For the last few weeks and months I’ve really been thinking about the way that I, as a woman of colour, view myself and others against the backdrop of the society that I live in.
When it comes to writers of colour expressing themselves and talking about aspects of their life, there’s a tendency to focus on issues that an older generation faced. This includes things like colourism, the struggle between cultural roots and Western society and more.
As a younger generation of Western born and raised children of colour grow up and begin to document their world, it’s safe to say that the issues that affect them today are very different to those which affected an older generation. That’s not to say that things like colourism don’t affect us because it does. What I have noticed is a widening gap between older British Asians and younger British Asians in terms of what matters to us in today’s society.
An example of this is technology. Another is 9/11 which was a massive game changer for every single person of colour regardless of age, background and level of wealth.
I was born and raised in London. I spent the first decade or so of my life in inner city south London before moving out to the suburbs. It was an odd neighbourhood because at the time there were two worlds existing in one area. One was very middle class and the other was working class. I hate to use the class system as an example, but it’s the only way I can describe how different life was for two groups of people who interacted with one another, lived alongside each other, but never really understood how the other half lived.
Memories from my childhood have been on my mind following a Channel 5 documentary I watched last night. It was called Gangland: Turf Wars. I wasn’t exposed to gangs directly, but I do remember the interest a lot of classmates had in it by the time I finished my education.
I spent much of last night, and today, wondering what’s happened to them.
I’d heard stories about the Kray Twins in East London, numerous murders of young men and how they’d been killed but never really thought about what drove them to join a gang or live a life of crime. I hadn’t been exposed to that and, in essence, I’d grown up in that safe bubble where things like youth violence weren’t a part of my direct everyday life. Even though I’d grown up alongside it.
When it comes to gangs, the first image many of us think of are angry, young, black men, white men and a handful of Asians who are marginalised from society.
Then we subconsciously think of gangs as being like organised criminal groups (such as the Mafia) when the whole idea of a gang has changed. It’s changed from being an organised ‘brotherhood’ to one which is much more fluid; individuals who deal drugs are technically part of a gang but act as their own agent to reduce the risk of violence and competition.
As I grew up, I noticed that there were a lot of British Asian boys who started to adopt mannerisms and behaviour I’d seen local boys in gangs do. But these boys weren’t from council estates; they were mostly from pretty well off Asian families.
It’s a well known fact that in many Western countries, South Asians tend to live in fairly affluent areas and experience high levels of financial success which results in most of us being economically privileged. Despite this, there are Asians who live in deprived areas and end up having to make decisions such as dealing drugs or joining a gang.
Whenever I think of a South Asian gang member, I tend to visualise the goondhas (thugs) or badamaash (gangster) from Bollywood
Yet this is something I think many British Asians don’t fully visualise. We can see rich South Asian boys pretend to be gangsters by talking and dressing a certain way; we almost accept it. But we don’t seem to realise that this could be reality for a lot of young Asian people in our cities. That tends to sit uncomfortably with us because it’s an aspect of society we don’t want to engage with.
Whenever I think of a South Asian gang member, I tend to visualise the goondhas (thugs) from Bollywood films. Larger than life, sporting massive moustaches, overly muscular and being the epitome of macho men.
Perhaps that’s why many affluent South Asian boys feel the need to behave as though they’re from a deprived area, deal drugs or are part of gang culture: because they believe that is what it means to be a ‘manly man’ or to be cool.
The reality of this couldn’t be further from that image of hyper masculinity. The glamourisation of gang culture, being a man or a woman involved in that or dealing drugs in order to survive is wrong.
I don’t think people become criminals for the thrill of it; for some of the kids I went to school with it was a way out of poverty and social marginalisation. For others, it was a way to gain control over their life and a sense of identity in horrible socio-economic circumstances that most of us will never face but are happy to become armchair critics about it.
We actively distance ourselves from it and stick our heads in the sand because ‘it’s not how Asians behave, we’re not all like that.’ We do this to escape the responsibility of admitting that South Asians can be susceptible to economic hardship, poverty, drug use and/or dealing, human trafficking, gun and gang culture. It just adds to a long list of things many South Asians are in denial about and tend to dismiss as irrelevant when it actually does matter.