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February 29, 2016
Is Britain a racist country?
Most Britons, of all backgrounds, try their best
by Swaran Singh
Source: Prospect Magazine
I landed at Heathrow on 26th January 1991 with three pounds in my pocket and a
turban on my head. In my head were Oxford spires, Bertie Wooster, Pink Floyd, Sir
Humphrey Appleby from Yes, Minister and the Marylebone Cricket Club—as well as a
firm conviction that I would feel at home. I was heading for Hounslow in west London to
get some cash from a family friend before going to the General Medical Council
(GMC) offices near Great Portland Street to register, and finally to Lincoln to start
work as a junior doctor. At Heathrow, I asked an elderly lady how to get to Hounslow,
admitting that I only had £3. “Don’t worry love, you will get there and still have change
left for a drink.” Paradise: where women you have never met call you “love.”
The GMC office was tricky to find. Outside the tube station, I asked directions from a
group of youngsters who snarled: “Fuck off.” Disheartened, I turned to a man rushing
somewhere. He looked at my creased paper with the GMC address and phone
number, rang the number on his brick-sized mobile phone to find out where it was and
walked me to the front door.
Lincoln was trickier still. Flat, everyone white, and not a turban or dark skin in sight.
Walking back the first evening from a corner shop, I was stopped by three young men.
Tattooed and aggressive, they wanted to know if I was aware that their country and
my country were at war. They thought I was Iraqi. They were in no mood for lessons in
geography, religion or culture; my pleading that I was a Sikh from India was of no
interest. As they started to push and shove me, a group of women across the road
came over. They were nursing students and one of them had seen me earlier that day
trying to find my way round the hospital accommodation. One of them shooed the
guys off with language that would do a seasoned sailor proud. I was close to tears.
She took me to her flat, made me the most welcoming cup of tea I have ever had, and
said: “Don’t mind those dickheads, love.” Love, again
I was bewildered. This was not the England I thought I knew. My ancestors came from
a small clan of Kashmiri Brahmins who converted to Sikhism in the 18th century.
Indian Kashmir has now almost been cleansed of its non-Muslim population; my clan,
a successful minority in Kashmir, has been without a home for three decades. I was
lucky; I grew up in Delhi. I was training to be surgeon and living a recklessly indulgent
life till Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984. In the aftermath, I joined groups seeking
justice for the Sikhs. By 1990, it was clear that there would be no justice.
I decided to leave India and found a job as a charity worker in Ethiopia. Three weeks
before I was to leave, a work opportunity arose from England, as a psychiatry trainee
in the East Midlands. Confronted with a dilemma, I invited friends over and opened a
bottle of Indian Scotch. After several drinks a friend suggested: “Why don’t you stop
over in England to see how it is? After all, England is on the way to Ethiopia.”
After arriving in Lincoln, I became exquisitely sensitive to racism. My antennae
twitched at every perceived slight and humiliation, even when, in retrospect, some
incidents had benign and often slightly comic explanations. I remember being asked to
attend to an elderly lady who wanted to leave an inpatient ward against medical
advice. As I approached the ward, she was standing by the door arguing with a nurse.
She looked at me and said: “Look, my taxi is here.” Having examined her, I told her I
was going to detain her under the Mental Health Act. She was incredulous: “How can it
be right that you can come to my country and stop me from leaving?” I explained that I
was simply doing my clinical duty as required by law. She asked which law it was and
which party had been in government when it was passed. I said it was the 1983 Mental
Health Act and although I was not certain, I thought the Tories had been in power.
“Bloody Tories” she exclaimed, still struggling to accept that someone like me could
override her will. In her world, people like me were taxi drivers or corner shop owners.
Was she driven by racist or malicious intent? I don’t think so. Racism would be an
easy charge, but doesn’t explain everything.
In those early years, I could easily find examples of pervasive and pernicious racism
within society and in the NHS. A consultant I worked with told me that I must return to
my country after completing my training, since there were “too many of your kind” in
the UK already. I witnessed subtle prejudices and downright discrimination against
ethnic minority candidates in exams and interview panels. In what was then the NHS
merit award system, I noticed how white consultants locked themselves in closed
committees and handed out financial rewards to each other, ignoring their often
equally worthy non-white colleagues. A London medical school had a systematic way
of excluding applications from non-white and female candidates, based on name
recognition. At a party, a slightly drunk female colleague accused me of “building
mosques in the UK” and having “four wives back home.” When I explained that I was a
Sikh, not a Muslim, she said: “Of course you are going to deny being a Muslim.”
“Britain is one of the most tolerant and welcoming nations in the world”
Yet my everyday life was not an accumulation of disagreeable experiences. The racist
events stand out not because these were common, but because these sharply
contrasted with everyday life among the friendly, decent, scrupulously fair and
unfailingly polite population that makes up the bulk of Britain. I quickly made friends,
learnt to love ales, started attending concerts by my teenage rock heroes. I also
worked out the hidden intricacies of English as spoken by the English. In a meeting, if
your view was considered “interesting,” it meant you might be right. “Very interesting”
implied that you were obviously barmy. When the English called you “Sir,” they were
distancing themselves. When they were amusingly rude, you were one of them. I was
lucky I worked with people who were accustomed to working with ethnic minorities on
an equal basis. I suspect my experiences would not have been the same in a different
class and professional setting.
So how racist is Britain? The answer depends on one’s reference point. Compared
with a utopian society of flawless human beings, Britain undoubtedly harbours some
people with racist prejudice. Compared with human societies as they exist in the real
world, Britain is one of the most tolerant and welcoming nations in the world. Had I
moved from New Delhi to Chennai, Kolkata or Hyderabad, I would have faced
discrimination based on language, culture and geography. Tribal affiliations are part
of being human. And many countries, including those from which most migrants
originate, have a shameful record of discrimination and human rights violations. India
regularly experiences large-scale violence, often triggered by trivial religious or
political disputes. A Muslim man was recently lynched because it was suspected that
he had beef in his house. The UK should not be judged by India’s standards. It is also
not right to expect the UK to live up to an unrealistic standard, where every individual
is non-racist, and where everyone has the right to be offended by a subjective
interpretation of someone else’s words; where history has to be washed clean of
racist impurities; and where white culture is a homogenous monolith that subjects an
equally homogenous minority group to its malevolent intent.
Everything to do with race cannot be always attributed to racism. Some years back
there were serious suggestions that ethnic minority patients should only be seen by
ethnically matched clinicians—apartheid within the NHS. This followed evidence that
ethnic minorities were more likely to be diagnosed with a serious mental disorder, and
were more likely to be detained under the Mental Health Act. There is robust evidence
that the reasons for higher rates of mental illness and detention lie with the socio-
economic disadvantages experienced by some minority groups, including societal
marginalisation and discrimination, but these factors are outside the control of the
NHS. Under pressure from anti-racist groups, successive governments have accepted
the charge that mental health services are “institutionally racist,” and have spent
hundreds of millions of pounds on race equality—as if sending psychiatrists on
cultural sensitivity training courses would improve the social disadvantage of minority
communities. (Ironically, the one part of the NHS with disproportionately large
numbers of ethnic minority staff is mental health care.) No one would say GPs were
racist because they diagnose higher rates of coronary artery disease in people from
the Asian subcontinent or hypertension in those of Afro-Caribbean origin. The remedy
for such ethnic differences in health lies in implementing social change that reduces
exposure to risk factors for heart disease and high blood pressure, not in blaming
doctors. But such is the power of the racism charge that politicians are forced to act
before they have had time to think.
In my first year in the UK, a white woman with post-mastectomy depression refused to
see me because she felt that someone from my “culture” would not be able to
understand her. I wrote to her asking to meet up before she decided whether I could
help or not. She did, and we had a successful therapeutic relationship. White patients
cannot demand that only a white doctor sees them. If as an ethnic minority patient, I
demand that an ethnically matched clinician should see me, I am saying to my white
friends: I am equal to you, but you are not equal to me. Our shared humanity and the
commonality of human suffering, pain and loss should allow us to understand the
influences of culture without demanding that patients from minority ethnic groups be
treated in a fundamentally different way.
I led research, commissioned by the Department of Health, to understand the
experiences of ethnic minorities seeking help (The Enrich Project.) In our research,
we asked black and Asian communities whether they want to be seen by someone
from their own background. No one asked for it; everyone said that they don’t care
about the ethnic origin of the clinician as long as the clinician was competent and
treated them with respect and dignity.
When we meet another human being, each one of us makes the same spontaneous,
automatic, instantaneous and involuntary judgements about them: male or female,
adult or child, my tribe or not my tribe. These are evolutionary responses designed to
assess threat. Is the other person a potential friend, foe or mate? Tribal costumes
and decorations are primarily designed to confirm “us versus them” status. Hence the
importance in all societies of visible markers of difference. There is a famous saying in
anthropology: “in some ways we are like everyone else, in some ways we are like
some other people, in some ways we are like no one else.” Between our common
humanity and individual uniqueness is the separation of our tribe.
“Today, in the UK, white working-class boys have the greatest attainment gap in
Race and ethnicity are just one way of dividing us, and in my experience, class is a
deeper dividing line in British society than ethnicity. Many such divisions can be
overcome by commonalities of language, values, traditions, food and social networks.
We need shared symbols. Witness how debates about the niqab are so difficult and
disconcerting. In a free society, the state has no business telling people how to dress,
and yet dress that creates a complete visual barrier between people not only
emphasises difference, it can also seem a rejection of shared social norms. While I
would never dream of asking a patient to change the way they dress, I know that I
would struggle to conduct a mental state examination or engage in psychotherapy
with a person in full niqab since I would have no access to the non-verbal cues that
are so important in the therapeutic encounter. Governments have a much trickier job
balancing individual freedom with social cohesion. I wonder how British society would
react if traditional Digambar Jains, some of whom live naked, were to demand the
freedom to live true to their faith in this country.
There are disadvantages in considering racism as a sufficient explanation for all
ethnic differences everywhere. We found in our Enrich project that for the same poor
experience of care, white families would blame “poor services” while black families
would blame “racist services.” If the problem is formulated erroneously, wrong
remedies are applied, which risk exacerbating rather than alleviating the problem. On
19th September 1990, Rajiv Goswami, a 20-year-old from Delhi University, set himself
on fire in a public place in New Delhi in protest against the government’s plan to
increase the compulsory quota for lower castes, from school placements to senior
government jobs. Within a few days, 150 young people attempted suicide in protest,
often in public places. I interviewed 22 of them, six of whom subsequently died. None
had a serious mental illness. But each had experienced reverse caste discrimination,
either directly or against a family member. They were upper caste but poor. By
assuming that caste was the only source of disadvantage, the government
intervention was discriminating against people for whom being upper caste had
conferred no advantage. Today, in the UK, white working-class boys have the
greatest attainment gap in education. No one speaks up for them, since they are not
an ethnic or racial minority. Would anyone consider the hugely successful East
African Gujaratis in Leicester an oppressed group? Race is not the only, or even the
biggest, barrier to success in the UK.
In 25 years of living here, I have seen Britain make huge and positive strides towards
equality and against racism. The kind of racism I experienced in my early years is
increasingly rare, although there is a worrying recent increase in hate crimes in some
parts of our society. No mainstream politician in Britain would make the kind of
statements routinely heard from Eastern European leaders. Although it is difficult to
be sure, I suspect very few people, certainly among the younger generation, harbour
the kind of naked prejudice that was apparently common in the 1970s. This is a cause
for celebration, even as one has to guard against complacency.
I now tell new arrivals to the UK that it is easy to integrate into British society. Get a
dog and strangers will start talking to you while walking in the park. Go to the pub,
even if you don’t drink. Spend Sunday pottering in your local garden centre.
Encourage your children to participate in host culture and traditions. You will make
many friends in Britain. British people are more than happy to meet you halfway, but
you have to make a start too—you have to walk towards them, not walk away and
isolate yourself with your own kind. For culture is not an impermeable barrier between
people that, if breached, inevitably leads to conflict. Our common humanity
transcends our tribal loyalties.
Two years after I arrived, I had to apply to the GMC for full registration, which required
a positive reference from each consultant I had ever worked with. I got the references,
including from the consultant who had wanted me to leave the UK. He could have
easily wrecked my chances of staying in the UK, but didn’t. I asked him why he had
given me a positive reference. He said that he had been unable to lie. I can call him a
racist, or I can acknowledge that even when he could have hidden behind the
anonymity of the GMC process, his basic decency and sense of fairness won out. A
quarter of a century in the UK has only confirmed for me that most people I meet are
decent, kind, fair and free from racism.
We must not deny, ignore or excuse our tendency to stereotype and our unwitting
prejudices against people not like us. I remember many years ago leaving a rock
concert in an area that was supposedly home to far-right extremist groups. I decided
to take a cab rather than walk home. It was about 2am, I had my long hair down and
was wearing a fiendish black leather jacket. I saw a large shaven-headed white young
man getting some cash out. I hesitated. We looked at each other. I had no choice but
to approach the cash point. As I got behind him, he looked at me and said pleadingly:
“You are not going to mug me, are you?” I burst out laughing, in relief and
astonishment, that he was scared of me. There we were, each trapped in our own
prejudices, and finding the other threatening.
We know the world only through a narrow perspective—our personal past and our
current understanding of the world. We cannot see the world afresh every moment.
To claim to be colour blind or prejudice free is to lie to oneself. We all have
prejudices. In a decent society, the best we can do is to be aware of these and try our
best not to let them influence our judgment. By and large, most Britons, from all ethnic
and racial groups, try their best.