By Guest Contributor Nabeelah, cross-posted from Kabobfest
“Have you ever tried a miniskirt?”, a pub regular asks the hijab-clad server who has spent the day serving soft drinks behind the bar. When she protests that she doesn’t want to, he assures her she would “look bloody lovely in a miniskirt,” giving her knee a stroke to make his point.
The regulars take the two slightly contradictory views that Asians should conform to British “ways,” whilst defending Britain’s superiority over the East as a tolerant and free society.
“When Asians come over here”, the knee-stroker argues, “do we say, ‘get it off kid, get a miniskirt on, get your tits out’? No. But when you go to an Asian country, women are told: ‘cover up’.” Another states: “When I go to Pakistan…I dress like they dress, out of respect. So at the end o’t’day, show some respect here.”
The scene is from Make Bradford British, a two-part documentary on race in Britain in which one phrase, repeated in various forms, seems to sum up the real source of resentment. “They use their color to get what they want …” The show does not delve into this line of thought, which might raise questions about council housing queues or benefits. Nor does it look very deeply at old fashioned Jens’ defense of his racial humor as “just a joke,” propping up that all-purpose shield for offensiveness: “banter.” The introduction sets out the premise that mutual tolerance and understanding is really entirely about getting to know and respect each other better as individuals, moving away from the big political ideas and solutions which have apparently failed. Taiba Yasseen and Laurie Trott, the two “diversity and community experts” managing the project ask, “can people of different races, different religions, really live together, and define what it means to be British?”
‘Yes’, or ‘it depends on the people’, apparently do not suffice as answers. Fear not though, these can be uncovered by putting together a group of people of different backgrounds, cultures and convictions, in a city infamous for its race riots, and filming the ensuing chaos. Racio-cultural Wife Swap, if you like.
The two “experts” overlook the fact that the idea of localized “interculturalism” began in academic and political circles, with the promotion of individual and group exposure to other individuals and groups taking root in countries including Canada, Spain, and Britain. Whilst it’s easy to see how the method could yield great results if gradually applied to communities truly and entirely “ghetto-ized” by culture or race, it is difficult not to think of the flurry of news reports earlier this year which connected immigration with unemployment, pointing to the intersection of social and economic problems within the identity debate.
The program appropriates interculturalism as a hook and is forced to flatten out the identities of the eight complex and rounded individuals into racial and religious differences in order to create a decent dramatic story. The eight chosen inhabitants represent one of the range of stereotypes that dominate the race discourse–from the bearded devotee Rashid to the retired racist middle Englander Jens, the Muslim woman Sabbiya, and the young skinhead Damon.
The “documentary” steers us through a heavy-handed narrative of drama and conflict over the house budget, meal-times, and bedrooms, before commonality and understanding begin to dawn. An example is Rashid’s desire to pray at the mosque in congregation, which conflicts with the group’s timetable, until he agrees to compromise and pray individually whilst remaining with the group; a sight which moves feminist Mara to tears.
The two-part program contains many such moments which seem genuine and uncontrived. But the focus on emotional drama means that any attempts to subvert stereotypes are clumsy and obvious, from Rashid’s rugby-playing background to mixed-race Audrey’s dislike of Asians. Most reaction to the program has come from Bradfordians angry at the patronizing way in which the city is approached, with a weighted focus on its racial problems.
In failing to consider the ways in which the city’s lack of regeneration and enduring poverty, painted in the contrast between Desmond’s council estate and Jens’ country village, might be interacting with racial and cultural divisions, Make Bradford British revealed itself as entertainment rather than exposition. The opportunity to weave a more nuanced understanding of the layers of identity which make up the eight participants as individuals rather than members of a racial community, and which make up Bradford itself, went untapped.
Nabeelah is a recent graduate and long-time ranter from London’s East African Asian community. She spends most of her time offering to do things for money. Not the things you’re thinking of. Follow her blog at nabeelahj.wordpress.com and on Twitter @nabeelahj.