By Dr Salman Al-Azami
In a previous post I discussed why ethnic minorities should integrate with the majority community. This time I would like to look at the other side of the coin: is it possible for ethnic minorities to integrate if the majority community is not ready to accept them? If members of an ethnic minority are looked at with suspicion, sometimes even hatred, just because they look different or dress in a way others do not like, can we expect to see an integrated society?
Five years ago, I and my wife rented a property in Chigwell, Essex. When we first went to see the house, the next-door neighbour was standing outside his door with visible suspicion in his eyes. During my next visit to the property, the outgoing tenants, a couple from New Zealand, told me how that particular neighbour reacted to them about our potential move, saying that he was not culturally sensitive – indicating to my wife’s hijab. After we moved to the house, we observed that the neighbours on the other side, an elderly couple, would also often look out of their window with suspicion whenever we passed, as if we came from a different planet. We felt extremely uneasy about this and thought that the best way to minimize any hostility from the locals would be to mix with them, so we decided to invite the neighbours for coffee. The elderly couple rudely said ‘no’ to my face, whilst another neighbour was more diplomatic in her declination by saying she had other engagements. We understood that we would not be welcome even if we tried, so we decided to carry on with our lives.
Did we deserve this behaviour? I understand the grievances of many people about immigration, but this was completely unacceptable. I am pretty sure that many readers have had similarly bitter experiences. The government and the media never stop talking about the failure of ethnic minorities in integrating with the mainstream society, yet they seldom talk about the responsibility of the majority community. I have no doubt that ethnic minorities have a major role to play, but is integration a one-way street? How can an immigrant integrate if the host community is not ready to accept them? It is true that hardly anyone says anything directly because of race issues, but many people certainly make ethnic minorities feel that they are not welcome in this country. This further alienates minorities and the end result is that the communities often lead completely separate lives while living just next to each other. This separation is passed on from one generation to the next and is exemplified by segregated schools, which are very common in areas with a significant ethnic minority presence.
An important reason for segregation is prejudice. If you have no idea about a community, you may end up believing whatever the media or anyone else says about them. Remember the uproar when the Archbishop of Canterbury talked about applying some aspects of Sharia law in this country? I teach a module called ‘Language and Cultural Identity in Britain’ where I and my students often discuss these controversial issues in a ‘politically incorrect’ environment so that everyone can give their opinions freely. I once asked them what they felt about ‘arranged marriage’. To my surprise, many of them thought it to be similar to ‘forced marriage’. Some even thought that ‘honour killing’ was an Islamic phenomenon. They seemed to have developed all these misconceptions through media representations without actually mixing with people from those communities.
Things do change if communities come closer to each other. With good knowledge of ‘the other’, prejudice generally disappears. My students often ask me questions about Asian and other cultures, and hearing from me removes a lot of the prejudices they may previously have held. This works the other way round as well. Ethnic minorities may also have some prejudices about the majority community, which, again, can change through interaction and integration.
The official policies in this country in terms of equal opportunities and race relations are fantastic, and ethnic minorities here are much better off than many other western countries. However, there is lack of understanding and mutual cooperation between communities because of prejudice. We must put an end to the blame game that many of us have developed across communities. In addressing these problems, the government often uses the term ‘tolerance’; apparently communities must ‘tolerate’ each other . I prefer the word ‘respect’, which is more positive. We may tolerate someone even if we dislike the person, but ‘respect’ does not have that pessimistic attitude and therefore may act as a positive motivation to know other cultures.
It is not easy to change attitudes and I do not profess to have a magic formula. My humble advice however, would be for everyone to put some effort in to knowing the person from the other community who lives next door; or who we often meet at the local shop but never speak to; perhaps a colleague whom we know very well professionally but not personally. This may be a positive step towards the integrated society we all would like to live in.
Dr Salman Al-Azami holds a PhD in Linguistics and is a Lecturer in English Language at Liverpool Hope University. His research interests include bilingualism, language in education, religious discourse & media and language of advertising.
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