‘Nigel Farage will give Britain its voice back’
‘British workers are hit hard by unlimited cheap labour’
‘5000 new people settle here every week, say no to mass immigration!’
Xenophobia – fear of foreigners – is rife at this particular moment, given UKIP’s success in the recent local and European elections.
Nigel Farage’s admission that he would feel ‘uncomfortable’ if a Romanian family moved in next door to him is a racialisation that conjures vivid contemporary images and associations. This in turn suggests that skin colour in the UK may not be the singular focus of racism as it was in the past. However the types of racist abuse and exclusions that certain white migrant groups are now facing have a disconcerting resonance with the earlier experiences of black and Asian migrants to the UK in the 1950s and 60s. Last year the owner of a fishing lake in Warwickshire put up a prominent sign at his lake ‘No East Europeans’, after £10,000 worth of carp were stolen.
Racism is a complex and changing phenomenon. It can spawn mixed-up sensibilities, often trading upon fears of the ‘unknown’ and the ‘other’- but there is much more to the relationships between racialization and migration than a top-down hostility to whichever group happens to be the target of racism and xenophobia.
Cultural mixing and hybridities can play out in the lives of the children and grandchildren of all immigrants. Encounters with racial differences can work differently however for people of colour, where what we call ‘white curiosities’ can inflect and influence the nature and allure of cultural mixing.
Post-colonial theorist Homi Bhabha’s analysis of colonial literature in The Location of Culture (1994) has suggested that cultural hybridity always produces something new, as well as opportunities for the subversion of dominant cultural codes and relationships. Academics such as Karen Ikas and Gerhard Wagner have developed Bhabha’s original theory, taking into account the influences of intra and trans-cultural mutations. For us, our own ‘white curiosities’ are a neglected, perhaps disavowed, part of contemporary racialisation and cultural hybridity that deserve greater attention and discussion.
The nature and extent of our white curiosities is entangled with class and geography. For example, Taimour is a young man who emigrated from Pakistan to London via Glasgow in 2001.
White Curiosities played a critical role for me at the time of my migration because of my desire to fit into the host dominant white culture. This desire was spurred on by the allure of financial and cultural capital that I perceived as accruing from the dominant white culture of Newbury Park. Put simply, I didn’t want to be the poor immigrant child constantly being moved around. I wanted to be like the financially safe and socially secure individuals around me, who, more often than not, tended to be white. So I was curious about their whiteness and the privileges it entailed.
This version of white curiosity complicates the usual discussions about multicultural assimilation and integration. So while cultural curiosity can characterise colonial encounters (think the British Museum’s Seven Wonders of the Ancient World exhibition), it seems that it is only people of colour in a predominantly white environment that can experience the white curiosities that we are talking about.
Theodore Allen, the equality activist, in his work on white privilege, famously described whiteness as “an abstract noun, it’s an abstraction, it’s an attribute of some people, it’s not the role they play”. If whiteness is an attribute why do we people of colour sometimes re-enact it? Speaking from both male and female first and second-generation Pakistani viewpoints – whiteness for us, at certain times, can be inexplicably desirable. We have self-diagnosed ourselves as having an unhealthy curiosity of all things white.
To be clear, we are using the term white curiosities to refer to the adoptionofwhite British cultural characteristics and practices by Asian and black minorities. Specifically, in this article we argue that white curiosities are an unexplored aspect of the cultural hybridities that can characterise the lives of second-generation ethnic minorities who reside/d in areas with a white majority. Based on our personal experiences, we suggest that these attractions are not simply a matter of a benign cultural mixing and melding, but rather are one result of cultural loneliness and exclusion, where subjective defences together with class differences make well-worn debates about multiculturalism and integration increasingly ambivalent.
For instance Arooj’s introduction to white curiosities developed when she started to perceive certain notions of personal freedom as necessary in order to more fully integrate into the host white culture of Romford in Essex.
For my Pakistani born mum and I, the idea of a neo-liberal freedom was always at the centre of my hormone fuelled rampages. Her perception of freedom was letting me walk to school with my friends. My perception of freedom was bunking lessons to hang around Romford train station to smoke with the local boys of the same age (I went to an all-girls school).
Self-image was another key struggle.
At one point I positively pined for the chance to turn my long hair into a feather-cut (think Lol from This is England, aka a girl mullet). When I was refused permission to do so, I went ahead and did it anyway and blamed an inexperienced, butter-fingered hairdresser. My mother had the last laugh. It took two years for my hair to grow back to a reasonable length.
In ways uncomfortably similar to Laurie Penny’s recent controversial celebration of short (Anglo) hair, it was felt that by keeping her hair long and ‘boring’ she was performing the role of a typical [Asian] femme, a role that made her feel vulnerable and conspicuously ‘coloured’ given the whiteness of her surroundings.
The differences in these tussles are more than the usual parent and teenager spats. I perceived the freedom to bunk school and meet with boys in the town centre as a desirable cultural rite of passage. My mum on the other hand viewed my mingling with pubescent boys as a threat, a threat to my personal safety, a threat to my innocence, and a threat to the preservation of a Pakistani culture. Thinking retrospectively, I’m sure there was also a racial element in there somewhere, if it had been a group of Pakistani boys I had chosen to spend my time with, there might not have been such a kerfuffle. There may even have been whispers of a potential marriage proposal, who knows?
Furthermore, where the fourteen-year-old Arooj thought that self-expression came from subcultural associations in the form of wacky hairstyles and customised clothes, her mother thought that education and hard work was what earned an individual the right to express their learned views.
The desire to mimic an aspect of dominant cultural practice is what Homi Bhabha called ‘sly civility’. In Bhabha’s terms, such bogus imitations can appear the same but they are always predestined to be ‘not quite’. In the above examples from Arooj, gender, generation and class enter into the third space of cultural hybridity, transforming what could be seen as a classic teenage case of FOMO (fear of missing out) into something with more political depth and repercussions, rebounding between different racial and gender stereotypes
I didn’t want to be the stereotypical Asian girl who was a virgin until the night of her wedding, and in the same breath I really didn’t want to be that geeky, gawky Asian girl who wasn’t allowed to wear anything revealing.
Self-image is only part of the problem, throw in issues of religious commitments and things take an interesting turn. Spending most of his childhood in Pakistan, Taimour was not explicitly exposed to the social use of alcohol until his teenage years.
I can remember the first time I drank, and I slightly enjoyed the sensation of ‘liberation’ it bestowed upon me. Well I should rather say perceived sense of ‘liberation’. The acceptance of alcohol I guess was a means of me being able to break away from my ‘old’ culture and into a ‘new’ culture.
It seems that Taimour’s white curiosity also crossed religious boundaries, where ‘sins’ were exchanged for acceptance within a white majority.
Taking into account that both writers have spent the majority of their lives in Britain, it could be argued that those who migrate to the UK at an older age are more able to hold on to their already formed identities. Erik Erikson elaborates on this and suggests that identity conflicts are more frequent between the ages of 12-20. According to Erikson this period is crucial as the adolescent tries to develop a foundational identity in order to build upon it during their later years. This in turn suggests that alcohol and self-image may just be the beginning of our troubles, with both rejection and protectiveness of our cultural heritage being simultaneously present in the complex vortex of our identity creation/maintenance.
According to Taimour:
The instant denial and rejection of values and norms from my Pakistani up-bringing were so stringent that I would almost jump at the sight of them being brought up. Of course curiosity works both ways, so naturally when I mixed with white teenagers my age they would ask questions regarding my culture or for my opinion on elements of eastern culture. Usually what followed was denial or over defensiveness from me in regards to their questions. In my mind, I guess I was trying to paint myself as the ‘exceptional’ Asian to them, someone not as ‘foreign’. More importantly this mechanism, enabled me to distance myself from any forms of ‘otherness’ that could be cultivated. My desire to fit in was strong.
It seems that when Taimour’s level of white curiosity was at its most intense, he consistently denied or over-defended the cultural elements of his Pakistani up-bringing. An issue that is particularly fraught at this time of heightened Islamophobia, when (excuse the George W Bush quote) ‘you are either with us, or with the terrorists’.
Whether this article presents a significant argument for the power of normative whiteness, or not, a pertinent issue raised is that contemporary British multiculturalism has developed many facets and layers, facets which are in dire need of further discussion and critical analysis. At this point we raise the following questions in the hope of sparking new conversations.
What is going on underneath the veneer of cultural integration? What are the consequences, subjective and political of the profound ambivalence of cultural hybridities? Does our argument promote essentialist differences between first, second and third generation migrants?
Are Taimour and Arooj lone rangers in their white curiosities? Are we reading too much into our personal experiences?
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Taimour Fazlani is an activist with with a keen interest in subject matters, ranging from metaphysics to economic systems. Born and raised in Karachi he has since lived in Glasgow and London. A book addict with a passion for documenting injustices encompassing the whole globe. When not at a protest, demonstration or social events, he can be found training in Muay Thai. @taimour_khan Website Taimour Fazlani
Arooj Khan is a British Pakistani Muslim based in Romford. She is currently employed as the Mentoring and Befriending Project Coordinator for a campaigning charity called Housing Justice. She has also worked in many front-line services within the homeless sector including the YMCA, the 999 Club and Single Homeless Project.
In her spare time Arooj also works as a researcher for the Centre for Urban and Community Research based in Goldsmiths College. Her research interests lies within the social construction of British migrant identities, and re-reforming social welfare policies. She can be found cross-country running, blogging, or at sociology related conferences. Blogspot: aroojkhanwrites Twitter: @arooj88
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