Working with grassroots communities, I’ve begun to question the usefulness of identity politicsby Shabnam Nasimi / March 6, 2020 / Leave a comment
I grew up in the borough of Lewisham in south east London. My family came from Afghanistan and in many ways is an immigrant success story. My sister is studying her PhD in Sociology at Cambridge, my brother is studying a BA in Philosophy at King’s College London, my youngest sister has just started to study Law and my father runs a successful charity that supports the integration of refugees in Britain (honoured with the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service in 2019).
Having spent almost 10 years in local government and working directly with grassroots communities, I became particularly interested in the relationship between identity and politics, and how our values and ideas shape the society we live in. I found that analysing society through ethnic differences is deeply flawed—people from different backgrounds don’t have a monolithic way of thinking. Stating that the most unique thing about is you is your race risks fuelling an infuriating “us versus them” narrative, that dictates all white people are racists and all ethnic minorities are victims.
I’ve always been suspicious of what I see as orthodoxies around certain cultural issues. I have found that “multiculturalism,” which was meant to be about equality and fairness and liberating people from oppression, has become quite a rigid and oppressive ideology. It has tended to box people into categories and worked against harmonious relationships between them, dividing communities. It’s possible to acknowledge racism still exists without over-exaggerating its modern significance.
I come from an ethnic minority background and maybe I am influenced by my culture, but I’ve never felt that it explains everything I am. However, increasingly we tend to think of people as being defined by these characteristics and make judgment, rather than seeing them as individuals. This holds communities back.
And these narratives tend to give an overly negative picture of how ethnic groups are doing in Britain today. The figures present a different picture. For instance, according to the Office for National Statistics, between 2002/3 and 2017/2018 the percentage of people from ethnic groups in further education rose from 13.3 per cent to 21.3 per cent, whereas the number of white students fell by 37 per cent.
In addition to this, in the NHS, around a third of doctors are from ethnic minority backgrounds. The south Asian diaspora form the largest BME business community, with ethnic minority-led SMEs proportionally more common in England than elsewhere in the UK, according to the 2018 Longitudinal Small Business Survey. Chinese and Indian workers in the UK out-earn their white British counterparts. There are real success stories that need to be celebrated. We must avoid a one-dimensional debate that assumes all minority ethnic people are disadvantaged. Certainly some people will face prejudice. But the overall landscape has changed.
And if racial disparities continue to exist, there are many social reasons. There are differences between groups and it is not just racism that leads to different outcomes. If you think about the fact nearly half of BME people in Britain were born abroad, naturally there will be some language issues and difficulty attaining qualifications for certain groups. But to exaggerate the reality is incredibly irresponsible. It destroys trust. By framing it as racial injustice, you paint a very misleading picture of why there may be imbalances.
We should be concerned about how politicians and activists are obsessed with saying Britain is racist, as grievance culture hurts race relations. It perpetuates an inaccurate picture of society and reinforces this idea that ethnic minorities are being systemically oppressed and that young BME people can’t succeed. That has a big impact, limiting ambition. When in fact, what we’ve seen in the last 20 years is a liberalisation and opening of opportunity for people, no matter their background.
Concepts like “white privilege,” “identity politics”—the idea that our differences define us, should determine policy and that we should treat people differently because of them—can do a lot of harm. We must not make it difficult for people to transcend those identities. I am an Asian woman from London and a working-class background—but there are lots of things about me that cannot be contained by that.
We live in a country where every person, regardless of their ethnicity and background, should be able to fulfil their potential. To have a meaningful conversation about race, we have to get away from this idea that a person is not getting ahead because they are a person of colour. Things have changed in the UK.