No, I mean where do you REALLY come from?
I’m white, I’m an Essex girl from Billericay, born of an East End cockney made good, so I’m ‘respectable’; me, I’m privileged by education and whiteness and I can say what I like, if I want to, about most things. Now that I’m a professor at SOAS I can still say what I like, if I believe that’s a good idea, but here’s the catch: you’re not going to ask me where I really come from and what I really think, because I’m white and it seems fine to be white.
So let’s consider responsibilities, Mathew, Claire, Eric, David and Trevor. You have media presence and form, you have some extreme opinions and you express them freely in an apparently reasonable tone. You also have rights and responsibilities and I believe you have a moral responsibility to think carefully about how you express yourselves, so as not to abuse the privilege of having the public ear.
‘Ethnic diversity’ was in the original title of you event: now why is that a thing? And why is it a thing to find fault with? Ethnicity is defined as related to national, racial or cultural origins – but let me ask: what does racial origins even mean? It’s racist to categorise people by skin colour as if skin colour is a problem, so the term racial origins sounds racist… We know that ends very badly, unfairly and sometimes tragically when British citizens who are African Caribbean are told that they are not in fact British citizens, because they are African Caribbean.
This is one example of why a state may find it useful to differentiate between people based on their skin colour, or their cultural habits instead of them as people: to reduce numbers in Britain of people of colour. As human beings we want to build and maintain a society together, so actually it would be better to get to know each other to find out if we can communicate with each other and have some shared values – which will almost always be possible. It is easier to notice someone’s skin colour than to read their character: that takes time and skill and requires getting to know someone a little. As an African Christian student recently interviewed about this topic suggested, if you want to ask someone questions about themselves, it is a ten meal project – you should have broken bread with each other at least ten times before you start asking. Imagine that. By then you wouldd have made a new friend.
Along with colleagues at universities across the UK, I have spent the last 3 years leading research into the lives of Muslims on university campuses. Our project, Representing Islam on campus, has found that many Muslim students and others of colour feel a need to moderate what they say and do in order not to attract attention. They self-censor in order to minimise the chances of being the victim of racism and Islamophobia, and in order to avoid being reported under the counter terror guidance, Prevent. Muslim students do not have the sort of platform that you enjoy, to voice their concerns. We need to make it possible for reasonable and balanced discussion to take place about shared values and national plans for Britain’s future, to which the young, including people of colour and different ethnicities already contribute a great deal. Surely we should all understand skin colour and cultural differences as small differences, not problems that make us tainted, suspect or dangerous.
Muslim students and staff know their identity markers are of concern, so men may avoid growing a beard and women have come to expect comments about their clothing. This affects their lives on campus with regard to the books they feel they can be seen with, the topics of study they pursue, the questions they can ask in class, the ease with which they can access student services and the speakers they can invite to talk at events run by their student societies. Our research shows that such restrictions upon engaging with world events on campus are also affecting the lives of non-Muslims and are spreading beyond issues to do with Islam and affecting other groups such as Sikhs.
Finally, since you used the word ‘ethnicity’, let’s look at the international scene, very briefly, to consider some of the other meanings of ethnicity, particularly: being different nationally and culturally from the ‘host’ nation. What happens if the narcissism of small differences becomes a threat to the state? In mainland Europe the demand for ethnic and cultural purity is leading to demands for secession: the modern state offers economies of scale and choice but in European nation states the government is weakened in various ways through attempts by parts of many countries to break away, in a desire to be able to define themselves as different. These fissiparous tendencies make it harder for people to accept how very similar we are to each other in our shared humanity.
We could joke about an island in the River Thames mounting a secessionist attempt, which the people of Canvey Island have been considering, but the facts also show that Ireland, Scotland and Wales are concerned about current political moves to break away from Europe. Your sort of conversation will increase the already significant beliefs that people have about being different, beleaguered and under threat. The great triumph of populist debate is to give the (relatively) privileged majority the impression that they are in fact persecuted and threatened by the underprivileged minority. Anger and righteous indignation are more powerful now than facts, it seems.
It’s possible that in your conversations, Mathew, Claire, Eric, David and Trevor, you will conclude that people of colour and people from different countries make a huge contribution to this country and if you do, that shows awareness of the facts about British migration. But by brazenly framing this debate as if colour, ethnic and cultural differences are problematic, you are authorizing bigotry and asserting confidently in the public eye that it is absolutely appropriate and even necessary to sift people according to skin colour. It now seems acceptable to create suspect communities on grounds of visible differences in colour or clothing or religion and such people face abuse and violence.
This is an abuse of influence, because you are all privileged and well educated: you know your debate will contribute to the current atmosphere in Britain which is being moulded in national discussion, online and in the tabloids by presenting Muslims and migrants and terrorists as one and the same. In fact we are more likely to die in hospital due to a shortage of migrant nurses, than at the hands of a criminal. I guess we are agreed that Britain’s economic problems are related to the 2008 crash and subsequent austerity and that Britain’s identity confusions are exacerbated by the online echo chamber that functions well to amplify extreme views. None of that has anything at all, even remotely, to do with skin colour, except of course that well-connected people and white people are better able to survive these hardships and influence public debate, even endorsing structural discrimination.
We should be working towards a shared reality with mutual recognition of each other’s needs and strengths, instead of suggesting that people of colour and those who seem ‘different’ are the reason why Britain has problems. It really isn’t true and we have a strong responsibility to use language ethically.
Alison Scott-Baumann is Professor of Society and Belief at School of Oriental and African Studies SOAS, University of London. She worked her way up through the educational age groups, from primary to secondary schoolteacher, to educational psychologist and leader of a secondary teaching training course, and is now an academic and activist philosopher. For three years she has led an AHRC funded research project looking at Islam on campus and researches the vexed issue of freedom of expression on campus and in society.