The British-Asian community is very diverse, racially divided and lacking in unity. Qualities that have been favourable for Britain.
‘Grandchildren of the Empire’ is a five-part series of articles that I’ve written relating to racial discrimination in the UK, particularly regarding the aftermath of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis and the subsequent discussion it has sparked in Britain.
In all honesty, this was the most daunting article for me to write. In contrast to the situation faced by the black British community, the British-Asian situation has all sorts of internal conflicts that make tackling racism much more difficult.
There is next to no good coverage of British-Asians in the media, so what is written here could very heavily inform someone’s opinions of them. And, if what I’ve written is inaccurate, it could yield disastrous consequences for that person’s perception of British-Asians going forward. That’s without even mentioning the amount of conflicting opinions within British-Asian communities themselves, and how British-Asians could very realistically disagree with everything that I say. And now I feel like I’ve said ‘British-Asians’ too much.
I think we should just delve right in.
According to the UK’s2011 Census, those of Asian ethnic groups make up the second-largest percentage of the population. However, before anyone complains about an ‘Asian invasion’, I should remind you that this is only 7.5 per cent. White Britons have a very slight lead, with 86 per cent. This without even considering the fact that ‘British-Asian’ is one of the vaguest terms imaginable, covering those of Indian, Pakistani, Chinese, Bangladeshi, Japanese, Thai, Filipino and Sri Lankan descent — to name a few.
There’s no set rule but, in general, the term ‘Asian’ in the UK is used colloquially in reference South Asians (Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, etc.) as opposed to North Asians, who are named mainly after their country of origin (Chinese, Japanese, Korean, etc.). Middle Eastern people are treated as their own separate group, though are often conflated with Pakistanis by the wider public due to their shared religion of Islam.
Interestingly, America’s social rules are the exact opposite (barring the Middle East), creating even more fun and exciting identity confusion!
This difference appears to be linked to the fact that America’s primary Asian connections are to countries like China and Japan in terms of business (and war), whereas Britain’s connection is through its past iron-fisted rule of India (which, as previously mentioned, included Pakistan and Bangladesh at that point). These connections subsequently informed each country’s modern population demographics.
Asia is unique among Northern-hemisphere continents because, unlike the rest, there’s no clear racial majority. Overall, I think that the classification of ‘Asia’ as an undivided continent wasn’t a fantastic idea. But that’s a pet peeve for another day.
The main point I’m trying to make is that the term ‘British-Asian’ refers more distinctly to South Asians within the UK, so I’ll be using the term in this way for the rest of the article.
That clears up all of the confusion, right? Wrong!
Unlike black Britons, British-Asians seem to have no unified voice in speaking about the discrimination that they face. This is because very few of these people would actually use the identity of ‘British-Asian’ in day-to-day conversation. Unbelievable, right? They win out over North Asians and don’t even want to use the term!
This is because British-Asians generally identify with smaller subgroups. They see themselves as British-Indians, or as British-Pakistanis, or as British-Bangladeshis. Making the situation even more complicated, many primarily identify in terms of religion, seeing themselves as British Hindus, or British Muslims, or British Sikhs, or — well, you get the idea.
These groups have a famous history of disagreement, with many facing discrimination from each other. The largest conflict exists between Indians and Pakistanis, who are still sour from their partition (and over Kashmir, but I’m saving that topic for a rainy day). This conflict is accompanied by tensions between their prominent religions; Hinduism and Islam.
That must be where the complication ends, right? Wrong!
Because we also have the caste system to think about. Castes are hereditary social classes that exist within South Asian communities, and where your family falls can decide how much respect you get and, potentially, how easy your life is within the community. I couldn’t begin to delve into the caste system because of how complicated it is. There are literally hundreds of castes that people can belong to.
Generally, they relate to the area of a country that you’re from and can often be linked to the fairness of your skin. There are reports of people who have been rejected for auditions in Bollywood because they are ‘too dark’, and skin-whitening creams and methods are all the rage in India. It’s honestly an entirely different problem from racism, and yet it somehow holds all of the same attributes.
Before a non-Asian person looks at these divisions and scoffs, I’ll remind the reader that India was under British rule for 190 years, finally being released as an independent nation in 1947. All of these problems were either started or heavily exacerbated by white British rule, which sought to divide and conquer the native population in an attempt to squeeze the nation for its resources and labour. Keeping its people preoccupied with religious and caste differences kept them from turning on the fearsome British Raj.
It’s also worth reminding the reader that the idea of white being ‘more beautiful’ than black has infamously followed Britain around the planet.
I’ve taken a more humorous approach to this middle instalment of the ‘Grandchildren of Britain’ series because it can be, quite frankly, exhausting to hear about racism and its roots. It’s mentally taxing to deal with the frustration that these stories invoke, and it can make us question everything we’ve believed and grown up with. But it’s taxing with good reason, and these questions are important. And it’s important that we let our children learn about these things in school.
The British in India
Because the blood spilt as a result of Britain’s rule over India would drown us all.
To this day, the partition remains a source of horror for those who were directly connected to it. And, whether Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Pakistani, Indian, or Bangladeshi, it affected all of us.
Losing its hold on the colonies, Britain made a quick attempt to pull out of India as violence against the Raj increased. This resulted in a lightning-fast change to people’s lives, where Muslims were forced upwards to Pakistan and Hindus were pushed downwards to form a reduced India. Families were torn apart from each other, and the reckless division of Punjab left Sikh areas cut in two, leading to further violence. And, of course, the favoured region of Kashmir was left undecided by Britain for the two nations to kill each other over up to the present day.
It’s impossible to know how many died, but it was at least between a quarter and half a million people of every background. Some estimates place the number at 1.5 million.
These scars are still very raw, having been inflicted less than a hundred years ago (and only a generation or so before people began migrating to the UK). Modern Britain hasn’t even bothered to put the partition on its school syllabus, which I imagine is for the same reasons that the Trans-Atlantic slave trade isn’t covered too well either.
The divisions caused by almost two centuries of British rule have succeeded in keeping British-Asians separated. As a result, it is much more difficult for them to unify against the racism that they face from white Britons, being too small in their own individual groups to speak in the same way that those in the #BlackLivesMatter campaign have.
The tragic turning of brown people against one another has seen them divided by their nationality, their religion, and by their caste.
A lot of what I’ve written about here might not seem relevant to modern-day racism, but it informs the ways in which British-Asians create their identities. These identities are deeply important to them and are often blatantly insulted, either knowingly or unknowingly, by their white peers.
What it all comes down to is the fact that in order for people of colour to have a voice within present-day Britain, we have to look at how they were treated by Britain then. It’s a difficult conversation to have, but there’s no better time to start than now.
If you found this article interesting, feel free to take a look at the other four in my ‘Grandchildren of the Empire’ series. The next instalment focuses specifically on British Pakistanis and their experiences in the UK.