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Who Do We Think We Are? Imagining the New Britainyasmin Alibhai-brown(penguin Books Ltd, 2000)

(Who Do We Think We Are? Imagining the New BritainYasmin Alibhai-Brown(Penguin Books Ltd, 2000))

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“Progressive ideas that are ... appropriate at one historical moment, can, in time, fade and decay or become defensive in the face of further progress. I believe this is what is happening to policies promoting British multiculturalism today.” ... appropriate at one historical moment, can, in time, fade and decay or become defensive in the face of further progress. I believe this is what is happening to policies promoting British multiculturalism today.”
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, Daily Telegraph, Tuesday, May 23, 2000.



Alibhai-Brown’s comments appeared in the Daily Telegraph shortly after the publication of her new book Who Do We Think We Are? Imagining the New Britain. In the pages of a newspaper most notoriously conservative in its approach to questions of race and British identity, the implications of her comments are unclear. Who Do We Think We Are? clarifies her assertions and explains why she concludes in After Multiculturalism, a report published by the Foreign Policy Centre in May 2000, that multiculturalism must be ‘laid to rest’.


In her review of Who Do We Think We Are? Lola Yong agrees that the proliferation of academic discussions of race and national identity should be made accessible to a wider audience, but that these issues are necessarily complex and all too often misrepresented when ‘translated’ into journalistic format. Who Do We Think We Are? provides an accessible discussion of race, culture and national identity in Britain today, using as sources both academic work and numerous interviews. The book’s relevance emerges not simply out of its discussions, some of which are confused and contradictory, but as a witness of Alibhai-Brown’s painful attempts to escape what she sees as the restrictive terms of current public debates about British culture.


Alibhai-Brown provides a brief history of visible immigrants in Britain from the 16th Century to the present, and a critique of how the educational curriculum has consistently neglected to teach this in schools. She argues that British political elites failed to provide positive and clarificatory leadership during post-war immigration, and examines the ways in which the media represent British identity. As well as this discursive material, the book is structured and informed by numerous interviews. The quotations appear in bold type, lifting them off the page in a way that Alibhai-Brown’s comments are not. The quotations often challenge her own assumptions. In this way, the book’s internal contradictions, doubts and inconclusiveness become a textual demonstration of the diverse conversations Alibhai-Brown calls for in the British media, education, and political institutions.


In an article describing the process of researching Who Do We Think We Are?Yasmin says she ‘found that the various ethnic groups in this country — including the white English — are becoming more at ease with diversity, but are panicking about identity’. She asserts that her discussions take place not only in the context of the assessment of the treatment of race in British institutions after the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry, but in the present context of rangles about Britain’s relationship with the rest of Europe, and the implications of devolution and regionalism.


A ‘Note on Terminology’ explains her use of ‘white’, ‘Asian’ and ‘black’, asserting that the terms are hopelessly homogenising but, unfortunately, the current tools of the debate. Alibhai-Brown’s principle concern is to question the terms and frameworks of discussions of national identity. This has two key aims. The first is to challenge congealed links between ideas often presented in tandem. She argues that the response of political elites to post-war immigration, for example, was to inextricably link race relations with immigration policy. The race relations acts of the 1960’s ‘bound together race relations and immigration policies. They remain coupled to this day although there has never been any evidence to show that race relations have improved because of our immigration policies’ (67). Arguments such as that consistently put forward by The Economist, which call for a re-evaluation, separating race relations from the debate so that a positive immigration policy which acknowledges that ‘immigration may actually be extremely important for the next century’, as ‘this country loses more people than it gains each year’ (270), has not been taken up by political leaders.


Who Do We Think We Are?goes on to provide an accessible argument for the separation in public debate of race from national identity, and race from culture. The importance of separating these issues has long been discussed in an academic context, and Alibhai-Brown doesn’t really do justice to them.


The second part of Alibhai-Brown’s key aim is to establish links between certain apparently separate ideas. For example, she asserts that race and class are frequently differentiated in discussions of the high exclusion rates of black boys from secondary schools. Racism is blamed for their exclusion, where a discussion of race in conjunction with class might provide useful insights into the problem. William Atkinson, a black head of a now highly successful but previously failing London school, is quoted as asserting that ‘racism was too simplistic an explanation of what was going on’, and that ‘solutions needed to go beyond this kind of labelling’ (168). The feminist movement has been hopelessly divided, argues Alibhai-Brown, through separatist black and Asian women’s groups, and race-blind white feminists.


The book also provides critiques of a variety of ideas about representation and visibility. She points out that Britain has been a nation of various immigrants for centuries, and that it is the culturally and physically visible who become the focus of debates about identity. In her critique of the media she makes a distinction between individuals as representatives, and institutional modes of formulating that representation. Of the media she writes that ‘it is doubtful if racist reporting would change dramatically if there were more Blacks and Asians working on the papers’(142). She goes on to say that ‘more controversially perhaps ... getting ethnic minority staff into key journalistic and editorial positions has not been an unmixed blessing. In too many instances it has helped to validate racist and prejudiced reporting’ (142).


In Alibhai-Brown’s view, the term ‘ethnic minorities’ serves to bolster simplistic terms of discussions. Regardless of the often contestable way in which these kinds of statistics are calculated, ‘in a democracy’, writes Alibhai-Brown, ‘numbers become a crude way of asserting priorities’ (114). More importantly, she asserts that ‘underpinning this ... is the assumption that this was and is a homogenous ... harmonious white society which has been disturbed by the arrival of those aliens who would never understand the British way of life’ (113). She consciously refuses to use the vocabulary of minorities unless quoting others.


Where Who Do We Think We Are? undermines its own premises is in the chapter on the family. Where Alibhai-Brown calls for an understanding of the long history of visible communities in Britain, she shows little comprehension of the diverse history of the family. She conceptually links discussions of women with the family - something feminist historians and theoreticians have been attempting to disassociate for years. She assumes that for everyone the family ‘is the central unit in our society’ (234) — a highly debatable and often questioned generalisation which she takes for granted. Significantly, in her call for cultural diversity, Alibhai-Brown fails entirely to mention pressing issues of sexuality in respect of the family. ‘Family life must be saved’ (273) she cries, without any discussion of what ‘the family’ means. While she bemoans the high divorce rate, she fails to mention the campaign for same sex marriage, or adoption rights for same sex couples. These are the knotty issues that inform current discussions of cultural diversity within the family, debates which the author seems unprepared to engage with.


Interestingly, this chapter is an example of the processes taking place in public debates about identity, which Alibhai-Brown critiques. The chapter on the family is circumscribed by the questions it asks. By making women and the family inextricable, ways of imagining both women and the family become limited. Furthermore, in asking ‘Do women want it all?’ she generalises middle class options as representing the choices of all women. As Alibhai-Brown would be the first to admit, working class women are rarely in a position to ask this question. Little discussion of child care facilities, paternity rights, or education and training options for single parents appear in this chapter, only a reductive argument about the future of the family which centres around the choices of the heterosexual middle classes, albeit across a variety of racial groups.


Alibhai-Brown emerges as someone who became disillusioned with the liberal consensus after the Fatwa was imposed on Salman Rushdie. Of her own position she asserts that ‘we became orphans, simultaneously losing liberalism — until then the rock of our education — and Islam because of the insane way it was manifesting itself’ (268). Despite the subtitle of the book, Alibhai-Brown also criticises New Labour for not taking a clearer and more positive stand during the recent re-emergence of the immigration issue, and for Chris Smith’s failure to ‘see this country other than mostly white’ in his book on contemporary British culture, Creative Britain (102).


The book presents a Britain in which ‘multiculturalism’, understood as the co-oexistence of numerous separate cultures, has become an inadequate description, failing to express the infinite connections and interrelations between different groups. Alibhai-Brown optimistically asserts that ‘we will soon have third and fourth generation white and black Britons who have known no other reality but that of a multiracial Britain’ (269). ‘It is time’ writes the author, to engage in conversations neither ‘easy’ nor ‘polite’, and ‘there will be trouble ahead’ (261). Who Do We Think We Are? provides examples of how such conversations might take place, as well as demonstrating the complexities of embarking on such a necessary process.

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