In the run-up to the referendum on changing the UK voting system this May, Prime Minister David Cameron gave a speech on multi-cultural Britain, claiming that the country has seriously been damaged by an influx of migrants, many who are from ethnic minority communities. This speech, together with my own experience of racial discrimination, got me thinking about the bigger issue of race and identity in Britain.
It was at Christmas, during the challenge I was making against my employer partly on the grounds of race discrimination that I was asked in court by its legal representative to decide if I was black or mixed-race – as in make up my mind what I was. Apart from finding this offensive, I began to consider how others see my race and how I identify myself in modern Britain.
The only thing Mr Cameron got right is that the UK today is a very different place to what it was in the 1950s when my mum was in her twenties. It equally shouldn’t be forgotten that London is one of the world’s most diverse capital cities, having benefitted greatly from migration.
I am mixed-race, because my mum is white English and my dad is black Caribbean, but I too identify as a black person because this is how I look and what I am comfortable with. It shouldn’t be for others to decide if I’m one thing or another, to satisfy their own view of me. I should be able to just be myself. Mr Cameron clearly is seizing on a political opportunity, which he no doubt hopes will get his party votes, but it is at the expense of others. Without immigration, this country would not have had the benefit of what I have contributed to this country.
Each time I hear the word ‘immigration’, the first thing that comes to my mind is colour. It’s sad but true, but when many think of immigration, they think of black and Asian people taking jobs, houses and school places. The fact that immigrants from places such as Australia, Canada and Ireland count for the biggest group of migrants doesn’t seem to matter. Instead, only colour stands out.
Growing up in Liverpool and Manchester in the North of England before moving to London, I often had to place myself into numerous boxes, in particular for government documents. I went from having to describe myself as Black Caribbean to Black Other, then Black British, to Dual Heritage, to BME (Black and Minority Ethnic), culminating in being Mixed-Race – White English and Black Caribbean. If anything, successive governments have created identity crises for many of its people.
It can be said that you don’t have to put yourself in a box, but far too often if you don’t you might not receive funding, for example, for assistance with university fees. I truly believe in integration as opposed to segregation as the key to a successful society. However, some often put people of colour into the category that best suits their purpose, not that of the individual. Do we want an inclusive or exclusive society?
If someone was racist in my presence, I’d be offended. So being asked to decide my race is irrelevant. Barack Obama, the President of the United States like me is ‘officially’ a mixed-race person, but he is known as America’s first ‘black’ President. Does it matter? He’s still the President. It was last year that I wrote an article for a magazine, about black pride and prejudice and touched on the issues of identity. I wrote that for the UK to be a more tolerant society, black and Asian culture needs to be understood by those outside of it. The fears and hopes of people of colour have to be heard, including issues like high unemployment and mental health illnesses, due possibly in part to their own lack of identity.
While sitting in a government agency’s canteen a few months ago, my partner, who is white English, commented that those who ran the organisation were “large, balding, middle-aged white men,” whilst the cleaners, canteen staff and security personnel we saw were predominantly black. This reflected the majority of staff I see every day who work for Transport for London on the tubes and buses. I often think, who honestly wants to spend all day underground or driving a double-decker around London?
It’s obvious that immigration is not only good for Britain, but crucial to the economy. The previous Labour government claimed that the economic benefit gained from migrants was £6 billion nationally. Without migrants, the NHS would collapse tomorrow. The issue of non-English speaking communities and migrants, who do not learn to speak English, is a complex one and cannot be made simple in an election campaign.
For a better and more integrated Britain, there needs to be more black and Asian role models in public life, giving others something to identify with. On my own MA I am the only person of black origin and in my public sector job, was one of two black or mixed-race employees out of several hundred in a department. I do live and work in London in the year 2011 after all, where ethnic minorities account for around 25 percent of the population. Sometimes when you feel you don’t belong to the ‘old boys club’, you have to form your own protective divisions to find your own place of belonging.
Published by The Regent newspaper Summer 2011.
© Kevin Maxwell Film, Media & Performance 2011