We only really notice our own identity when it’s opposed in some way.
As a teenager I thought identifying as British was something only fascists did. At that time my home town was going through a phase as a BNP stronghold and their supporters seemed to be the only ones who had a clear sense of what it meant to be British.
It wasn’t until living outside the UK that the idea I might be a Brit seemed to have much substance to it. At nineteen, I spent a year studying in Syria and while I was there, so many of the things I had taken for granted as being ‘the way things are’ were revealed to be a product of my UK upbringing: my dress sense, my concept of community, my approach to family relationships… To begin with even the way I spoke Arabic was undeniably British, importing our terribly distinctive notion of politeness into my Arabic conversations. I can only imagine what I must have sounded like to the neighbours and shopkeepers. Probably just like a Brit.
We’ve all had this experience of ourself as a stranger; it arises whenever we’re confronted by an ‘other’ whose identity challenges our own, or when we suddenly find ourself in the minority. In the past, people had to go to great efforts to come into contact with foreignness. Nowadays of course, multiculturalism is a part of the UK’s social fabric and, thanks to the mixing of cultures over generations, the sense we have of our cultural identity is often quite nuanced.
London is an extraordinary place to experience the culmination of centuries of global interactions. With over 300 languages spoken, nearly 37% of the population born in another country and around 30% of Londoners identifying with a mixed British identity (e.g. Black British, British Asian) we have so many opportunities to connect with people whose take on the world is, to greater and lesser extents, distinctly different to our own.
And yet, even living in this global village, genuine connections between cohabiting communities rarely seem to arise on their own accord. As human beings, it’s our natural tendency to seek common ground with others, but when we feel someone is very different to ourself our mutual territory is pretty limited and so our interactions don’t reach far beyond conversations about the weather.
It takes a little courage to attempt to connect to somebody through explicitly acknowledging how they are different to us. My grandma, who is always a proactive neighbour, hesitantly admitted to me recently that she couldn’t tell the difference between a Pole, a Bulgarian and a Czech. Living in a northern town with a growing Eastern European population, it’s not that there was nobody around to ask, but that her curiosity was outweighed by the fear of insulting someone or being humiliated.
There’s something rather British about that sense of awkwardness around acknowledging cultural differences- the fear of putting our foot in it with an awkward question or accidentally revealing some terrible ignorance. And our curiosity only takes us so far in our efforts to get over the discomfort, which is why it’s so important to understand what’s at stake.
Without more of an insider’s view, our understanding of other communities will always be two-dimensional. Nowhere does this seem more relevant at the moment than in relation to British Muslims. Our largest ‘minority’, making up 4.5% of the UK population and 12.4% of the capital’s, the category includes an incredibly broad range of people, from recently settled Somali refugees, to fourth-generation British Pakistanis. And yet, for non-Muslims it’s rare to know about the differences within. With the media rarely venturing beyond the topics of terrorism or Islamophobia, there’s not much of a platform for interesting Muslim voices to reach beyond their own community.
And so this is where I start. Finding myself at a fair vantage point with a degree in Arabic, five-or-so years of working closely with London’s diverse communities, a reasonable understanding of Islam and its various interpretations and a network of interesting colleagues, friends and connections, I’ll be testing just how strong the divides of race and culture are and how far my curiosity, respectfulness and good intentions can go in broadening our perspective on cultural identity in Britain.
In the Minority is a dialogue on identity. It’s not our intention to simply write about Britain’s minority communities on their behalf, but to stimulate conversation on how culture, faith and heritage inform our own identity and our perception of others. At the same time, we will address some of the rarely covered social issues connected to urban multi-cultural life. Not just because this is essential in the battles against prejudice, disharmony, Islamophobia and extremism, but because it’s so much more interesting!
This is a collaborative project. Get in touch if you’d like to contribute.