Since the UK race relations legislation forty years ago, race terminology has been struggling to keep up and faces multiple challenges because of some people trying for a geographical identity that suits them best for socio-political gains or exclusive and favourable treatment for positions.
In Britain, the word “Asian” usually refers specifically to people of South Asian ancestry (Pakistanis, Indians, Bangladeshis and Sri Lankans) which became more pronounced as the anti-discrimination framework developed to combat discrimination against groups of people, but without appreciating that the term has severe limitations.
Asia is the biggest continent and consists of many ethnicities and cultures but serious mistake is made when people associate ‘Asian’ with ethnicity and race where the use of this term in social, cultural, economic and political contexts opens up the possibilities of communal rivalry for recognition, power and public funding.
Despite all this, every apparatus of the state has been used to ignore that Asians are not a homogeneous group and have vast differences – cultural, social and religious – where language, culture and religion are inextricably connected.
It would not be realistic to think that the social, cultural and religious needs of Pakistanis, Indians, Bangladeshis and Sri Lankans under the title ‘Asian’ are the same. Not only this, but the piecemeal and subjective term ‘Asian’ hinders addressing any equal opportunities imbalances in treating and providing for the groups of people, such as Muslims.
Even the Daily Mail warned about this: ‘Peterborough has a proud history of immigrants integrating seamlessly with the community. Past arrivals – mainly Indian, Pakistani and Ugandan – gratefully accepted the opportunity to start their lives afresh. But the new influx is vastly different they say’ (30 August 2004, p16).
How real it would be to spread the cultural norms based on the caste, tribe and ‘colour-creed’ systems in certain communities, across the whole ‘Asian’ community?
In theory, the public representatives and service providers should have the capacity and political responsibility to make choices and respond to all local and national needs and demands.
However, the reality in most cases is that of uniformity of approach based on conventional norms and values. Consequently, the political representatives and ‘professionals’ at various levels, while ‘celebrating’ diversity, argue that variety create ‘anomalies’.
It is this cultural and institutional norm that defines ethnic minorities as an ‘anomaly’ as well as the premise of any specific provisions for this client group. For example, the race relations legislation confirmed and strengthened this in 1960s and created a structural mechanism of control and containment of ethnic minority aspirations through race relations bodies, officers and advisers, using the dynamics of resources and age old strategy of ‘divide and rule’.
However, the demise of the race relations industry saw the emergence of the equal opportunities structures to fill the gap, using the ‘anomaly’ premise and using the collusive ethnic minority ‘advisers’/ ‘directors’ to provide care and support to their respective communities through the institutionally defined and state funded initiatives – much later the same operational model has been deployed to promote the government’s anti-terrorism initiatives like the discredited ‘Prevent’ strategy,
These arrangements to use same-race people to inspire or put down their respective communities have served well the institutions, political parties and authorities as the marginalized personal take the pressure off them, help them in politicising other socio-cultural norms and work as buffer between them and communities. What has really helped in achieving this equilibrium is the fact that institutions have tremendous powers: power to reward those who collude, and penalise those who oppose’!
We need a perpetual and forceful reminder that Britain has a diversity of cultures and religions and that a practice of the principle of ‘different but equal’ eases the sort of integration that the government is asking for. A message of tolerance and harmony is helpful but we need to move on and cultivate a spirit of understanding and acceptance.
There is a consensus of opinion that multiculturalism, based on the narratives like ‘Asians’, promotes a sense of separatism and needs to be abandoned. Britain has been a multicultural society and should have the capacity to include, rather than exclude groups of people.
The former Commission for Racial Equality chief Trevor Phillips was quite right to point out that ‘multiculturalism is a better doctrine in theory than in practice because it can, in some circumstances, allow public funds to be used to entrench the power of community leaders – always a potentially loaded word – by isolating them from mainstream society: thus “sleepwalking” into the segregation’.
Such a segregation becomes inevitable when a number of ‘Asians’ race to deal or give an impression to deal with deprivation, extremism, radicalism, Islamophobia within ‘Asians’ but really ride on the back of their respective communities for gaining public recognition and funding. The net result usually is that the term ‘Asian’ helps some Asians at the cost of others.
Moreover, the institutionally defined ‘Asian’ as a social category promotes a sense of ‘once an immigrant, always an immigrant’ which is not helpful in achieving integration or creating a ‘shared society’.