What does it mean to carry two identities socially and culturally, if not biologically? What does it mean to be a British Asian Muslim living in 21st century England? How many more deep philosophical questions can I fit into this tagline?
For those that have read my ‘about’ section, you may remember that I stated my interest in skin as a social and cultural construct of the body. I also said that I wouldn’t limit this blog to just mixed-race peoples, but to anybody struggling with a dual identity. Race can mean physical differences in skin colour, but it also significantly represents the social and cultural associations of groups of peoples. With that in mind, it’s important to remember that mixed-race can mean a person who has parents from differing ethnic backgrounds, but also (in my opinion, anyway) it can mean a person who feels pulled between two or more groups of people with different social and cultural associations – despite the ethnic origin of said person.
So, if I’m making any sense at all to myself and to anybody reading this, being an Asian Muslim raised in a British culture can encompass similar difficulties of having a dual ethnic heritage. Your parents might be of the same race, but the cultures you find yourself constantly flipping between are very different. What problems can a British Muslim face, having ‘skin’ of Asian origin, but a general appearance of western origin? What happens if you like skanking to Stormzy on a Saturday – #merky, and heading to the Mosque on a Sunday?
One of the biggest tensions most evident in British society surrounding these questions, is the struggle of the British Asian Muslim to feel ‘at home’ in what is literally, their home. Although it’s easy to say that we live in a very culturally diverse society and that by and large British Muslims are made welcome, the truth is very different and much harder to face. With the rise of terrorist attacks implemented by extremist religious groups associated with Islam in Europe, has come the rise of paranoia and suspicion of many Muslims living in the UK. The stereotype of the terrorist Muslim is a cultural construct engrained into our brains by social media and tabloids; a bearded, turban-wearing, non-white man of Asian origin. The image of the Muslim has become inextricably linked to the image of the Asian.
What is interesting to me is that it is not just Muslims who appear to fit this stereotype who feel in some way persecuted. It is, as I said earlier, ‘western looking’ Muslims too. I assumed that following British fashion, shaving your face and adopting the regional dialect could only aid the acceptance of Muslims into society. But after speaking to a Asian Muslim friend I was surprised to hear that the story is very different…
When asked if they felt comfortable in a social setting – for example the pub – they replied:
‘If someone looks at me feel paranoid they are thinking something about me. It doesn’t make me actually want to go home if I’m already out.. it stops me from going out in the first place…And that’s my mind-set now. There is a bit of imagination in there, I know that. But I think its really kicked in the past year because of what happened in the world. Everything with ISIS. And I know I’m not the only person to feel this way, but I’m probably one of the few people who care enough to let it bother me.’
The only thing separating this person from the other people in said pub would be the colour of their skin. And thus, despite adopting British culture in every aspect of their appearance, British Asian Muslims still struggle to feel accepted because of the associations of skin colour. What struck me the most about this interview was the way in which my friend explained this paranoia of being stared at, through fears of a racist person that encompassed a surprising stereotype…
‘A loud, opinionated middle aged man or woman. Chavs. Young lads. I think everybody has an image of a racist. Every time I see an unfamiliar face or somebody new, its not always the very first thing, but in my head I try to figure out if they’re racist…or what they may think of me for being a Muslim. Will they be scared of me? Will they think I’m an extremist, like a terrorist? Will they accept me?’
Accompanying the stereotype of the dark-skinned, bearded terrorist Muslim, is the stereotype of the bald-headed, white and angry Racist. Arising out of the fear of terrorist attacks and extremist groups like ISIS, is the simultaneous fear of islamophobia in British Muslims. I was shocked to discover that my friend was immediately suspicious of new people in almost every social environment, so aware of his skin and what it means to be a Muslim in contemporary British society.
These issues make the identity of a British Asian Muslim problematic and difficult to negotiate. These issues make it difficult for Muslims to feel accepted and claim their British identity as their own, as part of who they are, having grown up in British society.
So I guess the points I’m trying to make are put best like this.
1) The problems of the mixed-race experience are not limited to people of dual ethnic heritage. They extend to anyone struggling to feel at home in two different cultures, perhaps within one singular society.
2) The cultural associations of skin in 21st century Britain for British Muslims combines the religion of Islam with the Asian appearance. This places them between the social borders of society and widens the gap between what it means to be British, and to be an Asian Muslim. It becomes significantly harder to combine the two into one cultural identity.
Well done for making it to the end. This wasn’t a piece that I could keep short and sweet in any way, and the social stereotypes I have brushed over should be images of British citizens we are trying to eradicate. Open your mind to the idea that skin colour and religion, and all that you associate with it, does not encompass all that a person is. We are all individuals, and more than the stereotypes portrayed in social media.