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Multiracial Britain

Multiracial Britain

Министерство образования и науки Украины

Таврический национальный университет

Им. В.И. Вернадского

Факультет иностранной филологии

Кафедра английской филологии

Гура Егор Николаевич

Реферат на тему: «Multi-racial Britain»

Дисциплина «Лингвострановедение»

Специальность 7.030502

«английский и немецкий языки и литература»

курс 4, группа 42

Симферополь 2001

For millions of people all over the world, Britain is the land of

tradition, the Royal Family, Beefeaters, Bobbies on the beat and, above

all, white people. In much of middle America, it comes as a shock for them

to hear that there any black people in Britain at all. But even if people

can get their head around the idea that an afroamerican might be British,

the notion that he could be an MP often perplexes them.

An MP? Surely, one can see their eyes say, a British MP must be white.

There are many lifetimes of war, conquest, history, literature, culture and

myth behind the idea that Britain is a racially pure society. And in the

study of history, myth is just as important as reality. But the racial

purity of the British has always been a myth.

From the days when the Norman French invaded Anglo-Saxon Britain, the

British have been a culturally diverse nation. But because the different

nationalities shared a common skin colour, it was possible to ignore the

racial diversity, which always existed in the British Isles. And even if

one takes race to mean what it is often commonly meant to imply - skin

colour- there have been black people in Britain for centuries. The earliest

blacks in Britain were probably black Roman centurions that came over

hundreds of years before Christ. But even in Elizabethan times, there were

numbers of blacks in Britain. So much so that Elizabeth I issued a

proclamation complaining about them. Throughout the seventeenth and

eighteenth century, black people make fleeting appearances in the political

and cultural narrative of the British Isles. Black people can be seen as

servants in the prints of Hogarth. And in many paintings of the era. In

Thackeray's "Vanity Fair", Ms Schwartz, the West Indian heiress is

obviously supposed to be of mixed race. She is gently mocked but her colour

is not otherwise remarked on.

British schoolchildren are taught about the abolition of slavery. They hear

less about the key role that slavery played in the British economy in the

eighteenth century. Britain was the center of the triangular traffic

whereby British ships took goods to Africa which were exchanged for slaves

which the same British ships transported to the Caribbean and North America

before returning home. The majority of these slaves worked in the

plantations of the Caribbean and North America. But some came to Britain to

be personal household servants. Over time, they inter-married with native

born Britons. It would be interesting to know how many British people who

consider themselves racially pure have an African slave generations back in

their family. And, of course, between the wars, black seamen turned ports

like Liverpool and Cardiff into multi-racial areas. Yet there was tendency

for the black areas of these seaports to be cut off from the rest of the

city. It was possible until not so long ago to visit Liverpool for the day

and not be aware it had a sizeable black community. Such was the de facto

segregation that still existed.

So in the literal sense, multi-racialism is nothing new. Britain has always

been a multi-racial society. What is new is the visibility of its racial

diversity. And what is newer still is a willingness to accept that all the

races can have parity of esteem. For a long time, even when it was

acknowledged that there were people of different racial origin within the

British Isles, there was an assumption that the white race and culture was,

and should, be dominant.

The creed of racial superiority was very much part and parcel of the

culture of the empire. The British Empire was built on a theory of racial

inferiority. The great Victorian writer and poet, Rudyard Kipling, wrote

extensively on the supposed superiority of the British and talked about

"lesser breeds without the law". It was the alleged superiority of the non-

white races that supposedly legitimized taking over their countries and

subordinating them to second class status. So even until quite recently

British text books talked about Europeans "discovering " countries like

America, Australia and the source of rivers like the Nile. Whereas in fact

there were plenty of non-white people who were in America and Australia all

along who knew perfectly well where the source of the Nile was. And until

recently writers talked about the Europeans bringing civilization to Africa

and the Indian sub-continent. As if these countries had not seen highly

sophisticated Empires and societies long before the Europeans came. When

you read in the old textbooks about the supposedly civilizing mission of

the British, one is reminded of the comment of Gandhi. He was asked what he

thought about British civilization. He paused for a long time and then said

thoughtfully "It would be a good idea". So fixed in the British mind, was

the racial inferiority of the people whose lands they took over that for a

long time archaeologists believed that the sculpture and carvings of the

city of Benin in Nigeria could not have been done by black people. And

similarly that the great 'lost' city of Zimbabwe in southern Africa could

not have been built by black men. In direct line of descent of that kind of

thinking is Prince Phillip's idea that poor quality electrical work must

have been done by Indians.

Racial stereotyping echoes through British literature and culture almost to

the present day. And for some time, assumptions of racial inferiority

coloured mainstream British perception of non-white culture and art. The

Notting Hill Street Carnival is the biggest street festival and a miracle

of creativity with costumes that take months to sew and wonderful music and

dance. But it is only recently that mainstream press has reported it as

anything other than a law and order issue.

However, in recent years, people have begun to acknowledge the presence of

non-white people in Britain in a positive way. And even to talk about

Britain as a multi-racial Society. Although there are some people who would

resist this description and pretend Britain's continuing ethnic diversity

doesn't exit and insist on Britain being described as a European or white

country. But although the phrase multi-racial society is used quite

frequently, a genuinely multi-racial society with genuine parity of esteem

is quite difficult to achieve. The Caribbean is often cited as a part of

the world where you can find multi-racialism in action. The national motto

of Jamaica for instance is "Out of Many, One People". However, it is

noticeable that even in these supposed bastions of harmonious multi-

racialism, tensions have arisen between different races. In Trinidad, for

instance, the archetypal multi-racial island in the sun, there is bitter

rivalry between the Asian and African-Caribbean community. The issue is

equality. Where one ethnic group is demonstrably subordinate to another, it

is idle to talk about multi-racialism because in reality one culture is

dominant. Furthermore, the political attractions of playing the race card

are often irresistible, multi-racialism just doesn't have the same visceral

appeal to popular sentiment.

But multi-racialism is a tricky balance to achieve. On the one hand, there

has to be a measure of economic equality and genuine parity of esteem. But

on the other, it should not mean obliterating differences or pretending

differences do not exist. Britain would be the poorer without its different

races and their different cultural traditions. But it would also be a

mistake to try and iron out these differences in the name of multi-

racialism. Of course, a vexed question is of the relative merit of

different cultures and cultural traditions. It is very difficult in these

cases to distinguish where objective judgement starts and prejudice begins.

In European societies, the bias tends to be that European culture and

tradition are necessarily superior. But in the words of the American blues

songs "It ain't necessarily so."

But with all the difficulties in practice, multi-racialism is still an

ideal worth striving for. Because you can look around and see where ethnic

tensions and rivalry can lead. The civil wars in Africa get plenty of

coverage. One of the original ethnic conflicts was the Ibo insurrection in

Biafra in Nigeria. But the fighting in Yugoslavia is just as much an ethnic

conflict as any African bush war. And the prospects in Yugoslavia are a

nightmare. Serbs, Croats and Muslims are so intermarried and intermixed

that Yugoslavia seems destined to shatter into a multiplicity of mini-

statelets. All ethically pure in themselves but in almost every other way,

unsustainable as modern nation states. So a multi-racial society is not

just a rosy and possibly unrealistic ideal. It is vital to understand how a

multi-racial society can be made to work if we are going to avoid further

turmoil across great swathes of Africa, Asia and Central Europe.

To have a genuinely multi-racial society there needs to be genuine economic

equality between the races. It's unbelievable that one can talk about a

multi-racial Britain or anywhere else unless there is a measure of economic

empowerment for all groups within Society. This means making sure that

there is genuine equality of opportunity in education for all races. And

that the barriers for black and ethnic minority advancement in business and

in the profession are taken down. But economic empowerment for minorities

is a necessary precondition but not sufficient to bring about a genuinely

multi-racial society. Because nationhood and society is as much about ideas

as anything else, the role of culture, literature, philosophy and the arts

in building a multi-racial society is key. The first step is that the

influence of black and ethnic minorities in the culture of a country like

Britain is properly acknowledged.

There is no doubt the history of twentieth century popular music is very

much the history of African music as it has been mediated through North

America. There is almost no sort of pop music that doesn't owe something to

black American influence. And in art, the influence of African art has long

been acknowledged on modern abstract painters like Picasso. More recently,

the literary establishment has been willing to acknowledge the contribution

of black and ethnic minority writers like Ben Okri, Alice Walker, Gabriel

Garcia Marquez, Arundathi Roy, Salman Rushdie and Nobel prize winning Toni

Morrison. And at the level of popular culture, different races have

enriched British life greatly.

There is no doubt that the presence of ethnic minorities in Britain and

much more foreign travel have transformed the British diet for the better.

Noticeably fish and chips have been overtaken by curry as the most popular

British takeaway. For many years, Britons have got used to seeing black

athletes like Linford Christie representing them internationally. And much

of the famous "Cool Britannia" that mix of music and fashion, which is

admired internationally, derives from different ethnic street styles. We

are also seeing an unprecedented level of intermarriage between the races.

It is noticeably more common to see mixed race couples in Britain than in

the U.S., which has had a larger black population for longer. There can be

no doubt that as more and more British either have a black person in their

family or at least knows someone that has a black person in their family,

ideas about the desirability of racial purity will have to be examined by

even the most die hard conservative.

So multi-racialism is easy to talk about but hard to achieve. Yet as we

have approached the end of a millennium, Britain is a more open, more multi-

racial society than ever before. And one where different races and cultural

influences are beginning to be positively acknowledged and given equal

respect. British society have come some way but there is still further to

go. Martin Luther King dreamed of an America where a man's character would

be more important than the colour of their skin. The indication of

Britain's becoming a genuinely multi-racial society is when the skin colour

of a British MP is no more significant than the colour of their eyes.

While preparing the essay the following publications and resources were


1. Diane Abbott, MP. Multi-racialism in Britain Oxford, 1995.

2. R. Rees Davies, M.A., D.Phil. The Matter of Britain and the Matter of

England, Oxford, 1996

Internet resources:

1. www.bbc.co.uk/history

2. www.planet-britain.com


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