tobacco and sugar. I personally could say that my ancestors were starved to death during the Bengal famine when Britain restricted grain supplies and diverted it to soldiers fighting in WW2. Or an Indian could mention the two million soldiers who fought in WW2. A Middle Eastern could rightly blame the imaginary borders drawn up over deserts (Sykes-Picot Agreement) for the ongoing sectarian violence throughout the region. All these people have equal claim to the statement that their ancestors sacrificed for this land so they too are entitled to it. Consequently, the actions of our ancestors should not dictate the rights we have today.
The atrocities committed by the British government on the colonies is conveniently overlooked in school history lessons. Many people are also not informed about the Commonwealth's contribution to the war effort with over two million Indian soldiers having served in WW2 and many more from the West Indies and Africa.
My final message is that everyone should strive to have equal rights, proportional representation and unfettered opportunities in this country regardless of their background. While I have focused on many social problems in this post, there are two aspects to the story which I have neglected as I am not informed well enough to comment on it. Firstly, many of the issues I’ve discussed are equally felt by working class English families. Secondly, I have addressed the effects of immigration from the host country’s perspective, but have failed to address the massive economic effects for the country that people have departed and subsequently the ‘brain drain’ that worsens the possibility of these countries being able to provide safety and security for their own citizens. In my effort to practice what I preach, I have recently become a Governor of a primary school in North London and in my next post I’ll try to outline my experience of the role.
Graduated with a BSc in Physics at the University of Surrey and an MSc in Applied Geophysics at the IDEA League.