Friday, 09 August 2013

Britain is racially diverse, so why is friendship still a black and white issue?

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The Guardian, 09/08/13

When I attend gatherings hosted by many of my white friends, I am often the only black person in the room. Sometimes, despite being in an ethnically diverse postcode, I am the only black person in the pub. If this is the case where I live, in London, “the melting pot of the world”, what then of society at large?


I am not surprised by the results of the Challenge Network’s poll on integration, which found only one in 10 of us can say that our best friend is from a different ethnic background. As the community cohesion charity’s chief executive Craig Morley states: “As UK communities become increasingly diverse, there is a very real danger they actually become more segregated.” Perhaps we should be asking how many of us have people of differing ethnicities in our friendship circles at all?

As a teacher this is something I have pondered a great deal. When students enter secondary school, their friendship groups are often heartwarmingly diverse, both in terms of race and class. Yet by the time students are ready to leave, they have often created, as one colleague put it, “groups they think mirror who they are”.

It is in our friendships that we are most likely to recognise that race and culture are separate entities; that we share a common humanity that enables us to see beyond the stereotypes and, importantly, difference.

So what does it mean if we don’t mix as friends? In Britain, we like to see ourselves as revelling in our diversity, but it appears that although we are happy to coexist in the same towns and neighbourhoods, that is about it. This can be seen in some of London’s most diverse boroughs. The gentrification of London’s Brixton or Hackney has led to mixed communities, but it has not necessarily created meaningful relationships across race and class lines. Instead, there are communities that see each other on a regular basis, yet hardly ever interact on a deeper level beyond the transactional. Forming lifelong friendships seems something many of us are not yet ready for.

In the wake of the 7 July London bombings, Trevor Phillips warned that Britain was “sleepwalking” into segregation – and was lambasted for it. What might be closer to the truth is not that Britain is becoming an increasingly segregated place to live, but that our society is not as racially integrated as our popular soaps lead us to believe. What is more, government dialogue around immigration and “skivers v strivers” necessarily implicates ethnic minority communities that are often demonised as simultaneously “coming here and taking all our jobs” or “benefit cheats”.

Perhaps then, we need to find ways as neighbours, parents and friends to remind the young that who they are isn’t solely the result of their racial identity. We cannot make communities integrate with each other. It smacks too much of heavy-handed social engineering that at best can create awkwardness and at worst alienate rather than foster cohesion. What we can do is remember we share a common British identity that means we are not as different from each other as we might at first think.

Being the only brown person in a white space is something black people experience more often than others might think. Yet it is, I would dare to argue, hardly the case for white people. We have a situation where, in a white-dominated society, the onus of mixing and integrating is firmly on ethnic minorities. In most cases, in order to gain an education, to work, to socialise, we must engage in largely white spaces. It is ironic then that the rhetoric that usually surrounds us is that we need to do more integrating, when we are not the ones living predominantly segregated lives.

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