All memories are like infatuations, placed in the past but remembered in the future. I too remember, in order to try to understand the present, the summer of 1994 in Birmingham. I was in sixth grade at George Dixon Juniors and Infants, a neighbourhood government school, a five-minute hike from 45 Ridgeway Road, which was home. Not keen to lead a solitary student life, my father had brought his family over to live with him while he completed his M Phil at Birmingham University. For that one year, I tasted Britain’s magic potion of multiculturalism, the ideology of fixing difference – the same potion that is now under severe scrutiny. The London bombings and the questions they raise create the opportunity for Britons to ask themselves the question – “How does it feel to not be British in Britain?”
My school was a microcosm of the street on which I lived, a multitude of colours packed into a single class: hefty Sikh boys with anglicised Punjabi names like Gurdy; the rude rich white boy Sam; the athletic and irreverent black boys like Dwain, twice my height but impressed with my high scores in English; and a tomboyish Indian girl who played the violin and stood first in class. Yet there was only one Paki – not even a stable word but a sound, a phoneme so deeply coded it can’t be inscribed. To understand the slangish twang and the racist sneer with which it’s spat out, one must hear it.
It was the short boy with a perpetual cold, Waheed, who represented what I dreaded most in my new school – the position of being the eternal outsider. I never understood what made him a Paki – his relative poverty I shared, his grades weren’t the lowest in class, he wasn’t the shortest in class, and even his vocabulary was respectably rich in the choicest abuses. It was most peculiar that even though half my class was Asian, the Indians seemed most racist. The changes brought about in me by this so-called ‘multicultural atmosphere’ horrified me. As I was absorbed into the rhythm of my school (after getting beaten up a few times and learning the crucial expletives in circulation then) I picked up the street accent and a mean streak that seemed to be the natural instinct in all my classmates.
But this cycle of violence and racism did not end with my tentative absorption into the class ethic. The tremulous compromise I brokered with my own sense of identity, which had transformed from ‘difference’ to ‘mimicry’, was unsettled with the arrival of another Indian student who represented to me all that I had left behind and unlearnt in the past year. The viciousness with which we attacked her – the Asians leading from the front – reveals to me, the inability of my teachers to impart to us immigrant youngsters an understanding of the historical production of the diversity of British identities. Our location in this universe of fish-n-chips and the Sunday paper would not reconcile with the ‘bloody-Pakis’ we all were. And when we targeted any of us, we hated our own selves. We were all Waheed.
The post-7/7 discourse on immigrants and their relative failure to integrate with British mainstream culture must recognise the importance of schools in giving immigrants from culturally diverse backgrounds a ‘context’ – a polyphonic multicultural story of nationhood and inclusive nationalism – that goes beyond surface markers of integration into the mainstream and creates a sense of belonging. The future of identity in multicultural contexts like Britain’s needn’t be restricted to broad political decisions on models of integration or initiating legislation against hate speech only, because it is the smaller everyday aspects of racism that are the most difficult to root out. We must ask ourselves: what is the experience of being Pakistani in Bradford or Birmingham? The second and third generation immigrants are probably already asking themselves this question. The more important issue, however, is whether the debate will feed on the current Islamophobia and restrict itself to Pakistanis or whether it will transcend the sensational and the immediate to ask fundamental questions about the relationship between immigrants and native ‘Britons’ in specific contexts.
I have deliberately omitted from this discussion the role of external factors such as foreign policy, and avoided a critique of religious conservatism and interpretation within immigrant population to let my memories of Birmingham decide the course of my argument. However, it cannot be stressed enough that the ramifications of the current debate and the terms of its discourse – whether conducted as veiled xenophobia or within an enlightened mode that emphasises the pleasures of multiculturalism – will surely touch the lives of all immigrants, regardless of geography and ethnicity. In this regard, the debate has the power to shape the experience of multiculturalism for everyone in Britain. So instead of bemoaning the failure of multiculturalism in making British citizens out of non-British communities, maybe there was never enough of it in circulation in the schools, on the streets and in the playground – because it exiled its own children, like Waheed. For what reasons, I have yet to find out.