Let’s talk about race

Louis Shankar: Week Three

So this week, I thought I’d write something on race and ethnicity in the modern world – practically the definition of light-hearted fun.

I identify as mixed race: I’ve always ticked the ‘Mixed – Other’ box on surveys, which must be fun for the statisticians. Cambridge is generally quite white, something that’s easy to overlook. CUSU does have a BME campaign but it lacks a particularly high profile.

In many respects, race is now a rather outdated concept. It was once used to create categories and divisions with society, to split people up into and ‘us’ and a ‘them’. People used racial grouping to paint the world in black and white – in some cases quite literally.

Still an important campaign


This is a tension that some groups nonetheless still seek to provoke in order to feed on the results, groups such as the BNP and UKIP. It’s a step too far to label UKIP as a whole party ‘racist’: xenophobic, yes, but not entirely racist.

They strike me as a party who are seeking to reclaim Britain for its rightful owners (a curiously white and male group) – the same Britain that is an historic melting pot of invaders and immigrants. Nonetheless, they repeatedly redraw that line in the sand: on one side the British, the ‘us’; on the other, ‘them’.

Straddling this anachronistic line gives me an interesting viewpoint. Half my family originates in India, then spent a couple of generations on the preposterously beautiful islands of Fiji before catching the boat to England. The other half has been here for much longer; one line has been traced back to ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ levels. I somehow sit in both camps and in neither, at the improbable intersection in a disparate Venn diagram.

Standard Fijian sunset


At first glance, I come across as of a fairly ambiguous background. I’ve been mistaken for Middle Eastern, South American, Mediterranean, and more (depends on the context). I was in Turkey last year and everyone just spoke Turkish at me, which was a problem as I knew none whatsoever. I’ve actually been asked which part of the Middle East that I come from: I was – rather anticlimactically – born in Gloucester.

I have to admit that this ambiguity has its plusses. The main one being that I can talk to a bigoted individual and they don’t know what their problem with me is. You can see the uncertainty in their eyes: am I here to steal their job? (Maybe, I do art history so any job prospect is a luxury.) Am I going to try and convert them to my religion? (I’m an agnostic, not a particularly militant cause.) Or have I simply come over here to live off benefits? (Does a student loan count?)

In short, this openly exposes the lack of logic behind such dissonant sentiments. In a society as diverse and multicultural as ours, infused with  wealth of global culture available online, it’s nearly impossible to draw a solid conclusion about someone based on their ethnicity. But yet some poor sods still try.

Social mobility isn’t perfect but it’s getting better. Recent generations have had the chance to prove themselves as individuals rather than relying on their backgrounds or their ancestry.

You don’t have to be defined in such terms: I like to hope that soon everyone will be able to see that.

Edit: due to limited space, I did skim over/simplify several issues (race vs. ethnicity, self-identity and community, UKIP party policy . I hope to return to some of these in later weeks.