Illustration: Manjit Thapp
Illustration: Manjit Thapp

OPINION

Multiculturalism hasn’t failed – but the rhetoric surrounding immigration has become poisonous

Sim Bajwa was born in Britain to parents who left India in the early 1990s. She sees her family’s story as a triumph – but it’s increasingly clear that not everyone agrees

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By Sim Bajwa on

‘And you know, I’m not afraid of being called a racist,’ he says in a strong Brummie accent. ‘It’s not something I run from. It’s people like the EDL, smashing up cars, vandalising shops, that give everyone a bad name.’

It’s 2012, and I’m 20 years old. I’m tucked away in a corner table in Costa on campus, working my way through a pile of reading for an essay I left way too late. Hearing this, I freeze.

‘I mean…as long as you’re not violent, it’s just an opinion, right? The thing is, when all these immigrants come over here, they set up these ghettos. Everyone’s the same race, they won’t learn English, freezing everyone else out. That’s what my problem is. I just don’t believe multiculturalism works. I think it actually divides society more. It’s failed.’

Say something.

My face is hot and my heart is hammering. I’m angry, but I’m afraid to speak up, and equally afraid that if I do, I’ll be dismissed. That they will look at each other and smirk.

Of course she thinks we’re wrong. She’s Asian.

I’m so taken aback by this conversation, by his poor attempt to intellectualise his racism, that I don’t even know how to react.

‘If I don’t give a job to an Indian or an African, I don’t think that makes me a bad person. It’s this PC culture. It makes people feel like they have to accommodate everyone. I just think that we should put British culture first. They should understand that. I don’t have a problem with anyone, but I do think we would get on better if people just stayed in their own countries. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with saying that.’

I look over at him. White guy on the next table. My age. Smile on his face, latte in front of him. His two friends – both also white men – sit across from him. One nods and chuckles every now and again, the other looks slightly uncomfortable.

Do they know I’m sitting here? Is he saying this on purpose?

It’s clear he has no idea. He hasn’t noticed me.

Say something.

‘Oh, but don’t get me wrong,’ he says, with an easy laugh. He sips his coffee. ‘I love Peking duck.’

***

Fast forward to late 2016, and I’ve just turned 24. It’s been a weird, scary year. I’ve finished my postgraduate degree, and I’m figuring out what I should do next. I’m trying to keep positive about humanity in general, even though it feels like every new week is battering away at that optimism. I’m also more aware than I have ever been about who my parents are, and the parts of their lives I’ve only ever heard about.

I am first generation British-Indian, the oldest of three children. My parents left Punjab, India in the early 90s, and settled in Slough, England. An industrial town, about 20 miles west of London, it’s one of the most ethnically diverse places in the UK. I spoke Punjabi before I spoke English. My neighbours were from a mix of backgrounds and I went to a very diverse school. We would exchange Christmas cards with our friends and family, and we would give our neighbours Indian food at Diwali. And yes, I suppose it would be exactly what White Guy In Costa carelessly referred to as a ‘ghetto’. As evidence for the failure of multiculturalism.

I switch between English and Punjabi with ease. I pick and choose aspects from each side of my life, depending on what I identify with

My parents were my age when they immigrated. They’d just had an arranged marriage. To me, this isn’t an unusual beginning, it’s actually very common. The vast majority of my extended family in the UK and North America started their early twenties in exactly this way.

Slough is very different to where my parents grew up. My dad is from Mustafabad, a rural village of almost 900 people. My mum is from Rayya, a larger town which is currently in transition from rural to urban. Most of their family is still there. In comparison, England must have been busy, loud, impatient, grey, and overwhelmingly foreign. The people look different, act differently, speak a different language, and so many don’t want you in their country. I imagine it would have been a comfort to live in a community where people spoke your language, made the food you were used to, practiced the same religion, and would help you to adjust to your new home.

I wonder how small your world must be, White Guy in Costa, how lacking in empathy and understanding, to see a community of people finding home in one another, and only see that they are not like you. To only focus on the fact that they’re foreign, they don’t speak English, they dress differently, they have different cultural norms, so they should not be here. To ignore the boldness and bravery that it must take to start a new life thousands of miles from everything familiar.

My parents both left school at around 16 years old, and don’t have any formal qualifications. They taught themselves English. Before I was born, my mum used to work in a supermarket, stocking shelves, and my dad worked outside on a farm. The house that they lived in, the one that they eventually bought and I grew up in, was bare. They had no furniture, and the kitchen was just a portable gas cooker and a counter top. They would often go to my aunt’s house for meals. My dad would cut the grass in the garden with a pair of kitchen scissors because they couldn’t afford a lawn mower yet. My mum got a better job in a factory that packaged pens. They both passed their driving tests and my dad started driving a lorry, delivering building materials.

Over the years, they worked tirelessly, saved their money meticulously, and slowly but surely filled their home. They saved enough money to buy their own lorry, allowing my dad to become self-employed. Then, they saved enough to buy another one. And then another one. Now, they own their own business, one that they built from nothing. They have employees.

I don’t remember any of the empty early years. I’ve seen some of this life in pictures, and I’ve heard stories, but none of it felt real to me when I was a teenager. In the childhood I remember, I don’t lack anything. I don’t recall feeling like anything was missing. My brothers and I got new school uniforms every year, we received birthday presents, we were gifted Christmas presents, we went on school trips, to the seaside in the summer, we were safe and loved. We were never hungry. My parents never let us feel like they couldn’t provide anything we needed.

Maybe this is why I used to feel detached from the stories of their childhoods and their first few years in England. They talked about having little, but I had everything. How could I possibly understand what a big deal it was to my parents to buy my brother a bike? How could I understand the incredible freedom they gave me as an Indian girl, in a culture where it’s harder to be a woman? That’s not to say they didn’t have traditional views on gender. They did, and still do. For a lot of years, I felt like I fought constantly to choose my own path. But I never felt unsafe or scared to be myself, as untraditional as I am. I never felt like I’m sure many of my female cousins, and millions of girls I don’t know, feel.

It’s now, as a 24-year-old Indian woman in the 21st century, that I understand. If I had everything, it’s because they worked to make it so. If I now have two university degrees, it’s because they crossed continents and oceans so that I would have more opportunities than they did.

I can’t know for sure what my life in India would have been like, but I probably would have been raised in my dad’s village. It’s unlikely I would have gone onto higher education. I might have been married off by now, and living with my in-laws. Maybe I’d even have children. I would have had to work harder for less, and there is no way I would have as much freedom as I have in the UK. It’s not a reach to assume that I would have been told from birth that my role was ultimately to be a wife and a mother. Any children I had probably wouldn’t have had access to the opportunities that I’ve taken for granted. I had the security to wear what I wanted, to identify as an atheist, to contradict family members older than me, to watch and read whatever I wished. It wouldn’t have been so easy in an Indian village.

It’s strange to know that everything that I am passionate about, and all the ambitions I have are only available to me because my parents are immigrants. It leaves me feeling grateful and humbled. To cross half the world, to live peacefully next to people fundamentally different from yourself, to make a place for yourself in a new society, while holding onto your culture, to give your children their best chance, is not a failure to me.

It’s beautiful. It’s a triumph.

***

2016 was tough, socially and politically, for a lot of people. I know it’s naïve and idealistic, but I’ve always believed that good and fair wins eventually. While evil exists, most people try to do the right thing, and that we are gradually heading in the right direction. But the last couple of years have hurt my faith and my heart.

Immigration has become a dirty word in mainstream media and politics. I went through the months leading up to the 2015 General Election with rising trepidation. Surely people aren’t going to vote Conservative, I thought. Not after the last five years. Surely people are going to dismiss Farage and UKIP. Remember Nick Griffin being made into a laughing stock in 2009? Farage isn’t going to stir up anything.

But every time I heard someone say how Farage ‘seems like a normal bloke’ and how he’s ‘right about some things’, I felt afraid. Every time Ed Miliband and David Cameron mentioned a harder line on immigration, trying to sway potential UKIP voters, my fear grew.

Forget about tax avoidance, forget about the richest continually screwing over the poorest, forget about cuts to welfare, it’s immigrants who are the problem. People like my parents.

Brexit was pushed onto the British public with this rhetoric. We don’t have enough space. We don’t have enough housing. We don’t have enough jobs. They’re stealing our benefits. They’re bringing crime. They’re destroying our culture. It’s our country.

Us. Our. Them.

It’s feels like a betrayal, first by politicians, and then by the general public.

I understand that not everyone who voted to leave the EU did it because of immigration. I do believe though, that racists and xenophobes have taken Brexit as a permission slip, as legitimisation of their beliefs. The wave of hate crimes show that they believe that the country is on their side.

The idea of feeling grateful towards Britain makes me feel as if we’re in a host country, rather than our own

To them, to the likes of Nigel Farage, it doesn’t matter that my parents are British citizens, that they’ve lived in this country for longer than they lived in India. It doesn’t matter how hard they’ve worked.

This was driven home to me in the summer of 2016 by reports of Byron Hamburgers’ actions against their own employees. The company set up a fake training day for their kitchen staff, where it turned over employees to the Home Office in an immigration sting. People who had worked for the company for years, some working 50- to 70- hours per week, were herded out of the building. They didn’t get to say goodbye, they weren’t allowed to go to their houses. They were ripped out of their lives. Everything they had worked for, everything they had built – gone. And of course, I think about my parents. I can imagine how powerless they would feel, how angry and scared and sad. The clear message here is that the lives of immigrants aren’t as important or valuable. Not to their employers, and certainly not to the government.

The rhetoric of immigrants being thieves, terrorists, rapists, as intrinsically Other, is being perpetuated by people in power who have no idea what it is to be an immigrant. Nowhere is this truer than in Donald Trump’s victory in the US Election. Again, like Brexit, not everyone who voted for Trump is a racist. However, his whole campaign was based on hatred, on setting up an Other to blame for the problems of the working class, on stirring up violence and anger. Us versus Them. To vote for him, to have treated him as a legitimate candidate in the first place, to act as if his inflammatory comments are debatable, is to be complicit in his exclusive version of America. Stories in the news of attacks on Muslims and immigrants in the US are horrific. I’m scared and grieving for anyone who isn’t white, straight, cis, male, and able-bodied. The terror is bone deep.

Even George Osborne said during Prime Minister’s Questions in January 2016, ‘We all enjoy a great British curry, but what we want are curry chefs trained here in Britain so we’re providing jobs for people here in this country, and that’s what our immigration controls provide.’ It was widely mocked online and compared to Rowan Atkinson’s skit in Not the Nine O’Clock News where his Tory MP character says, ‘Now a lot of immigrants are Indians and Pakistanis for instance, and, I like curry, but now that we’ve got the recipe… is there really any need for them to stay?’.

It’s funny, but really, where’s the lie? They want our things – our food, our labour, our money –  but they don’t want us. 

It’s infuriating and saddening. Underneath it all though, I’m weary. I’m tired of the dehumanisation of immigrants and the erasure of their experiences. I’m tired of knowing that when people mean ‘immigrants’ in the West, they don’t mean white migrants from North America or Australia. I’m tired of feeling like I need to justify why my parents are here.

They learned English, they pay taxes, they’ve never been in trouble with the law, they’ve given me everything.

I shouldn’t feel like I need to reel off this litany every time someone questions whether immigration is good or bad. How do I explain to someone who has no idea what it’s like to live between two cultures? How can I make them see that it’s rich and challenging and wonderful, all at the same time?

I’ll never forget a conversation I had with a girl that I lived with during my undergraduate studies. She had never met someone who wasn’t white until she moved away for university. She didn’t know much about other cultures, and nor did she care to learn. Any experience outside of her white, middle-class bubble was so far away from her life that I don’t think she thought of it as real. She was another who questioned whether multiculturalism is a good thing. Never mind the fact that she’d had an Indian takeaway the night before. I jokingly answered that without multiculturalism, we wouldn’t have Bend It Like Beckham, and wouldn’t that be a shame?

She kept going though, and asked me if I thought multiculturalism actually worked, if I believed diversity was a positive part of British society. She talked about how uncomfortable she felt around people who spoke a language she didn’t understand, and how she thought it would be best if people ‘just stayed with their own kind’. When I pointed out that I’m one of those people, and questioned if she thought I didn’t belong where I was, she told me I was different. I was different because I’d assimilated to British society. I didn’t know how to make her understand that yes I had, but also, no I haven’t. I walk between two cultures that are opposites. I switch between English and Punjabi with ease. I pick and choose aspects from each side of my life, depending on what I identify with. This is true for my parents as well who grew up with one culture, and then had to learn to live in another. They found a balanced middle ground.

Her mindset is one that I’ve encountered time and again, personally and in the media. Difference is bad. Difference is dangerous. I’m lucky that I’ve had little malicious racism directed at me. The most I’ve experienced are microaggressions of the ‘Where are you really from?’ and ‘You’re getting an arranged marriage, right?’ and ‘You’re a Muslim, yeah?’ and ‘I wouldn’t say that you’re Indian, I would say you’re English’ variety. Sometimes it’s in making me feel as if I’m so very different, and sometimes it’s in erasing my identity in an effort to find a cultural box to fit me in. Day to day, I don’t feel like I don’t belong, or that my family isn’t British. Instead, it’s in the moment where a politician stokes anti-immigration sentiments and large groups of people respond positively. The moment where my ethnicity and my parents’ background is treated as a taboo subject, the moment a man yelled ‘GO HOME, YOU FUCKING PAKI’ in my face as I crossed the road in Birmingham.

It’s in the moments I realise that for a lot of people, yes, my family is British…but. We belong here…but. It’s an uncomfortable in-between position, where you never quite feel on level ground. You’re expected to feel grateful towards a country that has given you a better life than you would have had otherwise, but the idea of feeling grateful towards Britain makes me feel as if we’re in a host country, rather than our own. We have to give back more than those who aren’t a product of immigration. We have to earn our place here. We have to never give anyone a chance to say that we shouldn’t be here.

Sometimes, it feels like rebellion to claim our space without apology. To me, Britain is multicultural, and better for it. I might be lucky to be born in Britain, but Britain is lucky to have my parents. I wouldn’t trade being the daughter of immigrants for the world. I couldn’t. It makes me feel indescribably proud to look around their home and our lives, and think about how they built it all themselves. It makes me feel like, if they can do all this, I can do anything.

'Go Home’ is taken from Nasty Women, a collection of essays and accounts of being a woman in the 21st century, available now from 404 Ink.

@Simuella

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Illustration: Manjit Thapp
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