The area of the city I live in is the part of town where immigrants have typically come to rest. There is evidence of successive waves of immigration all around, in the form of places of worship, shop names, and so on, and this ability to read the social history of the area is one of the things I like very much about where I live.
The first wave of immigrants (or, at least, the first to leave a permanent record) were Irish catholics, who started arriving in the middle part of the 19th century, and were fleeing poverty and starvation in their native land. There’s a catholic church close to where I live, and names like O’Shaughnessy crop up in the lists of local businesses. Next to arrive, from the late part of the 19th century through to the 1940s, were Jewish people fleeing anti-Semitism on the continent. There’s a purpose-built synagogue nearby, and until a few months ago there was a traditional jewish grocers, with pyramid displays of boxes of Matzo crackers in the window, and all the goods on shelves behind long counters, and an old man with a white beard and a step-ladder to fetch and wrap what you wanted. It was like a wonderful throwback to a pre-supermarket world. I don’t know if it was the credit crunch that that finished off the grocers, or whether it was just that the old man died or retired, and there was no-one to take over the shop.
The next wave of immigrants overlapped, and they were Italians fleeing Mussolini’s regime in Italy, and the post-Mussolini chaos. If I wanted to, I could have a haircut in an Italian barbers, and when I want fish and chips I buy them from a business run by a ridiculously friendly Italian family who still speak Italian to each other. After that, from the 1950s onwards, there came people from the Indian subcontinent. As pretty much everywhere in the UK, the people from these communities are at their most visible running newsagents and takeaways. Not far from me, a quiet residential street fills with people dressed in white and grey and black robes once a week, as they make their way to Friday prayers in a converted house. There are fewer Sikhs and Hindus, and they have to travel further for their places of worship, but there’s a local shop that sells Hindu bridal wear.
Since the people from the Indian subcontinent started to arrive, there have been smaller waves of immigration, with people fleeing the genocides in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. I can identify people from both these groups in the local area, but they haven’t been here long enough to make their mark yet. Most recently, of course, lots of people have arrived here from eastern Europe, and especially Poland. My local Morrison’s introduced a Polish section last year, although they’ve since merged it in with the Jewish section and the Asian section in a World Foods aisle. The local catholic church, founded by and for the Irish immigrants, and having already adapted once to assimilate the Italian immigrants, has recently started to offer a weekly mass in Polish, and infrequent ones in other eastern European languages. It seems as though a lot of these arrivals were only temporary visitors, though, here to work and send money back when there were jobs, but going back home when the jobs disappeared.
I like all this very much. I feel very comfortable in an area that has a good old mongrel mix in it. This is possibly because I’m a mongrel myself, with my mainly British blood (itself a mix of Celtic, and Anglo-Saxon, and Norse, and Norman, of course) diluted with a little eastern European and, if you go back far enough, Norwegian. I like the way that the area is still friendly, that everyone prides themselves on their ability to get on with everyone else, despite the ancient racial and religious antagonisms that might get in the way. Normally I don’t even think about this – people are fundamentally just people, after all – but recently two signs appeared in my building that made me think about them.
One of these was a graffito, very neatly drawn with gold marker pen on the gloss-white doorframe of a doorway in one of the common areas of the building. It was a picture of a swastika, and then the letter v, and then a picture of a star of David: Nazis versus Jews. It’s appearance came as something of a surprise, to be honest. There is a Jewish presence in the area, but there isn’t much of a far-right one. The National Front’s efforts to organise in this city failed catastrophically in the 1970s, and even in the recent Euro elections the BNP couldn’t muster more than a couple of thousand supporters. In any case the graffito was hastily painted over, and hasn’t reappeared.
The other notice was an officially sanctioned one. It appeared in the window of the main door to the building, and encouraged residents to attend meetings of the local ‘Integration Network’. It gave lists of all the things that the Integration Network did. There were free English lessons available (though this was advertised in English…), and cultural evenings where representatives from local minority cultures would give talks, and sing songs, and perhaps lay on a buffet of their food. All of this seemed wonderful to me. What a great idea, to have official functions where people celebrate their traditional cultures, and explain them to people from other backgrounds, and to have the whole thing done under the umbrella of an organisation that encourages people to hang on to their cultural identity, yes, but to modify it in order to integrate with all the other people who live here as well.
Too often, it seems to me, multiculturalism is understood to mean an absolute separation between different cultures that never meet, and never have the chance to get richer by the process of adapting to each other. If that’s multiculturalism then I want no part in it, but I don’t think it is. I think it’s a Daily Mail-esque parody of multiculturalism calculated to inspire fear that one particular culture – the one that existed here in the 1950s – is being ‘overwhelmed’ by new arrivals. I think real multiculturalism is about all the cultures that exist here changing and mixing and merging and adapting to each other, and producing a new culture that contains different strands that are in a constant dialogue. I think it’s what’s been quietly happening in my local area for at least 150 years, and I think an Integration Network that encourages and supports the process is a great idea.
But here’s the snag. The Integration Network’s meetings aren’t open to everyone. You have to be a member of a minority ethnic population in order to go along. Now, possibly there are good reasons for that. Perhaps some of the most isolated members of minority ethnic populations are the people most likely to be fearful of the dominant ethnic group (not an unreasonable fear, if you fled a genocide, and every time you pick up a newspaper you read people saying that you shouldn’t be here, or that you should get 2nd class treatment from every public service). If the exclusion of one particular group is designed to make the meetings a ‘safe space’ where people can go without having to worry about experiencing racism, then I can understand the reasoning. I can see that there might be a need for such a group. But, if that is the case, then I think the organisation holding the meetings has the wrong name.
Integration isn’t something that can happen if some of the people doing the integrating aren’t invited. Integration isn’t going to work if it’s about celebrating newly-arrived cultures while ignoring cultures that have been here longer. More to the point, meetings aimed at promoting ethnic integration that deliberately exclude members of the majority ethnic group are going to encourage the idea that integrating is something that they have to do in order to become acceptable to us, not something that we all have to do together.
There’s another issue, too. To someone who already thinks that they’re getting a raw deal in life, who thinks that ‘immigrants get given everything on a plate’ while ‘we have to make do with what’s left’, telling them they can’t attend a social event with free food laid on is going to confirm their worst fears. They’re going to see it as proof that ‘immigrants get given everything’, and that’s going to encourage them in the view that when, say, a family of asylum seekers moves in next door that they don’t have any right to be there. It’s going to help to persuade them that maybe there’s something in that other notice about Nazis versus Jews.
I have no doubt the people behind the Integration Network poster are sincerely trying to do a good thing. I’m sure they believe passionately in things like equality and non-discrimination. I’m sure, if you asked them, they’d say that overcoming the prejudice and hostility faced by recent arrivals in the area is their major goal. But it seems to me that their methods are off. It seems to me they run the risk of undermining the successful process of integration that’s been going on here for years. It seems to me that, rather than making racist graffiti less likely, they’re actually encouraging the conditions that may produce it.