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Ware v Kingsnorth II

About the author

Vron Ware is professor of sociology and gender studies at Kingston University and author of Military Migrants: Fighting for YOUR country.

This is Vron Ware's reply to Paul Kingsnorth. We will be publishing the entire exchange in one document on oD over the weekend.

Vron Ware (London, author): For those who may be reading this, who perhaps haven't come across my work before, I will say this, simply and clearly, without any accusations of who is racist, race-obsessed, stuck in the past and guilt-ridden:

My book on Britishness begins with an exploration of what makes people feel at home in this country. It starts with a scene of ordinary life, in a café in Leytonstone, drinking tea with two young-ish British community workers with family origins in Somalia and India. We talk about shops, bars, housing, school and other mundane topics, including their experiences of growing up in the neighbourhood. Although it is debatable whether London fits into this discussion, since it is a world city with about one in three born outside the country, I wanted the conversation to illustrate the complex mixture of ingredients that allow individuals to feel a sense of belonging and connection to any particular place. I was intrigued by what Leytonstone had to offer as it was a part of London with which I was unfamiliar. When someone says they take being British for granted, but are proud to be from Leytonstone, it makes you curious.

Later in the same chapter I describe how I asked a young woman whose parents were from Pakistan whether she preferred Oxford, where she had been born, to Banbury, where she moved as a child. I listened to her talking about her experiences of growing up in Banbury, a very English place to which she was very attached partly because her parents still lived there. The fact that we had this conversation in Pakistan, where she was visiting relatives (including a cousin who had grown up in the UK and gone back to live in Rawalpindi) was largely incidental. I included it in my book as I thought it reflected a confident, transnational identification with two countries, strongly rooted in a particular place, but strengthened by an awareness of the family history outside it that had taken her there.

I could go on, but I hope I have made it clear that Paul and I agree that identity and culture have a dynamic relationship with place, landscape and locality. In this section I included an episode from my own experience in order to show that I too, English born and bred, had come from somewhere local but had not always felt at home there. I also wanted to include an insight I learned from writers such as V.S. Naipaul and Zygmunt Bauman: we can gain a better perspective on what is familiar if we deliberately allow ourselves to become estranged from it. For some this happens with exile and displacement. For others it needs conscious work and a readiness to listen to strangers.

Identity is often both simple and complicated at the same time. It is also about choice not just fate and here too Paul and I agree. For him, people from ethnic minorities are free to choose to belong here, and that's enough to make them English. Of course it's right to affirm that they can make a deliberate choice to identify themselves as English. This does not alter the fact that many people, whose Englishness is not in question, are not prepared to recognise that ethnic minorities are eligible to make that claim. It is not me who is saying, as Kingsnorth alleges, that Englishness is "only for white people" and I simply can't understand why he doesn't get this point. Fortunately there are signs that this rigid alignment of colour, culture and national identity is beginning to shift. As Mark Perryman and others have argued elsewhere, spectator sport is one area where England is revealed as a remarkably affable and open-minded community. Note that this is because of concerted efforts to eradicate racism from football. It did not happen organically.

But Paul blames multiculturalism for making minorities feel as though they don't belong. He liked that part of my book where I quote young people from Lancashire saying how they hated their mono-cultural, segregated schools. But rather than caricature his views as crudely as he has done mine, I will carefully re-iterate my own position. I have to say that when he says that my book is ‘a hymn to multiculturalism', I wonder if he has read the same one that I wrote.

‘Who Cares...? is an exploration of the global relevance of national identity, rooted in the history and geography of Britishness. After the first chapter on home and belonging, the book I wrote takes the form of a travel narrative in which I interweave some of these local voices with episodes and conversations from my journey to cities in Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Kenya and Ireland. The final chapter is called "organise, don't agonise" and it explores some of the ways that young people in these different countries, including England and Northern Ireland, are actively trying to intervene to work for social justice. The word ‘cares' is deliberately intended to have a double meaning, clearly lost on Paul.

I will set aside the fact that the book was partly an attempt to draw attention to Britain's relationship with the rest of the world. I realise from reading subsequent comments on this forum that this aspect is not - at least yet - of great interest to OK participants. But it should be.

My position is this: To be anti-racist means identifying and opposing the corrosive forms of racism that continue to diminish all our lives in this country. It is no more about treating people differently according to colour, ethnicity and faith than it is an excuse to denounce all white people as racist. It means being alert to expressions of race-hatred, xenophobia and supremacism (not just of race and ethnicity but also culture and civilization) wherever they are found, and making an effort to demonstrate why and how they poison our public and communal lives. To me, anti-racism is a form of political practice, with its own genealogy and ideological influences, that is entirely separate from the doctrine that Paul characterises as multiculturalism. I think this has become a straw figure which is why I said above that I was not in a hurry to define it. But first Paul insists that my "entire book" is a eulogy to something he loathes, and then he obsesses about the fact that I did not "pin it down."

After 2001 it became fashionable to blame ‘multiculturalism' for the way that life in some northern mill towns had become virtually segregated. All the problems caused by neglect, default, ineptitude, bad planning, well-meaning initiatives, and the impact of de-industrialisation were attributed to what seemed in retrospect a faulty but coherent national ideology developed in the 1960s and foisted on the British public with no consultation. I believe it is essential to understand the local histories of post-1945 immigration if we are to deal with the consequences now.

In my book I recounted a episode from the 1960s campaign by Sikhs to wear turbans on the buses in order to remind younger people of the complex struggles of earlier eras. I tried to show that what happened in Wolverhampton was very different from events in Manchester, Bradford, London and other cities where it became an issue. I wanted to argue that each centre of settlement has its own history of negotiating immigration, and this has had lasting impact on patterns of housing, education, political representation and so on.

In recent years Government policy has developed a focus on social cohesion in an attempt to distance itself from what has happened before, and even the adjective ‘multicultural' has become derided. It has become tainted with the charge of advocating separation, ‘special treatment' for minorities and advocating cultural relativism (particularly with regard to gender relations). The term ‘multiculturalism' has also become confused with the language of anti-racism which was apparently devalued by its fixation on diversity and minority rights.

This, by the way, is what I meant when I said that Paul was phobic about not being seen to be anti-racist. It would seem that it is no longer acceptable to speak about racism since it is ‘divisive' and smacks of ‘political correctness'. If I thought he was being racist I would say so, but it is a serious charge and I don't for a minute think he is, and I have read his work carefully. I didn't need to know those details about his family. His decision to personalise the argument in that way is symptomatic of his inability to understand anti-racism as politics.

In this climate it is more important than ever not to delude ourselves that we have moved beyond the need to talk about racism openly. The vociferous commemoration of Enoch Powell's Rivers of Blood speech in the mainstream media this past year is evidence of a real ambivalence on the question of what it means to be English and who can rightfully belong. An comment on OK is an indication of how this current not only survives but is being amplified in the present: "It simply hasn't been possible to integrate the number of newcomers that have arrived, and their arrival (combined with a native population that didn't want, or ask, to be multicultural) has displaced or destroyed urban, white, mostly working class, communities (see Billy Bragg (who now lives in Dorset) or Michael Collins)." This statement, which ventriloquises the resentment of the white working class rather than expressing openly the views of the author, gives voice to an old lament. Countless writers have shown how English nationalism has long been entwined with a strong sense of grievance that it is foreigners who are damaging this country, and that it is ‘real' English natives (and now landscapes) who are being injured as a result. Breaking that causal connection requires sustained, sensitive and imaginative labour.

It is not enough to wish away the connections between racism, xenophobia and nationalism and to pretend that the politics of belonging involves nothing more than an immigrant's decision to make a commitment to her or his adopted country. Let there be no misunderstanding. It is naïve beyond belief to advocate a renewed English nationalism in 2008 without addressing the way that immigration has resurfaced on the national political agenda once more. Let's not kid ourselves that the BNP is the only organisation either to take advantage of the growing inequality, poverty and powerlessness that tend to push people towards racism, or to speak on behalf of whole sections of society (like the ‘white working class') in order to make a populist appeal.

Those of us who glimpse a more inclusive, non-racist and non-racial vision of life in England have to make our own choices to reject any form of nationalism that is complicit with racism.

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