Lately I’ve been having a think of things and have reached an uncomfortable stage in my life so far. It is difficult to accept certain things, especially the ones where your heart has decided to staple itself to, will not or may never happen.Whether it’s romantically, emotionally, personally or careers wise – it hurts a lot. A part of that realisation comes with growing up and realising that time, energy and resources are horribly limited. And the rest of that realisation gradually occurs when your heart realises that its been scarred and wounded by the staple.
A shocking statistic recently showed that less than 2% of black, Asian and minority ethnic people (BAME) are in mainstream British media whilst they make up over 6% of the population. It’s a disproportionate figure that really puts things into perspective: this is 2014. Whilst we have made strides in certain areas of British society, it is clear that we still have an incredibly long way to go before we achieve “equality.” I’ve seen a number of organisations aimed at “promoting diversity” and giving ethnic minorities a “helping hand” through funds, schemes and campaigns. This is all very well and good but I feel like it’s not enough: you cannot constantly throw money at things and expect them to change over night. Yes funding and money are important, after all the world runs on them, but sometimes all people need is a chance. I find that those of ethnic origin who have managed to smash the glass ceiling and get to a high post, very very rarely do they give back to their communities and help the coming generation. In addition, many organisations are reluctant to do that; instead the positions are magically created out of thin air for Debbie in HR’s daughter’s best friend’s sister’s nephew.
Earlier this year, British comedian Lenny Henry, began a campaign to force British media outlets and organisations to promote greater diversity on TV. Click to read. This was amazing and so encouraging to see; I just hope with all my heart that it works out and 10 years down the line the issue of diversity on TV and in the media isn’t around and doesn’t become a talking house.
You cannot constantly throw money at things and expect them to change
It got me thinking of the implications that this statistic has had and would have. For a long time I’ve always wondered why we have ethnic minority papers in the UK; The Voice, The Eastern Eye to name a few. If Britain was as truly cohesive and accepting of talent from all backgrounds as it claims, why do we still have newspapers and magazines aimed at ethnic minorities? Back in the day, when the migrant generation first arrived in Britain the need, the demand and the comfort of having a newspaper that spoke about a specific community is understandable. I had a conversation with a friend who said that we should abolish ethnic minority newspapers altogether because it indicates that we are not considered to be a “fully integrated part of the British establishment.” I personally think that ethnic minority newspapers are still a necessity especially given the above statistic. Ethnic minority papers discuss community issues in an open manner, bind people and provide many with a sense of comfort that their issues are not being ignored. The main challenge that many of these newspapers face, is making their organisations accessible and understood by a second, third or even fourth generation audience. For many of these establishments play a key role in how young British ethnic minority citizens view themselves, their communities, their cultures and themselves against the backdrop of contemporary British society.
The cold wind slapped my cheeks as I nervously sat on the bench by myself. I didn’t exactly fit in: frizzy haired nerd with glasses and a hard to pronounce name. I wrapped myself up in my red winter coat wishing that I could wrap my entire existence up in the same way. I watched the other children gleefully play, shriek and pull at each others’ jumpers immersed in their games. I’d tried to make friends with some of the girls but they came with a lot of demands. If Becky didn’t like English – none of us could like English. If Stephanie didn’t like History – none of us could like History. And all too often, I had nothing to talk about because I loved English and History. But I still tagged along and tried to mimic their behaviour: having a short summer dress, wearing large scrunchies in my hair, combing my unruly curls in an attempt to have smooth, sleek hair like theirs and begging my parents to let me join Brownies. They were having none of it.
Before I’d been confronted with the fine print of friendship, they’d already established little group secrets, friendship bracelets, multi coloured hair braids, sweetheart crushes, sleepover parties and private jokes that I wasn’t a part of. And in the years to come; that I would never be a part of.
One day we were outside having lunch when Becky said: “Why aren’t you allowed to come to sleepovers or Brownies?” I looked down at my hands and tried not to cry. They wouldn’t understand, but the little lion in me tried and I said: “My parents said it’s not in our culture.” Becky exchanged looks with Stephanie who shrugged. Becky rolled her eyes and said: “So you’re not allowed to go to sleepovers or Brownies because of your culture?” Inside I breathed a sigh of relief: they had understood! I felt a little bubble of elation rise in my chest as I admired how understanding my friends were. Oh how wrong I was. Becky laughed and Stephanie joined in. She leaned across the table, raised her eyebrows and with a twisted smile said: “Well then you, your parents and your culture are stupid. I’m glad I’m not you!”
Shrill, cruel girlish laughter echoed in my ears as I felt my face burn and my stomach tie itself into knots. I’d run into the toilets, locked myself in the nearest cubicle and began to cry silently. I tried to remove the red thread that my grandma had so lovingly tied to my wrist and tried to hide my khara inside my cardigan sleeve. More tears rushed down my cheeks until my head ached and my tear ducts had given up on me. I slowly wiped my tears away and examined the folds of the red thread and the cool shine of the khara on my wrist: I smiled. I didn’t need their friendship bracelets. I had had one all this time.
Today’s post is inspired by a very recent conversation that I had and a result of observing social attitudes in Britain for over 10 years. I often wonder if things change for the better or if they have to become increasingly violent, devastating and evil before that change for good eventually occurs.
Living in a post 9/11 world has not only changed international relations, but drastically changed the way that millions of people view themselves with regards to ethnic identity both communally and individually. The words “Muslim” and “Islamophobia” are rampant and rife in our society. We are regularly shown images of crazed gunmen wearing turbans, wielding guns and proclaiming their hatred of the West in the deserts of faraway lands.
Ignorant people begin to make the flawed connection of brown skinned men with beards and turbans equating to terrorists, haters of the West and Al Qaeda members. Soon heart breaking stories of young Sikh men being battered to death because of their beards and dastaar reach our ears. Young Asian men with beards are being attacked without reason and young women have their hijabs ripped off in public because they’re being “oppressed” and not “being British.” And the icing on the cake is when the media coldly says: “It was a case of mistaken identity.” Yet if a white man has a beard, he’s considered “cool” and doesn’t get stopped at Customs. And if a white woman covers her head, she’s deemed “cosmopolitan” and “appreciating culture.”
To not be who you are is a painful and draining experience
Upon seeing this, many people of ethnic descent begin to feel unsafe. They hide aspects of themselves in order to conform and fit into Western society. I remember soon after 9/11 how anything non-European was viewed with disgust. I kept my religion a secret, didn’t speak my mother tongue in public and did almost anything to not bring attention to my brown-ness. And it wasn’t just me, but many Asian kids I knew suddenly felt ashamed of their background, their name, families, their cultures, religions and heritages. To not be who you are is a painful and draining experience. It was a clash because every single day of my life I had been told: “Be proud you are Punjabi.” Yet the people around me had lumped all brown people into one ugly box and made sure that we felt and knew it.
There were days where I longed to correct an ignorant individual who made nasty comments about my culture and how everyone who wasn’t white should “go back to where they came from.” And when I look back on it, I really should have said something because I would have been standing up for a lot of people and not just myself. The day I felt confident enough to speak Punjabi with my grandmother in public, speak openly about my faith and my culture was the day that I felt like I had freed myself. I didn’t – and still don’t – care if I get given a dirty look for speaking my mother tongue in public. It forms a crucial part of who I am.
My friends hid who they were out of fear and because being brown was a bad thing. Til today, there are probably thousands of people who hide their roots because they are scared of being judged or attacked. The ironic thing is that we have nothing to be ashamed of and so much to be proud of. The actions of a few cannot and is not a good enough excuse for entire communities to be condemned.