An uncertain ratio

This is an essay I wrote to submit to a journal. Unfortunately it didn’t make the cut, so I thought I would edit it a bit and post it here…

What should we call the kid?

The politics of baby names have been vexing me recently. As a mixed race man in a mixed-race couple, the politics of picking are name are quite complex. Ideally, there would be an algorithm that could calculate this for us, but to my knowledge no-one has found one so its a question we have to wrestle with alone (thanks a bunch science). 

At the moment, this question is purely hypothetical. To my knowledge my fiancée is not pregnant. But we have talked about it, we are of an age now and we intend to have kids. As a mixed-race man, this question opens up a range of further ones about how my child would identify, which really asks a lot about how I do. And how does my Canadian partner fit into all this? So, what would they be?

Try not to over think it

The most obvious answer I suppose, is that they would be ours. That’s the most important classification. But names do count, of course. Mine is Punjabi and despite a primary school flirtation with changing it, I’ve always felt it reflects something important about my background. That said, I’ve never really liked the habit of placing too much emphasis on ethnicity. It’s important, but it under-describes who people are. It over-simplifies things that are complicated, it’s deterministic about traits that are often up in the air. Being mixed race, with a Punjabi dad and an English mum, discussions about my ethnicity have overwhelmingly been focused on the Indian half. This has often felt unbalanced, unfair or simply inaccurate. 

What’s different is what’s decisive?

On the other hand, my mum is English and I live in England.  It may be inevitable that the side of my identity that differs from the majority will attract the most attention. So am I really thinking about which side of their personality will the child have to explain most often? For long stretches of my life that has been the prosaic reality. Maybe, if I had grown up in Hoshiarpur then my mum’s Englishness would feel more prescient. Similarly, there is less imperative to preserve the aspect of a child’s heritage that they will be surrounded by on a daily basis. So, should they get a Punjabi name?

Perhaps the decisive factor is really what stands out.  A lot of the terminology would seem to suggest so.

What stands out

When I was at school, I used to call myself half-caste. I guess half-caste was a reference to the fact that I have a skin tone that is not white, but neither is it as dark as some of those whose skin tone implies their parents both came from sunnier parts of the world.

At some point, I think when I started secondary school, I was made aware that half-caste was insulting. I don’t remember it being explained to me why, but I was told the correct term was mixed-race and so that’s the term I used for at least a decade and a half. Mixed race has obvious advantages.  It is sounds more neutral. It sounds flatly descriptive, broad enough to cover those whose parentage might be geographically disparate even if you wouldn’t know it from their skin tone.

But this very flexibility opens up tensions that lie under the surface when we talk about race and ethnicity. Race may be a construct, but ethnic categories nonetheless have a solidity to them. On reflection, the language is misleading.

What’s mixed when you’re mixed race?

Most people who are mixed race will discuss their particular admixture in terms of being half-one thing and half-another: half-Irish half-Pakistani; half-Jewish half-Jamaican. The fact that both of these would come under the same descriptor is an indication of just how sloppy the term really is. The idea that, aside from the quality of mixedness those two people share any particularly salient ‘racial’ traits is a nonsense. That’s before we get onto the genetic difference that can be found even within populations we might consider to be racially homogeneous. See the pages of fretting on the discussion boards of white supremacists who have recently used 23 and Me to look into their own genome for further proof of this. Genetics only loosely map onto the features  we often use to identify a person’s race.

My mum is half-Jewish. While not religious, she has told me how she felt this marked her out as separate at school; and how it shaped a view of Englishness which excluded her family.  However, lacking any of the religious upbringing that often embeds the cultural side of Jewish life, beyond a penchant for Jewish jokes, I grew up in an environment where mum’s Jewishness often went unremarked, if not unnoticed by those around me. I’ve often felt that being half-Indian and half-English left a bigger mark on my childhood.

A mixed mixture

So how do we classify this second order mixing? Often, we resort to a list of the various backgrounds involved. Sometimes these are even classified down to the specific fraction, one quarter Jewish, one quarter English, half-Punjabi. But how small a fraction do we have to get to before the admixture ceases to be meaningful? My child’s jewishness would amount to only one eighth of their heritage. What about my fiancée’s, father’s Dutch antecedent? Will they require a shout out?

My child would be overwhelmingly white. My fiancée is white, I am half white, their skin-tone would likely be like their grandparents; largely pale. If we were to decide their upbringing on purely arithmetical grounds, the impact of my Punjabi heritage would be minimal.

The politics of baby-names

Would an ‘Anglo’ name be a suitable recognition of this? Would calling them Nirmal, or Malveer actually be a bit pretentious? Like those parents who give their child a name plucked from an entirely different culture, only justified by a tenuous family history.  I don’t think there should be iron rules about who can and cannot call their kid what. Technically, I guess there’s nothing wrong with it. It’s not exactly exploitative, but it strikes me wrong, it feels false. And a look at discussions on Mumsnet on the politics of baby naming indicates that I am not alone in feeling this way.

After a certain fraction, surely the percentage becomes so small that it no longer has any meaningful impact on the person’s experience in the world. Far better, to focus on those elements of your background that feel salient to you, and not worry about a strict accounting of your ancestry.

My Asian antecedents shaped me in ways that feel too important to be dismissed purely on arithmetic grounds. On that basis, maybe we should look at the experiences and forget about the numbers.

A family affair

My dad wasn’t born here, but he did a lot of growing up here and is of the generation that considers their integration in British society to be a mark of victory. Hard won in the face of those who would seek to exclude them, politically, culturally and often violently.

By the time he met my mum she already had two daughters – my sisters (half-sister’s technically, but who’s counting) from a previous relationship. They refer to him, now, as their dad, alongside their other dad, but at the time he was a strange man who seemed to be trying to replace their father. My nephews and niece now have an abundance of granddads, so many that they have adopted separate terms for their maternal grandfathers, my dad is Bubba, my sister’s dad was initially Pops (though that changed when he expressed a preference for Granddad), and then their dad’s dad is also Granddad. But this type of ease takes time to develop.

Reluctant to make things more awkward by speaking to his son in a different language, Dad did not bring me up speaking Punjabi.  In truth, I’m not even sure how the pragmatics of us speaking in a different language to three-fifths of the household would work. And at a young age I might have considered the requirement to speak a different language to the rest of the family to be an unwelcome burden.

Quite an Anglo Asian

So how did a Punjabi background impact on me? To my great regret, I never subsequently taught myself Punjabi. A decade or so ago I took some Hindi classes but it didn’t really stick. The feeling that this makes for a poor-Punjabi has stuck around me, to differing levels for most of my life. It is most acute when meeting another second-generation Asian for the first time. As I feel the conversation veering towards the topic of our heritage and the inevitable follow-up question about language, my insides knot. At some point I will have to admit that I don’t have the language. The discovery that I don’t always makes me feel like a phony. Merely by using my full name, and talking about my background, I have falsified a connection to a joint heritage I cannot really claim. Imposter syndrome is bad enough when you actually are qualified, let alone when you really are an imposter. The sense of relief I feel on meeting another desi-descendant who is monolingual is palpable.

The truth is in some ways my upbringing was overwhelmingly British. Nonetheless, I have family on my dad’s side who never lost touch with their Indian background; visits to paternal grandparents, aunts and uncles were brief but regular intervals in an otherwise pretty English childhood. For about 10 years now, I have periodically put on a pag, mainly so I don’t forget how to do it. My ability to tie one – while passable, is put to shame every time I pass a sardar on the street with a properly tied turban. I am embarrassed to be seen out in a turban if there are other Sikhs present. I am sure they will take a look at the hair jutting out under the fabric and immediately denounce me as a phoney, a weekend turban-tier just playing in an identity in which I don’t belong.

A lot of my personality now is shaped, for better or worse, by the need to navigate contradictory impulses. Not speaking the language, not growing up in the culture or religions means I feel like a fraud if I try and put too much emphasis on being Punjabi. But to pretend it’s not there doesn’t feel any more authentic. And worse, it feels like a deliberate snub to a whole side of my family and its history.

Conversations with friends who have similarly attenuated connections to their ethnic backgrounds reveals similar angst. While there are, undoubtedly, bigger penalties to be paid for being an ethnic minority, it is a stress I would save my child from if I could.

It’s probably too late to become fluent enough in Punjabi to raise a child speaking it now. But neither do I feel comfortable with the idea that I give up on that aspect of my background, and raise the child as purely English. Even if that is, largely how I was raised.

My other half

Maybe another answer for what we would call our kid would be half Canadian? We tend to  tacitly assume that ethnicity only applies to non-white people, and that in the west at least, white is the default from which the rest of us diverge. But certainly, for this kid, skin colour may not be the most salient difference.

After all, by definition it won’t just be my background in the mix. My fiancée is Canadian, so how important would it be for her Canadian heritage to be represented?

Does Canadian count? Culturally it has become clear to me that there are bigger differences between my fiancée and me, than between myself and white friends who also grew up here; than between dad and other baby boomers regardless of skin tone. Assuming (and it is a big assumption) that we raised the child here, perhaps their Canadian mother would be the exotic element. Keeping them in touch with their heritage would mean celebrating Canada Day, and having thanksgiving in October. If we were to move to Canada, presumably my being English would be the defining factor. Never mind tying a turban, the priority would be ensuring they spelled it “mum” (at least at home), and teaching them ‘Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes’ to the appropriate rhythm (NB. She informs me this is a ridiculous expectation and frankly unrealistic. After some debate we agreed we would call it “The Hokey Cokey” at home as a compromise).

So, what’s a good Canadian name? Well, in most cases (first nations excepted) it looks a lot like a British one. Their name might well come freighted with less significance than I have been attempting to imbue it.

So, what?

In actual fact, maybe it is the height of presumption to think that they will be at all affected by my preoccupations in this matter. It all may well strike them as hopelessly second generation and passé.  Conversations with my parents indicate that the process of picking my name didn’t require anything like the 5-page essay of angst that I have indulged in. They have a friend called Kamaljeet, and mum liked the name. Maybe that’s the best solution. In conversation with new parents, I get the impression that  for all the stress you put into picking a name beforehand, once the child is born, there is such a radical shift of priorities that worrying about the name barely got a look in.

A lot’s changed already

We’re recently engaged, and are planning our wedding. To be honest, I was a bit blasé about it beforehand. I hate those couples who evangelize on the assumption that marriage is the necessary end point of a serious relationship.  After seven years, the fact it would stop people asking me if we’re going to get married, was a non-trivial motivating factor. But at the risk of sounding like one of those people: I was amazed by the change I felt. The quality of what was already a loving relationship shifted inside in myriad ways just from asking her to make me her husband, and her saying yes.

Getting engaged was a decision that only really involved the two of us. The idea that all the obtuse thoughts and preoccupations that have filled these pages would survive contact with the reality of bringing a person into the world and the shared, but total responsibility of bringing them up, is probably for the birds.

And in any case, since starting this essay three weeks ago, I’ve decided I really like the name Jaspreet. So, I’d probably lobby for that.


…which was the style at the time.

So I tied an onion on my belt, which was the style at the time”

The Simpsons: ‘Last exit to Springfield’

Racist attitudes in figures from the past are like the onion that grandpa Simpson used to wear in his belt: they were just the style at the time. Their origins are considered irrelevant and probably unknowable, and anyway it would be unfair to think critically about them because people in the past didn’t know better. Like the diatribe of a bigoted older relative, it is better to just ignore the unpleasant bits and not think too much about it.

Churchill is the archetypal beneficiary of this magnanimous policy. The wrap sheet on Winston Churchill is long, and well-rehearsed. But it still bears repeating. Churchill described Indians as “a beastly people with a beastly religion”, he referred to Gandhi as a “half-naked Fakhir”; Churchill gassed Kurdish tribesmen in 1920; he deliberately allowed 3 million people to starve to death in Bengal in 1943, commenting that starving families had only themselves to blame for “breeding like rabbits”; during the Afghan campaign he declared that the Pashtuns needed to “recognise the superiority of the white race”.

Yet Churchill has been praised as The Greatest Briton. People who query this hagiography tend to get shot down. “Sure Churchill was racist” we’re told “but it was the past, everyone was racist then. And anyway, would you have preferred Hitler to win?”

Well no, but I can also be relieved that Soviet Russia defeated the Nazi’s without being expected to forget about the crimes of Stalin.

There are politics about who gets to enjoy this historical magnanimity. In 2016, critics of the #RhodesMustFall campaign, dismissed criticism his of brutally racist views with the airy disclaimer that Cecil Rhodes was “a product of his time”. Stalin is rightly condemned, despite the vital role he played in defeating Hitler. But in the UK Churchill gets a pass, firstly because of his role in World War Two, our national creation myth. He is intrinsic to the vision of the British as unquestionably the goodies just before the collapse of empire rendered our position in the world very much up for debate. Secondly, because he committed many of his atrocities in the service of that empire. Culturally, there has not been the reckoning with costs and crimes of British Colonialism in a way that matches the scope of its impact in either the periphery or the metropole.

But that magnanimity does a great disservice. And not only to Churchill’s victims (though it absolutely does to them). It demeans the many people in the past who did not share Churchill’s bigotry. Whose views were also a product of their time, and yet still precluded murderous white supremacy.

Historical racism is not an onion in the belt. It was (and is) an ideology that appealed to specific people and was rejected by others. Its form developed over a specific period of time, and it is possible to trace the indications of this development, to see the absence of later forms in earlier treatments of race. Christopher Hill noted at the beginning of the 17th century:

Othello and Pocahontas are treated as human beings, by the end Thomas Rymer is rebuking Shakespeare for showing so little colour prejudice.

Christopher Hill ‘Some intellectual consequences of the English Revolution’

It was perfectly possible to be alive in the 19th century and to reject white superiority of Cecil Rhodes and later Winston Churchill. By the time Churchill was alive it was even easier. In the 19th century scientific racism became the intellectual zeitgeist; ethnographers, and scientists like Topinard, Flowers, the Comte de Gobineau and Pearson all expounded on the natural superiority of the White race. But, there were a tranche of ethnographers who continually rejected a fundamental division between the races. In the 1840s, James Cowles Prichard set out to prove the single origin of all races against prevailing views of polygenesis expounded by the race scientists. A devout Christian, Prichard believed that scientific racism was fundamentally unbiblical. Sylvia Pankhurst was born in 1882, she died in 1960 and was buried in Addis Ababa after an state funeral attended by Haile Selassie, in 1935 she was a high profile voice calling for the defence of Ethiopia from Italian extraction. Far from embracing white supremacy, as some early feminists did, she was a powerful voice against colonialism.

Churchill’s racism was not a condition to which people born in the 19th century were inextricably susceptible. It had political causes, and political consequences. Some people resisted and rejected it then and we are absolutely entitled to do so now.

What’s the point of Antisemitism?

What makes Jews so special? Indians, Roma, Poles and Caribbeans are all subject to racial discrimination. So why don’t they each get a term of their own? The specific character of racial bias differs for each group, the slurs, stereotypes and assumptions are different. What marks out prejudice against Jews as worthy of having its own nomenclature?

It is not just that it is a prejudice with a particular pedigree. It is very old in Europe. But then prejudice against the Roma is similarly historically entrenched. Neither is it that the discrimination it engenders is of a level of virulence, and violence that marks it as separate from others. Other hatreds have provoked incidents of genocidal violence that are, at the very least analogous. We can debate the relationship of the holocaust to other genocidal events, and to the wider history of racial discrimination, but regardless the term predates the Nazis by decades.

There is an argument to be made that the nature of Jewish identity is sufficiently unique that it justifies separate identifiers for prejudice. One can be religiously Jewish, or Jewish without being religious; both require Jewish parentage. Though one can convert to Judaism, it is rare and Jews do not proselytise. The nearest comparison to this is probably Sikhism, while culturally very different, Sikhs are legally recognised as both a religious and an ethnic group. There is no Sikhophobia or Antisikhism.

There is an Islamophobia however. And the reason this exists provides a clue as to the value of maintaining a specific term for racism against Jews. Islamophobia identifies a form of discrimination against a religiously defined group, that operates like a racial prejudice. Islamophobia does not, or at least mostly does not focus on a condemnation of specific religious doctrines. Instead, practising Muslims – or those identified (rightly or wrongly) as being Muslim are ascribed fixed and inherent characteristics. These traits mark them as inherently “other”, incapable of fitting into a Western culture envisioned  as arising out of an idealised Enlightenment, notable for respect for democracy and individual rights. Though a modern phenomenon, Islamophobia often hinges on a simplified, idiosyncratic or actively distorted interpretation of historical interactions between Islam and “the West”. The history of the Crusades being the archetypal example.

Similarly, antisemitism is a creation of the 19th Century, but it draws on myths and distortions that are much older. However, it mixes them with a depiction of the role of Jews in the financial system based of a few prominent families in the Victorian era. it co-opts left-wing critiques of global banking and blends them with age old suspicions of the Jewish community as occult outsiders to fashion the ur-conspiracy theory. Antisemitism is marked by the way it fashions Jews not only as inferior, but in someways as superior (politically, organisationally): sophisticated and ingenious as well as diabolical and corrupt. The way it positions the Jewish community as hegemonic, the way it often hides itself within broader statements about banking and finance.  Compare this with the way that other forms of racism often depict the subject as an underclass.

If we call Islamophobia racism, we leave it open to dismissal on the basis that Islam is not a race. But we also miss something specific about the way in which it operates; the way it covers a range of ethnic groups, the way it labels a belief but ascribes traits that are fixed as if genetic, the way it latches on to apparently progressive, democratic ideals not to argue for greater emancipation but simply to stigmatise a group it considers fundamentally incompatible with them.

Similarly, if we simply place all anti-Jewish prejudice under the rubric of racism we miss the very particular ways in which antisemitism operates. In doing so, we blunt our ability to analyse and resist forms of discrimination and abuse at a time when both are making dangerous incursions into the mainstream of political life.

Brutus is an Honourable Man

The best criterion by which to decide whether someone has been forced outside the pale of the law is to ask if he would benefit by committing a crime. If a small burglary is likely to improve his legal position, at least temporarily, one may be sure he has been deprived of human rights…The same man who was in jail yesterday because of his mere presence in this world, who had no rights whatever and lived under threat of deportation, or who was dispatched without sentence and without trial to some kind of internment because he had tried to work and make a living, may become almost a full-fledged citizen, because of a little theft.

Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism. 

Denying known illegal migrants the ability to continue to access banking services (including accounts opened before they overstayed) will make it harder for them to establish or maintain a settled life in the UK and should incentivise voluntary departure.

HM Treasury  Immigration Bill: tackling existing current accounts held by illegal migrants. Impact assessment, 03/08/15. 

The Home Office assures us no one with a valid visa will  have their name accidentally placed on the list, and that only 6000 illegal migrants will have their bank account frozen.

The Home Office assures us the only people who have to worry about not being able to feed themselves are people who overstay, who are working without a work permit. An initial 6000 people, 0.009% of the population who are dragging down our wages and destroying our working conditions. And Brutus is an honourable man.

This is about making Britain a hostile environment for illegal migrants and failed asylum seekers.

Britain isn’t a hostile environment for them at the moment.

In 2013, Theresa May sent vans with “Go Home” emblazoned on the side to areas with a big minority population. Well, she said she did, but actually there were only ever two vans. One for the photo opp, and one to stop it being just a cheap photo opp. Once it was in the press, the job was really done.

The 2014 Immigration act required landlords to check the immigration status of prospective tenants.  So now people with a foreign accent have to prove their right to stay when they try to find somewhere to live.

The same law could require GPs to inquire as to the residency status of their patients.

Section 44 of the Immigration Act 2016 makes it illegal to drive a car if you know or suspect that you don’t have a legal right to be in the country. It’s difficult to make out someone’s residency status if they are driving at or around the speed limit, so the safest bet for enforcing that to focus on stopping people who look the most, well, migratory.

And now the Home Secretary will give British banks the names of those who work without a permit, overstay their visa or have their asylum claim turned down. Banks are to freeze their accounts in the hope they’ll do us all a favour and just leave. Then they can have their money back. And then another set of names will be released, and we can all be reminded once again, that the Home Office is watching, ever ready to ensure a hostile environment to those who don’t belong here.

The same Home Office that sent hundreds of letters out to EU citizens, wrongly telling them to go home can be trusted to correctly identify the right bank accounts. No one else need worry.

But even if that’s true (it isn’t) but let’s examine the hypothetical. Let’s allow that the Home Office is as scrupulous and efficient as they would need to be to prevent the wrong people having their money frozen by government decree. Does that make this any better?

Is this a principle we’re happy with? Once your immigration status becomes unfavourable, the government is free to inflict bureaucratic misery upon you until you give up and go home. Maybe after a spell of indefinite detention in centres that drive people to attempt suicide every year.

This might only apply to criminals. Illegal migration is a crime (the clue is in the name after all). But it affects all of us. It’s not just migrants who are already disproportionately stopped while driving, for decades it has been black people. This will only get worse.

It wont just be people who overstay their visa who face suspicion when they try to rent a house. It will be anyone with a foreign name, or a funny accent.  Failed asylum seekers are not the only ones who should worry if  people with tuberculosis avoid treatment because they’re worried about their immigration status.

People who worry about migration often give the impression that the borders of the UK are porous, but increasingly it is the border regime that lacks definition. Whereas once it patrolled the entry and exit points of the country, now it patrols ever increasing aspects of our lives. Schools, homes, banks, transport. At any point, people who don’t look like they belong can be subject to checks and interrogation. This is not just an infringement of the rights of 6000 illegal migrants. If it doesn’t mean you, it might mean your friend, it might mean your partner, or your child.

Even if no-one you know is ever asked to prove their immigration status, you are still demeaned. Every time we freeze bank accounts, or send out racist vans, we push the line of decency back a little further. We grant the government a little more licence to say that there is less and less that is beyond the pale. We make daily life coarser and less civil for those who overstay their visa. And for everyone else.


The Wasp and the Minority in When Harry Met Sally

Last night, while re-watching When Harry met Sally (WHMS) I was struck by the subtle ethnic coding of each of the leads that is at play in the film. This coding plays on tropes that are common in Hollywood films, but the film undercuts these tropes to produce a more rounded character. These tropes are ethnically defined, even if, as in WHMS the ethnicity is not always clearly identified.

I should begin with some disclaimers. I am not a film buff, so writing an essay on tropes in films is at best, an act of hubris. As a result, I will endeavour not to over-claim in this essay. While I think the ethnic coding of each is interesting, its obviously not the most significant theme compared to: whether men and women can be friends, fear of commitment, the different worldview of men and women etc.

Neither Harry or Sally are explicitly racialised in the film – beyond both being white. Their names are fairly generic – Harry Burns and Sally Albright – though Sally’s perhaps marks her out more clearly as a Wasp (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant). That is significant because for much of the film Sally presents as the stereotypical Wasp. Harry is, what for convenience I’ll label a (generic and undefined) Minority. In many films the Minority has a specific ethnicity, but in WHMS I think the Minority is just not a Wasp.

What is a Wasp like?

The Wasp is perhaps the easiest.  As a rule, Wasps are at least affluent though often they are very rich; they tend to be respectable; emotionally repressed and often prudish. Their skin is always white, and they are often (though not always) blonde.  Think of the preppy characters in National Lampoons Animal House, or Ian’s family in My Big Fat Greek Wedding (MBFGW). This scene in Family Guy (from about 1:10ish)  covers it quite well.

What is the Minority like?

Well in many ways they are just the opposite. They are emotional, they may be over-emotional, they tend to have quirky ethnic customs (Harry doesn’t really but that’s because his specific ethnicity is left undefined), while they may be portrayed initially as irrational it is normally suggested or openly stated by the end that they are more honest or authentic than the Wasp. At the same time, the Wasp is often portrayed as in some way an ideal – at least physically – they are also to some extent the default from which the Minority diverges in ways that drive a lot of the comic action.

The Minority might be grotesquely in touch with their feelings to the extent that they represent a lascivious, disruptive or obscene presence, consider John Belushi as Bluto Blutovsky in Animal House.  It should be noted that when the Minority plays this disruptive role they are normally a man, and often there is a gendered and sexual dynamic at play. The Wasps being mocked or terrorised are frequently women and it is an indication of the minorities virile machismo that they are willing to do so. There is a lot to say about the way gender works on Hollywood comedies and far better qualified people than me will have said it, so I won’t linger on this point.

For the purposes of this essay it might be useful to think of Wasp and Minority as two positions that Harry and Sally occupy during the film rather than being their essential identities. There are times when they do not occupy those positions, but at the same time, Harry never occupies the Wasp position, and except at one notable point, Sally never plays the Minority.

How is Sally a Wasp?

Sally is a Wasp because she is often shown to be emotionally reserved – to the point of uptight – she is finickity, concerned with decorum and, as a rule, reserved regarding sex.

The opening section of the film is where Sally is most clearly identified as a Wasp. She is awkward in front of the PDAs between Harry and Amanda. She is shocked by his open discussion of sex and initially refuses to humour his questions about her sex life. When she does begin to talk about it, it is notable that the man she claims to have had great sex with has the very Waspy name ‘Sheldon’. Harry openly mocks the idea that someone with such a stiff ‘white’ name could ever be a satisfying lover.

Of course, as Sally’s character develops many of these character traits shift or get undermined. Take for instance, her early insistence that she would rather be married to Victor Lazlo than Sam in Casablanca, because it would provide the stability she prioritises over the romantic flair of a relationship with Humphrey Bogart. Compare this, for instance to Marlon Brando as Sky Masterson and Jean Simmons as Sister Sarah Brown singing ‘I’ll Know’ in Guys and Dolls. As in Guys and Dolls, this view is abandoned during the course of the film.

How is Harry a Minority?

Harry’s Minority identity is subtler, it both relies on Sally’s Waspishness to play off, and it emphasises it through the contrast. The most obvious way that Harry is a Minority is that throughout the film Harry is the most emotional character. Harry spends a significant amount of time in the mid-section of the film mourning his marriage to Helen, compared to Sally, who at least initially is preternaturally collected following her breakup with Joe. Harry cannot sleep, and stays up moaning, while, it is implied that Sally sleeps fine.

In the opening section, Harry plays a Minority role more akin to that of Bluto Blutovsky. He spits grape seeds at the car window, discusses sex and cannot prevent himself from telling Sally she is attractive – something she finds very unsettling. Of course, as with much in this section,  the fact that Harry is being deeply inappropriate and Sally would be well within her rights to tell him to do one, is not really the point. The key thing is how the scene positions the two characters.

Having established the two-character positions so clearly, WHMS is free to deploy this trope with a lighter touch throughout the rest of the film. For instance, in the scene where Harry and Sally hang out in a museum, and Harry declares they should adopt foreign accents for the day. On the one hand, this is just another example of a Hollywood’s habit of finding foreign accents funny in themselves. But it is notable that Harry is portrayed as the kind of free spirit who impulsively thinks of these jokes, and can then successfully adopt the accent with little effort. Meanwhile, Sally tries but clearly struggles with the voice, she adopts an exaggerated grimace in trying to do the accent, and has to be coached by Harry, reciting a sentence that involves asking for “Paprikash” a Hungarian stew.

Once established, this pattern is then undercut, in the famous scene where Sally fakes an orgasm in the diner. This meal is a mirror of the pair’s earlier meal in a diner on the journey from Chicago to New York. Sally abandons the Waspy concern for decorum that she showed in the previous meal. Harry has once again been playing up the role of the lascivious, macho, Minority male. He discusses his glib love ‘em and leave ‘em attitude to sex, and displays an arrogant confidence that none of his lovers ever faked an orgasm. Sally not only abandons the Wasp position, but in someway out-Minorities Harry. She is loud, impulsive and openly sexual.

It is testament to the way that the characters have been rounded out that we don’t reject this as an implausible breach of character. This nuance allows the two characters to plausibly occupy a range of positions without being limited to a cardboard cut-out.

One of the best things about WHMS is that it has a light touch, so I am reluctant to try and make any overly grandiose claims in my conclusion.  I would just recommend that you watch When Harry Met Sally again. If you haven’t seen it in a while, it’s probably better than you remember.

Drugs, race and gender; and race and gender as drugs.

This is an essay about something I have been thinking about for a while: how protection of white women is often weaponised against minorities and especially foreign men. And about the strangely contradictory forces this sets up.  It was inspired by a talk I attended a few weeks ago. The talk was by Duncan Campbell, about the role of the press in driving public attitudes to drugs. It was held at the Museum of Drug Policy, during a residency in Tower Bridge for the drugs charity Release’s 50th birthday.  All of the quotes from the press below come from Duncan Campbell’s book We’ll all  be murdered in our beds! The shocking history of crime reporting in Britain.

Throughout the 20th century drug policy has been shaped by ideas about race and gender. In particular, by concerns about immigration and the need to protect white women from the corrupting influence of foreign men.

During the First World War the front page of The Times was taken up with an advert for ‘Fear Banishers’, thin tabs of fabric impregnated with heroin or cocaine that readers could purchase to send to troops in the trenches. They were freely available from a pharmacist.

But ambivalent attitudes to opium in particular hardened once it became associated with Chinese immigration to Britain. The press picked up on the figure of the Chinese opium seller as an explicit threat to white women. In particular they picked up on the figure of “The Brilliant Chang” (real name Chan Nan) a Chinese migrant who in the 1920’s became a folk devil renowned for corrupting young English women, after his trial in 1924.  Chan was reported to have an almost hypnotic ability to induce white women to try cocaine. He was said to be obsessed with English women, and would often demand sexual favours in return for supplying drugs. The Daily Mail assumed “that he did so explicitly as a member of the yellow race to degrade white women”. It was also said that “disgusting orgies” took place at opium dens. The Daily Mail declared “Men do not, as a rule, take to drugs unless there is some hereditary influence, but women are more temperamentally attracted”.

In 1918 the Daily Express informed readers “You will find the dope fiend, in Chelsea, in Mayfair and Maida Vale” before outlining an archetypal morality play about a woman brought low:

A young and attractive girl deeply interested in social conditions and political economy made the acquaintance of another woman through a mutual friend. Within months she had become a confirmed haunter of a certain notorious cafe. She had lost her looks and health. Before she closed her miserable existence a bare nine months later she had introduced four other decent girls to her practice of vice

The yellow peril was intent on corrupting white femininity in order to undermine the fabric of the nation, and it was up to white masculinity to protect both.

In the 1950’s the threat to white womanhood came from Caribbean migrants bringing jazz music and cannabis. The same press that raised fears over Chinese opium peddlers now raised the spectre of the hyper-masculine Caribbean male.  In 1957 the Times expressed alarm at the idea that “White girls who become friendly with West Indians are from time to time enticed to hemp smoking”. The combination of jazz music and “hemp” was said to elicit a frenzy, particularly among impressionable young women. One man reported that he had to call of his engagement because his fiancee had been ruined by attending “hemp cigarette” parties. It apparently took her months to recover.

During this period, Sapper – the pen name of H.C. McNeile, author of the popular (and highly jingoistic) Bulldog Drummond adventures, inspired a group of young vigilantes who “disgusted by the degenerate parasites of the west end, against whom the police were powerless”  would patrol the streets intent on rounding up “dope peddlers” and beating them until they agreed to change their ways.

Visible in these moral panics is a conflation of the drug itself,  with the migrant who apparently pushes it, and the character of white women with the moral status of the nation. Immigration introduces these tempting but degrading forces into the nation. The means of entry is the section of the community considered to be most vulnerable – both as individuals and as a collectivity – white women. The process parallels the manner in which the prohibited substance enters the body of individual women eliciting dangerous passions and most importantly the risk of racially inappropriate sexual liaisons. Lurking in the background to all of this is threatened, white masculinity.

Folk panics about drug consumption fuel antagonism against migrants by playing on white British masculinity. But they do so in an interestingly contradictory manner. It is the duty of white men to defend white women (individual women, and white womanhood as a concept) from the predation of drug-pushing, foreign men. White men are therefore both empowered and emasculated. Empowered by the authority vest in them  to protect (and by implication police) white women, and to inflict violence (either legal or extra-judicial) upon foreign men. Foreign men, are  portrayed as both an irresistible and alarming threat, but also weak and feeble. Unable to physically challenge white men they must rely on underhand tactics and target white women / womanhood.  But conversely white men are emasculated, if white women are at such a risk, surely that is a sign that white men have been failing to protect them? Surely if white manhood was sufficiently potent either white women would not need to seek out strange thrills on strange substances with strangers from abroad? Or at least they would not be able to, because white men would have kept the foreign menace at bay.   

White women conversely are both belittled, and deified. On the one hand, they are feeble-minded dupes (dopes), unable to resist the blandishments and exotic substances of swarthy foreigners. But on the other, they are pinnacles of femininity; further evidence of white supremacy, they are so irresistible to men of other races that they inspire these outlandish and nefarious schemes.  

I think that it is this contradictory dynamic that makes appeals to protect white femininity such a powerful drug for political mobilisation. The ego is continually built up at the same time that it is threatened with humiliation. Being unable to resolve this tension it is, in effective addictive, a drug.

Ben Fogle and the “Beautiful Massai”.

Ben Fogle doesn’t go exploring to colonise. He’s excited about the unknown. He just wants to shine a light on exciting peoples around the world.  When he goes to Papua New Guinea – as Benedict Allen notoriously did recently – Ben Fogle goes to introduce people to fascinating new environments, rich with flora, fauna and people. It’s like Blue Planet. Ben Fogle goes out to meet with the “beautiful Massai” people. He appreciates the Massai are beautiful, he doesn’t want conquer anyone. So what’s wrong with that?

Well, it turns out quite a lot. The problem with the attitude of Ben Fogle and Benedict Allen is that they talk about people as if they are a species. We see it a lot with discussions of aboriginal cultures, but it recurs across discussions of Africa and much of Asia – India in particular. Very often, the words used to describe people are overwhelmingly positive, and they are not necessarily untrue. But they complement in a very specific way. Discussion will often talk about the spiritual aspects of a people, their lack of an obsession with material culture that the corrupt, decadent West is enmeshed in. They are likely to be more in touch with nature. They may be beautiful.

It is worth noting that there is a subtext to much of this praise. “They” have not succumbed to all of the trappings of civilisation that “We” have fallen into. The corollary of this back-handed compliment is that they have not done so because they have lacked the sophistication to do so. Decadence is often, implicitly opposed to simplicity. Our fallen state may cause us to admire the honest simplicity of the Other. But we still consider them simple. Readily comprehended. Comprehending another culture is not the same as conquering it of course, but it often seems to be just as one-sided.

Even when this is not the case, with stereotypes that relate purely to physical or mental capabilities, its a problem. The most obvious examples relate to the sporting prowess of African-Americans, or people from east Asia’s affinity for maths. “Now now” you might say, “don’t be such a snowflake. Sure stereotypes are simplistic, but everyone does them and at least those ones are flattering. They must be harmless.”

Probably, everyone does have stereotypes, regional, national and hyper-local. But the fact that everyone does something doesn’t mean we can’t think critically about it. It matters who is doing something and where they do it. If the French have a stereotype about the English being unable to cook that might be somewhat insulting (and frankly implausible to anyone who’s tasted my carrot and coriander soup) but it has been almost a millennium since the Norman conquest. So your average Frenchman has very limited opportunities to put their stereotypical views of the English into practice, in any serious or harmful way.

However, the stereotype of African-American physicality can do real, even lethal harm. There is evidence that Black men in America are perceived to be larger and more threatening than similarly sized white men. Black men are also statistically much more likely to be shot and killed by the police when unarmed. The evidence indicates that police tend to perceive Black men as inherently more of a risk to themselves, and so are more likely to respond with lethal force.

In fact, all stereotypes are damaging in this way. Evidence indicates that people who believe a positive stereotype about a particular group, are more likely to believe a negative one. The stereotype sets this group, nation or ethnicity in the mind as fixed and uncomplicated. Once that hurdle is crossed, it is easy to ascribe other traits. They have stopped being a complex and contradictory people. Unlike us,  the complicated and sophisticated, they have become a species. They have been orientalised. Their traits are fixed and immutable. Like the Beautiful Massai.

TLDR – Ben Fogle, Benedict Allen (and probably everyone else) should read some Edward Said.





Oxbridge has a race problem because Britain has a race problem.

Oxbridge admissions procedures are once again in the press. An FOI from Tottenham MP David Lammy has revealed dismally poor progress made by Oxbridge since he last investigated this issue in 2010.

Oxbridge holds a totemic place in British culture as a bastion and litmus test for the elite. Trends in attendance tend to be used as an indicator of how accepting and progressive the British establishment has become.

It is absolutely right that Oxford and Cambridge should face criticism for their poor performance on this measure. But let’s not allow this to blind us to the fact that 1) this is driven the wider political and economic context  and 2) that context has got a lot worse for BME people in the UK since the last time David Lammy submitted his FOI.

To briefly deal with Oxbridge first; both universities should do more to widen access to BME students, as well as to students from lower economic backgrounds (NB the two crossover far more than is often acknowledged).

However, it is worth pulling back a little and reflecting on how well BME students are served by higher education in general.

graduate employment

Last year young Black graduates were 24% less likely to be in high paid employment than their white counterparts according to the Department for Education’s statistics. The statistics on graduate employment make for depressing reading for any Fresher, but for those black grads they are dire.

It is not merely graduates that are getting a raw deal. This month  the Runnymede Trust, Women’s Budget Group, RECLAIM and Coventry Women’s Voices produced a report charting exactly how life for BME people, and women in particular has been made harder by policy decisions put in place over the last seven years.

BME groups are overrepresented in those groups that have been hardest hit by austerity measures. 1.25 million BME households are now worse off as a result of government policies. The poorest fifth of families have seen an average of 17% drop in their living standards, but Black and Asian families within the bottom income quintiles have seen a drop of 19.2% and 20% respectively.

In 2014, Runnymede research also found that BME households are more likely to be suffering from housing stress. In three boroughs in London, Runnymede found that overcrowding was three times more common among BME than white households.

The evidence is clear on the obstacles imposed by trends like this on educational attainment. Poor housing is detrimental to children’s mental and physical health. Overcrowding makes private study difficult or impossible. In 2016 the All Party Parliamentary Group on Hunger found that increasing numbers of children were underfed. In 2015, a fifth of teachers reported that pupils in their schools were unable to concentrate due to hunger.  Given the over representation of BME groups in the lowest income groups it is likely that even if Oxbridge were to enact everyone of David Lammy’s recommendations, we would still have a serious problem with disproportionality in education.

In the context of David Lammy’s findings it is important that both Oxford and Cambridge take action to insure talented but underprivileged students who get the grades get accepted to study. But it is also clear that their chances of getting those grades are seriously undermined by the political and economic context in which they find themselves.  It bears repeating (though it should go without saying) that the problems of race in education neither begin nor end in Oxbridge.

My struggles with the word “Namaste”.

       ‘Namaste’ she says.

        I grimace.

“Hi,’ I reply.

‘Namaste’ she replies and raises her prayer hands to touch her bowing forehead. She has faded henna on her hands.

‘It just means hello,’ I say. She looks at me, confused.

‘Namaste, it just means hello. That’s it’.

Nikesh Shukla – Namaste – taken from The Good Immigrant

If you attend a yoga class, the teachers end by saying “namaste”. Generally, the teacher will encourage you to cross your legs, put your hands together in a prayer position and then touch them to your forehead, and repeat “Namaste” in a reverential tone. As a second generation migrant of Asian descent, this is an awkward moment for me. There are a number of reasons for this. Aside from the most obvious – I am catastrophically un-flexible, and sitting in an approximation of cross-legged even for this long is not a pleasant experience.

It is awkward because there is a particular cognitive dissonance that occurs in being induced to speak Sanskrit by an English person. It sits at the locus of a fleet of insecurities I have about my own identity.

I am half-punjabi. But I don’t speak Punjabi, beyond a couple of words. For a variety of reasons, my dad didn’t teach it to me and I never got my act together to learn it. About a decade ago I tried to learn Hindi, and while I was okay at it, it never took and beyond a few phrases. These I often deploy as joke with friends who speak Hindi or Urdu. Otherwise,  I am functionally incapable of speaking it now. This creates an awkward feeling with other second-gen South Asian migrants who can speak at least one regional language – or often two. They often expect me to speak it as well. The discovery that I don’t always makes me feel like an impostor. I have falsified a connection to a joint heritage I cannot really claim.

That feeling is not entirely unjustified. The truth is that my upbringing was overwhelmingly British. While I have family on my dad’s side who never lost touch with their Indian background, visits to paternal grandparents, aunts and uncles were brief intervals in an otherwise very typical middle-class, English childhood. I’m not religious, so there were no regular trips to a temple (a Gurudwara in my case) to anchor me in culture and traditions of the homeland. For about 10 years now, I have periodically put on a pagri, mainly so I don’t forget how to do it. But my ability to tie one – while passable, is put to shame every time I pass a sardar on the street with a properly tied turban.

There is, if not stigma, then a certain implied disapprobation attached to this. We intrinsically disapprove of people who integrate to the extent they lose touch with “their heritage”. The second generation city-slicker who goes back “home” and finds themselves woefully incapable of blending in, is a trope for a reason. I am sceptical about giving too much credence on overly prescriptive ideas of ‘heritage’. I think it risks becoming essentialist. Nonetheless the feeling of guilt associated with it has never quite left me, and I still find it hard to meet the eye of someone in my generation, when I have to tell them I don’t speak Punjabi. The sense of relief I feel on meeting another desi-descendent in my situation is palpable.

So imagine the feelings that roil inside, when the person putting my cultural familiarity to shame is white.

Already, i have spent an hour or so showing myself to be a bad Indian by being completely incapable of even the most basic yoga poses. This is supposed to be “my” thing, but i am having to apply block to cushion to blanket to even approach sitting cross-legged.

Then to cap it all, at the moment of peak discomfort, when the contradictions of my mixed identity feel at their most acute, the class all bow their heads, and we enchant “Namaste”.

Why should I be any good at this though? I think if you asked most people they would agree that having parents from the Subcontinent doesn’t automatically bestow affinity with every facet of the culture.

Yoga, in particular sits in a funny place. It employs the language, and the aesthetics of the Indian spiritual tradition that inspired it. But from Dr. Iyengar onward it has become increasingly divorced from it. A suite of different forms have sprung up during the course of the last century, often with only the most passing engagement with the philosophical underpinnings of the original meditative practice. The marketing that supports them, while it may mention peace-of-mind, meditation or a nebulous “wellness” will often focus as much, or more on the physical benefits. Yoga sits alongside Pilates and Zumba as an exercise option, a get-fit scheme.

I often get the impression that I am expected to object to this.  This new, bowdlerised, commercialised version of yoga. It trades on the spiritual vocabulary of ancient Hindu practices at £10-£20 an hour. Particularly as I am one of those people who get chippy about brown-face, white-washing and cultural appropriation. I disapprove of  people wearing headdresses to festivals.

But the truth is, I don’t really. Partly because I am not sure that appropriation is what has happened here. A lot of the schools of yoga that have sprung up came from enterprising Indians, who saw a niche in the market in the West and took advantage of it. While they may be taught by westerners now, go back a generation or two of instructors and you will often find yourself in India.

Carl Jung argued that yoga was fundamentally too alien a cultural practice to really be able to function in the West. He thought any meditative practice would need to be based on the cultural and spriritual traditions that had grown up in Europe. A glance at the class list of nearly any modern sports centre would be enough to disabuse him of this conjecture. Yoga has sprouted and grown here. It has become a largely new thing. And if in doing so it has separated from the religious and philosophical tradition that birthed it, well to be honest, I think that’s fine.

But the other reason is because I just don’t feel that much of an affinity to it. I only ever really encountered it in it’s western format. I don’t feel like there is much of the heritage that feels meaningful to me, at stake.

Which brings us back to my ambiguity about “namaste”. Somewhere deep down, I think I probably should care more. I should feel a connection to Indian culture and traditions. Whether or not “namaste” is appropriation should be a live question for me.  I should feel more of an affinity with that side of my family history. But I lack flexibility, lack language, lack a sense of spirituality and I lack the outrage. It is one word, which sums up a lifetime of letting the side down.


Guaranteed Not to Turn Pink

There is an episode in season 3 of liberal comfort blanket The West Wing called “The Indians in the Lobby” (I am sure no one would use that title now) which ends with two characters discussing how they will spin news that a new poverty measure captures thousands more Americans than the old one. Political fixer Bruno assures his colleague Toby that the news can be sold using a bit of canny framing, citing P.T. Barnum’s (almost certainly apocryphal) ploy to shift unmarketable white salmon with the slogan, “guaranteed not to turn pink in the can!”.

I was reminded of this incident when the latest immigration figures were released. They show a net increase of 246,000 by the end of March 2017. This is 81,000 fewer than in the year ending March 2016. Accompanying the hosannas in the right wing press, a few outlets noted a correction to the immigration statistics. The Office of National Statistics reported that, contrary to previous assumptions, 97% of students whose visas had expired had in fact returned home.

This seems a good example of what we might call the “white salmon” mode of thinking about immigration. We can either view this as a story about the government taking steps towards its migration target, or we can see it as a story about a long-standing bungling of immigration statistics.

A Frame’s a Helluva Drug.

That government and public were so happy to accept the first interpretation says a lot about the way immigration has been positioned as inherently problematic. For well over a decade, immigration has been discussed as something to worry about – and not only by the right. When the coalition government first announced its intention to bring net immigration down to the tens of thousands, even the Institute for Public Policy Research, a left-leaning think tank, discussed why the government would not achieve its target. But there was far less ink spilled on whether such precipitous decline in net immigration would actually be a good thing, even if it were possible.

This was one example of a wider problem. The last years of the Labour government were littered with self-flagellating proclamations from ministers declaring that immigration must be addressed. Always there was the coda: it’s time for an honest conversation. Well, the problem with continually declaring an intention to speak honestly is that it implies you have been lying in the past. Once that tone is set, voters are hard to convince, no matter how tough your talk is. So, immigration became even more toxic, and the tough talk arms race continued apace. Vans were sent to black asian and minority ethnic neighbourhoods telling migrants to go home. The government promised immigration levels that were legally impossible to deliver. Now, a prime minister repeats that promise, despite watching her predecessor fall from power after losing a referendum to a campaign that ruthlessly weaponised exactly that failure of delivery. And round we go again.