Book of the week

28th April 2000 at 01:00
WHO DO WE THINK WE ARE? Imagining the New Britain. By Yasmin Alibhai-Brown. Penguin Press. pound;18.99

When Yasmin Alibhai-Brown arrived at Heathrow in 1972, a few weeks before Idi Amin expelled 50,000 of her fellow Ugandan Asians, Britain was not as it is today. It was just four years since Enoch Powell had inflamed xenophobic passions with his "rivers of blood" speech, warning that the "madness" of allowing Asian immigrants into Britain was like watching "a nation busily engaged in heaping up its own funeral pyre". Opinion polls showed that up to three-quarters of the population agreed with him.

Some of them were waiting at the airport to greet the dazed but hopeful immigrants as they touched down, shouting abuse and spitting. The author's own welcoming committee was a cabbie who said her money wasn't good enough when she told him where she'd come from. So much for her idealised dream of "Great UK", indifferent but so seductive to the Asians who had acted as an effective social buffer zone between the Empire and the blacks of east Africa.

Almost 30 years on, Britain prides itself on being a multi-racial, multicultural society. Visit some inner-city schools and you'll find 20 or 30 languages spoken. In some areas, more than 60 per cent of the population comes from minority groups. We have more mixed-race relationships than any other western nation. Islam is the fastest-growing religion inthe UK.

But, as writer, social commentator and broadcaster Alibhai-Brown argues in this book, in many ways things haven't changed much since she stepped on to this "arrogant little island". Despite the diversity, despite the emergence of a small but growing black and Asian middle-class, including a few seriously rich business people, despite a larger smattering of black faces in Parliament and, yes, despite curry being the average Brit's favourite nosh, things are not as they appear in New Britain.

We are distinct tribes, living separately (albeit cheek by jowl) in a "cultural archipelago". We have become clannish, and devolution is destined to take us into difficult territory. If England is for the English, as not only card-carrying British National Party members are now being heard to proclaim in pubs and living rooms, where does everyone else fit in - African Caribbeans, blacks, Jews, Chinese, the Irish and the great melange of other ethnic, cultural and national groups, many of them now at least first and seond-generation British?

Alibhai-Brown points to the inequalities and injustices that continue to shadow the groups she calls "visible communities" rather than "ethnic minorities", which she considers an outdated term.

Just over a year ago, the Macpherson report into the murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence highlighted the institutional racism endemic throughout British society. Alibhai-Brown revisits the consequences of this institutional racism: that members of ethnic communities are under-represented at the top and over-represented at the bottom in terms of income and job status; that they're misrepresented, stereotyped and often vilified in the white-dominated press and media; are often ignored or marginalised by the cultural elite; and, as we're reminded almost daily, are subject to physical and verbal assaults and worse. The author herself puts a pan of water under her letterbox last thing at night, in case an unfriendly passer-by decides to express his feelings about her being Asian andor being half of a mixed-race couple.

But she insists we look beyond the obvious diagnosis of racism when it comes, for instance, to looking at black boys' underachievement, and the disproportionate number of black boys excluded. She is scathing of a standards-obsessed education system that has ignored, since the media war on anti-racism in the late 1970s and 1980s, issues concerning cultural identity, differences and unity within those differences. These are issues as important for the floundering white working-class boys as for black and Asian pupils. She also castigates not only the limited view of education but also the Eurocentric view that dominates the curriculum and, sadly, many of the people who deliver it.

Who Do We Think We Are? is not perfect. Alibhai-Brown has taken on too wide a range of issues and she is weakest when she gets chatty and makes assertions based on anecdote. When she is good, though, she is persuasive and unsettling, forcing readers to look in the mirror, question their own ideas and collusion with the status quo, and squirm.

But if she is critical of today's Britain, she is optimistic about tomorrow's. "Racism has been lethally damaged," she concludes. "The blood of Stephen Lawrence has changed something forever. Many more Britons today are convinced that the difference between the tribes is bridgeable, must be bridged and shall be bridged."


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