A recent study found that young British Asians felt least affinity with the term ‘Asian’ when choosing between terms such as ‘Asian’, ‘Bengali’, ‘British’, ‘Hindu’ or ‘Indian’. They felt the term ‘Asian’ had negative connotations, particularly in the media.
To me this is sad, but not surprising. How often have you cringed at yet another news report of ‘home-grown terrorists’ rising from the British Asian community; or at seeing yet another Asian playing a type-cast role in a sitcom or drama?
Post 9/11, the Asian community has had to grapple with being stereotyped and labelled as terrorists and extremists. The negative stereotyping goes further back than that of course. The cornershop owner, the curry house proprietor, the penny-pinching dad vying for position at the local mosque are all recognizable characters in 80’s and 90’s British sitcoms.
At times it has felt like there is nowhere to look for a positive or realistic portrayal of British Asians, let alone role models. Even within media and entertainment produced by Asians for Asians, I’m thinking of bhangra videos and Bollywood films, it feels like we’re being short-changed. The other day, my daughter and I were looking for a particular bhangra song on YouTube. We were bombarded with video after video of the stereotyped young Asian man all blinged-up and imitating a rapper, while the scantily clad Asian woman was desperately trying to get his attention. I felt embarrassed to be watching this with my four year old.
Are these portrayals, these stereotypes really a reflection of who the British Asian community are? Of we are as individuals?
Last year, the Asian Media and Marketing Group published its 3rd annual list of the 101 most influential British Asians. Reading it really makes you sit up and take note of just how widespread and influential South Asians are in various sectors and industries in Britain.
- 17 people from the political sphere were honoured for their work including Sajid Javid the first British Asian to lead a government department and Keith Vaz the longest serving Asian MP and chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee. Then there’s Baronness Warsi, the former co- chairman of the Conservative party. She was also the first Muslim to serve in a British Cabinet, and the first female Muslim to serve as a minister in the UK.
- Scientist and businessman Dr Yusuf Hamied features as number 9 on the list. He’s the chairman of a socially conscious pharmaceuticals company. He is most known in the West for his work in the ongoing search for a treatment for AIDS and most notably in his work in the developing world in the spread against HIV and AIDS.
- Indian businessman Rakesh Kapoor is the CEO of Reckitt Benckiser, the multinational company which owns household brands such as Veet, Strepsils, Dettol and Clearasil.
- From the arts & entertainment there are some well- known names including Zayn Malik, Sanjeev Bhaskar and wife Meera Syal. There’s BBC newsreaders Mishal Hussain and George Alagiah.
- You know that big red metal sculptor in the Olympic Park, the Archelor Mittal Orbit? That was designed by Anish Kapoor, Indian born sculptor and Turner prize winner, amongst various other accolades. Amol Rajan became the first non-white editor of a national newspaper when he was appointed as the editor of The Independent last June. And of course there are the many other prominent Asians who didn’t make it onto the list but whose work should be noted and celebrated.
I could go on. It’s great to read of British Asians who are making a positive and notable contribution to business, entertainment, the media, politics, technology and other areas shaping British society today; and indeed making a difference globally. What’s more, they are not simply trophy figures there for the sake of equal opportunities, but credible figures in their field.
Why is the media not representing this aspect of who the British Asian community are?
Well whatever the answer is to that question, positive British Asian role models do exist. They get noticed for the work, their ideas, their talents and achievements. We may not agree with their politics or their methods, but it’s encouraging seeing their prominence in British life, occupying roles outside of the stereotypes. There is still a long way to go in smashing that glass ceiling, in dealing with the discrimination, disadvantage and underrepresentation that Asians face in the workplace every day. But hopefully they will inspire us and particularly the next generation to feel proud to own the ‘Asian’ part of our identity. We are a community that have so much more to give the world than we are given credit for or perhaps even that we give ourselves credit for.
I’ve written before about role models for my daughter. Parents, never underestimate how important and what a difference positive role models can make in your child’s life (and conversely, what damage negative ones can do.) I’m glad there are those who are carving out a positive space and identity for British Asians.