A second generation south-Asian girl from north-west England

Guest Blog by Anushka Asthana

Anushka Asthana

I cringe when I remember an uncomfortable conversation with a female cousin in the 1990s. She ticked me off for what she saw as my arrogant assertion that life in the UK was superior to what she had in India. In my mind - and clearly spewing out of my mouth - was the sentiment that Britain had better roads, better schools, better dress sense, better humour and even (what was I thinking!?) better weather. Perhaps that is why growing up I never really delved into my parents' decision to emigrate in the 1970s. To me - a second generation south-Asian girl from north-west England - it seemed an obvious, life-enhancing choice. It was when those opinions were turned on their head back at home - that it became obvious they were driven less by rationality and more by insecurity about where I belonged.

In Greater Manchester I tried to distance my life from its Indian roots. It's awful now to think back about how I'd be embarrassed of walking with my mum at the shops if she was wearing a traditional salwar kameez, or if she spoke Hindi loudly in public. On the occasions that I would wear a sari to an Indian event I would go to great lengths to avoid being seen by white neighbours, crouching down as I ran from the front door to the car. Perhaps worst of all was the way I felt pleased when a local teenage boy once declared that I was "different to other Pakis". After all I was a girl who daydreamed about what it would be like to have white skin and an English name. Once, when I was very young, I even rubbed talcum powder into my face in a bid to lighten up.

Have these silly thoughts gone away? Largely, yes. These days I think of my racial background as an overwhelmingly positive part of my life. I love inviting friends to Indian bashes, not least my wedding where there was a plentiful supply of curry, Bhangra and a (white British) groom dressed head to toe in an embroidered Indian outfit. I understand now that my parents' backgrounds brought a kindness and generosity into my life that I've rarely seen replicated. And I’m ashamed that I had those childhood thoughts. But I want to share the way I grappled with my identity throughout childhood to underline something I suspect is common among immigrant communities and their children. That even if, like me, you have a secure, warm and incredibly loving upbringing being brown in a white country can often be a defining factor in your life. These days Britain is a vastly different place than it was when we were growing up. But some things are the same.

As a political correspondent at Sky News I have spent a fair amount of time – particularly recently – speaking to people about immigration. After all, freedom of movement in Europe and the emergence of UKIP have pushed the issue up the Westminster news agenda. One thing that has struck me is the way that conversations with people who want a major crackdown sometimes go. A few times now, people have felt the need to stress that they are not talking about Indian people like me. It is the eastern European immigrants causing instability in schools, putting pressure on housing and contributing to crime, they say.

What short memories we have. In the 1980s it was the same language and the same examples but then we - the south Asians - were the targets. It was us "Pakis" causing the societal problems in some people's eyes back then. So should we Indians be pleased to be seen in a more positive light in 2014? Clearly I am glad that the benefits that my community has brought to Britain through the NHS and retail sector are being celebrated more these days. I wish that was the focus for many other immigrant groups. Because the truth is, if we look at immigration through a basic economic lens, then the evidence suggests it should be seen as a good news story. Take when the Office of Budget Responsibility claimed that "most recent evidence for the UK is supportive of the view that net inward migration has had a positive impact".

Immigrants tend to pay more in than they take out - because they are on average younger, more likely to work and pay taxes and less likely to claim benefits.Of course, people don't only consider these matters from a cold economic perspective. The social and cultural impacts matter as well. Some of those are seen in a positive light - such as the delicious curry houses on most High streets these days. But others cause concern - like schools in which there are high levels of English as a second language or longer queues in hospitals.

What is interesting is how the perceptions shift with different ethnic groups. I've long suspected that others south Asians - for example a Pakistani man from Bradford or Bangladeshi woman from Tower Hamlets - could feel that they receive a less warm reception than people like me. Perhaps, they might be more likely to highlight the growing levels of Islamaphobia as something they experience first hand.

Interestingly, a YouGov poll carried out exclusively for the Sky News' Murnaghan programme underlines these divides. The study asks people to rate whether they believe immigrants from various countries have had a positive or negative impact on Britain. Topping the list with large positive figures are Australia on +50, and the US on +46. Next France and Italy. Who knows where India was in the 1980s, but I'm sure the +25 today is significantly higher. And it fits that those of Pakistani origin have a marginally negative reception on -6. But it will come as no surprise which countries are bottom of the list in 2014. Not anywhere in south Asia or Africa but eastern Europe - Romania and Bulgaria, already in the EU, and Albania, hoping to join them.

I've witnessed how different the experiences ethnic minority groups can have in Britain on my doorstep. I grew up in Stalybridge, a town in the borough of Tameside to the east of Manchester. On the roads around where I lived there were some Asian families, but my family was among a very small minority. Of course I grew up with a cacophony of languages, cuisines and outfits but I also had no choice but to integrate into the local community.

It was a very different story around seven miles away in Oldham. There - in the 2001 census - over one in four local residents identified themselves as South Asian or British Asian. As a child, I had no real understanding of the impact that the scale of immigration into that Pennines town had. But I was aware of tensions between the white and non-white communities because they spilled over into the surrounding areas and therefore into my life in the form of racist undertones.

I was more acutely aware of antagonism against Asians but I did witness it in both directions, once attracting uncomfortable comments and stares when I walked through Oldham with a white, male friend.

As we now know, that discomfort exploded into race riots in 2001.

The shocking scenes of protesters hurling petrol bombs at police officers spread to Bradford and Burnley. A year later I embarked on a journalism course and decided to make the riots the focus of my final piece of work- because this was a story that felt so close to home racially and geographically. I soon saw the contrast in Oldham to where I had grown up. Many of the local Asian communities had not felt welcomed when they first arrived, while the local white population had not felt consulted or prepared. The result was a deeply segregated society, in which schools and housing estates were divided by colour - a trend that fuelled hostilities and opened the door to far-right groups such as the BNP.

One thing that was rife there, but also in Bradford and Burnley, was the perception (often not true) that the immigrant communities were attracting higher public funding and accessing better housing. Inevitably that created resentment and anxiety. I concluded as a student that something had gone horribly wrong at the time that new communities had arrived in Britain.

It was this form of segregation that David Cameron was trying to get at with a speech he delivered early on as Prime Minister in Munich. It was then that he declared that state multiculturalism had failed. The argument he was trying to make was that Governments had in the past focused too heavily on highlighting the differences between ethnic groups instead of the similarities. He suggested that it was these specific policies that had driven the types of segregation that we saw in Oldham. Yet one adviser told me that polling for the Tories showed that the speech had "landed badly" among immigrant groups. It certainly had for me and the reason is this - most people don't think of "multiculturalism" as a Government policy but as a word that describes a society in which different races and religions live side-by-side.

Mr Cameron unwittingly appeared to be criticising the very notion of a mixed culture. The adviser I spoke to argued that the language had been a mistake, saying what the Prime Minister had meant to say was fine, but it was not what people had heard. These days Mr Cameron still makes that argument but with a very different emphasis - talking positively about encouraging integration rather than criticising multiculturalism.

That shifting vocabulary is part of a wider drive by Mr Cameron to try to fix his party's problems when it comes to non-white voters. After all, only 16% of ethnic minorities backed the Conservatives in 2010 – a worse performance than Mitt Romney’s Republicans in 2012. In the US they fear that the trend could be an existential threat to the party because of the changing demography in America. Tory strategists have the same worries, and it is obvious why when you consider that one in four under 10s is non-white.

Operation Black Vote has brought out some interesting research in this area highlighting the power of the non-white vote in next year's general election. Among the marginal constituencies where the group claims the ethnic minority vote has the power to swing the result are Oldham and Saddleworth but also, interestingly, Stalybridge and Hyde - where I grew up. The Conservative problems are linked to the party's history in which senior figures were often seen as being on the wrong side of arguments linked to race, such as apartheid. Even the "Tebbit test" (Norman Tebbit's decree that only those who cheer for England in the cricket are true Brits) was said to have harmed Tory chances among south Asian men in particular.

Focus groups found that these voters felt British and wanted to integrate but had one exception. When it came to that childhood passion - cricket – they wanted to shout for India/ Pakistan/ Sri Lanka. To be told doing so put their national loyalties in question offended them. At least some in Mr Cameron’s Tory party are trying hard to mend this age-old problem with a love-bombing campaign of specialist ethnic media. That is why my dad keeps telling me about seeing Mr Cameron on Asian TV channels celebrating Diwali in both Parliament and Downing Street. He has also visited the Sikh Golden Temple in Amritsar and taken his sari-clad wife, Samantha, to the Hindu temple in Neasden.

Labour, meanwhile, has a history in which engagement with minority groups was always a major focus.

Yet when it comes to race there are intractable problems that still exist in Britain. Take the fascinating work of the Social Integration Commission chaired by RSA chief executive Matthew Taylor, a former aide to Tony Blair. It finds that, despite a rise on the edges of multicultural marriages and mixed race children, segregation is rife across the country and not just in places like Oldham where it has been most visible. He claims it is even true in the most diverse boroughs of London. The finding is that people are significantly less likely to form relationships or friendships with those of other races than they would if background was irrelevant. So in Hackney, where I now live, there may be black, white, brown, rich and poor living side by side. But the level to which people mix across those divides is far lower than it should be given the wealth of diversity that exists.

This lack of social interaction across the ethnic divide is mirrored when it comes to social class, with a combined cost to society of up to £6 billion a year, according to researchers.

And this is where I think parts of the Indian immigration story can be an inspirational one. I look at my parents' and their friends who came from India. They make heavy efforts to maintain their culture, through parties and weddings and community events - but who also integrate into British society incredibly well.

Finally, in adulthood, I asked my dad the question I'd so shamefully failed to address as a child: what was it like to uproot your life and come to the UK? The conversation began after he told if he had been faced with the same decision 30 years on he would never have left. India, he argued, had transformed beyond recognition and these days his life would be much more comfortable there. My father's answer was that it had been incredibly tough to leave his siblings, parents and briefly wife and son- my brother Anshu who sadly died at the age of 37- to make a new life. To him the UK was an even stranger place than Delhi was to me as a child. We ended up travelling around India together and I wrote an article about the way in which the country had changed.

The decision to stay came because his children were by then settled in school and he felt it would be wrong to change that. And with that he set my life off in a dramatically different direction to the cousin with whom I had that childhood argument; radically different but no better and no worse. That is what I’ve come to realise as an adult.

My parents know that if they had never come they would have had fulfilling lives in India. But now they are as British as they are Indian. In truth they would struggle to settle if they moved back. Besides, they have a child and grandchild who would appreciate them staying put.

ENDS.