This summer I gave an interview to journalist Lorraine Mallinder about being British Asian in the Brexit era. This is an extended version of the interview.
What does the term 'British' mean to you? Is it still a valid concept? Is it capable of embracing our society in all its complexity and diversity?
For me, the term ‘British’ was always a handy, geographically inclusive (England, Scotland, Wales) but not ethnically limiting identity. Even though it was a generalisation, it said something about where I lived, not my racial heritage. I feel British – I am British – and I’m clearly not white English. That said, both this country (England) and its union (Great Britain) are tainted by their definitive history of colonial exploitation of vast swathes of the rest of the planet, fuelled by racism and all that racism brings with it: cultural superiority, avaricious greed, exploitation, inhumanity and breathtaking arrogance.
However, the Britain I grew up in – particularly the British London I grew up in – I associated with other things, often very positive things: tolerance; variety; diversity of language, colour, culture, heritage; a singularly subtle and dry humour; a particular joyful eccentricity, even a celebration of the quirky and the bizarre; a slightly rough and ramshackle streety edge.
On the flip side, however, England has always had terrible shadow sides: the entitled Imperial or aristocratic white male arrogance and cronyism that rises through elite schools and universities and is then strengthened through the boys’ clubs at the top of every single trade and profession including seemingly progressive leftist politics and the seemingly liberal arts and culture sectors; and, at the other end of the traditional English class scale, a defiantly insular, monoglot, defensively aggressive, ignorant-and-happy-about-it, yobbish, philistine, laddish, violent-in-sentiment-or-word-or-deed, backward, racist undertow.
Given the recent disastrous Brexit vote it was these two tendencies which rose to the surface: a bigoted, numbskull, philistine hatred of foreigners, experts and elites of any kind; and an upper-class delusion that England (not Scotland, who voted to remain) will somehow regain its abusive and dominating hold and status over the rest of the world.
What's your experience of living in Britain as an Asian woman? How has that evolved over the years?
What do you mean, ‘living in Britain’? I am not just on a speculative stay, I was born and brought up here. In fact your question, with the underlying, subtle assumption that I am not as tied to the country as someone who is white English, represents a new movement in the way non-white Britons are seen. It is as if non-white Britons are not really ‘from’ England and ought to feel some sort of pull to ‘return’ ‘back home’ (that is, the country of their parents’ or even grandparents’ birth). This is a new thing in my lifetime, and it has steadily been exacerbated over the last ten year as lots of different bigotries and prejudices have combined in white Englanders’ minds. Islamophobia in the wake of various terrorist attacks like those on the World Trade Centre in New York and the London transport network; an increase in racism based on colour, against people of South Asian descent whether Muslim or not; a racist prejudice against migrants from other parts of the EU like Poland and Romania; a vilification of refugees fleeing war, fragile states, extreme poverty and political persecution, despite the fact that the UK has accepted tiny numbers of refugees.
Life is much colder and harder than it was – much more racist, much more suspicious, more ignorant (and defiantly so). The general tenor of debate, both private and public, casual and professional, has become much coarser. It has become permissible to say just anything, no matter how narrow-minded, inflammatory, ignorant and insulting, and waste the time of people like me, who have to ‘debate’ each point as if it’s acceptable and legitimate in some way. As a political analyst speaking in mainstream broadcasting (for BBC, Sky News and Channel 4) I have found myself having to argue, as if legitimately, with people stating that learning other languages is a waste of time, that migrants should be vetted “so they don’t blow us up”, that “they” “don’t want to integrate”. I am having to push back against openly racist, aggressively insular, utterly scathing and unapologetic racists who feel their prejudices have now been endorsed and legitimised by a significant proportion of the population – and by the shift rightwards which is being seen all over the world, from full-on dictatorships in Turkey and Russia to far right governments in Hungary and Romania and gains for far right parties in Greece, France, Holland and Austria.
At a very personal level, I’m in my 30s, very established in my career and public life – and worried and despairing. I have seen the great dream of multiculturalism and the trend of ‘cool britannia’ come and go. The white men’s clubs who ran everything still run everything, and proportionally, despite there being several very eminent women of colour in my fields (journalism and broadcasting; arts and cultural diplomacy; political analysis; human rights advocacy) we are still very much a minority, and we are never in each other’s company. Each of us is often the only woman and only person of colour on the panel, discussion, event, trip, project or enterprise. Whenever this happens – whenever white male domination refuses to break or change – the victims are blamed. This is true in the case of all male abuse. But I am extremely strong, hard-working, worldly and politically shrewd; it’s not me. I am hitting the famous glass ceiling and, as a result, am probably going to become part of the ‘brain drain’ of non-white Britons of talent who are leaving the country as a result of the racist and sexist marginalisation and subtle discrimination we face. Let me be clear: this isn’t overt name-calling, insult and attack. It’s more like the steady realisation that no matter how nicey-nice people are to you face, you will never be accepted into the club and normalised as a member. So the political and personal are inextricably linked and (in my opinion), everything is possible: I am aggrieved because of issues of sex and race, which have either stalled or actively gone backwards in most areas of life in the UK.
What do you see happening in British society today? How has Brexit impacted British identity, if at all?
Brexit has impacted everything for the worse. Brexit is a catastrophe, a mistake and a disaster. I am horrified at how a virtually half-and-half vote has been aggressively transformed into ‘the people have spoken’ and thus regarded as some kind of mandate to enable a tragic act of self-harm; one which has no upside culturally, morally, financially or politically. I believe the vote was fuelled by racism, insularity, arrogance and aggressively blunt-headed nationalism; by grief and misery after decades of under-funding of essential services, social care, family support, infrastructure, schools, hospitals and civic life; by an arrogant contempt for the responsibilities and pleasures of being part of a world community which decides things together; by a philistine rejection of Europe’s culture, history, peoples and languages
We are all going to pay the price for this mistake. Brexit will affect everything from students’ ability to travel and study globally; medical research; collaboration on arts and cultural projects; joint scholarship and research; financial services and business; agriculture and farming; travel, life, retirement, freedom; knowledge-sharing when it comes to security and terrorism. Whichever way you look at it, from whichever standpoint you have politically, it’s a disaster. Politicians know this. They know it both by instinct and by the research and the appeals which are being put to them by every sector from farming to art galleries. The one thing that they may have learnt from all of this is that they must never throw out a referendum so callously and so casually again. There was no demand from the public for a vote on EU membership; David Cameron took a gamble that he thought he was going to win. He lost, and it destroyed his career. It’s going to do the same to Theresa May, because Brexit is not just poisonous but impossible: we have decades’ worth of successfully working ties with the EU. There was no need for this politically violent and culturally backward act of sabotage and self-sabotage.
What makes me all the more angry is that the British left – which is ruled by entitled white men, just the same as the right – is equally provincial, insular and small-minded. They have mounted no opposition to Brexit whatsoever and indeed Jeremy Corbyn has punished those of his colleagues who have shown opposition to Brexit.
How do you perceive Britain's relationship with the rest of the world?
England (not Scotland which voted Remain) is a laughing stock. It is seen as arrogant, insular, xenophobic, racist, nationalistic, petty and provincial, chasing an impossible and immoral dream signified by meaningless words and slogans: ‘take back control’; regain ‘sovereignty’. Britain always had control and sovereignty. Membership of the EU is membership of a linguistically and historically diverse community, with meetings in Brussels, which is convenient for all the member states and is a few hours’ away on the Eurostar. We lost nothing, and gained so much, by EU membership. As a result of England’s poor image international doctors and nurses, and international students and researchers, are choosing to go elsewhere. England will become a backwater within twenty years, with a young generation with no sense of themselves as being part of a world community, uninterested in the rest of the world; England will be abandoned as a bad bet by the rest of the world – as deluded and arrogant, and pathetically out of step.
A best case scenario will be that London – and only London – will become a hub for the global super-rich to park their cars and buy apartments; and developments of luxury homes, boutiques and restaurants will follow this. So it’ll become like Hong Kong or Dubai or Singapore. But the rest of the country will exist in stark contrast to that wealth. But the fundamental delusion – that greater days are to come and there is some new era of wealth and success on the horizon – is pathetically empty. In any case, England will never and should never regain any kind of Imperial power; the future of the world, politically, resides in China, India, Latin America and numerous African countries. England could have joined in with the flow of the future. Instead, it put up the barricades and pulled up the drawbridge. The rest of the EU nations are understandably bemused by what is so obviously a self-damaging and damaging act which will damn at least a generation to come.