New generation of Asian trying to fit in Britain




THE days when spotting an Asian face on television was an event to announce to the whole household are long gone.This summer, the BBC has gone to town with its Big British Asian Summer, spanning themes from Bollywood to family history, and comedy to a Gardener’s World special with an Asian theme.

Previewing the season, the BBC published a survey of contemporary British Asian attitudes today.The most distinctive feature that the 2,000-strong opinion poll identified is the much greater importance of religious faith, with almost half of respondents (46 per cent) describing religion as very important, four times the 12 per cent who do so among the British population overall.

Most headlines tended to focus on the increased social conservatism which goes with this, with greater opposition to sex before marriage and same sex relationships. Among those polled, 36 per cent of Asian respondents said that same-sex relationships were not acceptable, compared to 15 per cent of the British public generally.

Perhaps less obvious was that this one-in-three number represents a considerable recent liberalisation of Asian attitudes on gay rights. British Social Attitudes data shows that most of the British public saw homosexual relationships as wrong when Tony Blair become prime minister, and that a third did when he left office in 2007. So the socially conservative British Asian attitudes of 2018 are as liberal as those of the general public just a decade ago, as people gradually adapt to this new social norm.

Most British Asians have a sense of confidence about opportunity in Britain, with 72 per cent seeing the country as somewhere they can fulfil their aspirations, a higher proportion than the UK public overall, among whom 65 per cent agree.

Yet that sense of confidence is perhaps checked by the striking finding was that half of Asian respondents to the poll said they had sometimes “toned down” their Asian identity in order to be able to fit in better.

Some caution is advisable in how to interpret these findings. The poll does not reveal what people tend to do, when or where, if they feel they want to “tone down” their Asian identity. The responses also do not indicate whether people were thinking primarily of workplace and professional encounters, or social occasions. Twelve per cent of respondents said they did this “frequently”, 23 per cent “occasionally” and 18 per cent “rarely”. This suggests that most people who said this were thinking of specific circumstances and contexts, rather than it being an everyday occurrence.

It surely remains troubling that so many people would worry about being “too Asian” in modern Britain, if we aspire to be a society of equal citizenship, where fair chances should depend on talent and effort, not on ethnicity or faith background.

Perhaps this finding is best interpreted as illuminating some of the dynamics of how integration works and how it has been something of a work-in-progress for British Asians over three generations.

The respondents reflected the national demographics of the Asian population, with half having come as migrants, mostly from India and Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, and half having been born in Britain.

The life experience of second-generation British Asians has often been one of upward mobility – many have had educational success and wider professional opportunities that their migrant parents had hoped their children would enjoy. That created new encounters, not just for British Asians themselves. This first British-born generation found themselves having to pioneer and navigate cultural change in the companies and professions they joined. People want to fit in and do well, but companies that are serious about fairness also need to consider, for example, the cultural implications if chances of promotion seem to depend heavily on team drinks in the pub.

In the Britain of 2018, there should be less of a novelty factor about British Asians. One in 10 of the population is Asian – and a significantly higher proportion in the classrooms of Britain, not just in urban centres, but increasingly across suburban England too. With a high proportion of British Asians going to university, it should be increasingly rare for people to find themselves as the only Asian on a graduate trainee scheme. Yet, because integration is a work in progress, that might still remain the case towards the snowy peaks of the boardroom.

In politics too, there were no female Asian MPs in this country until 2010 – and home secretary Sajid Javid is the only British Asian in the cabinet. He will not, however, feel the need to play down his Asianness as he bids to make a historic breakthrough when his party next chooses a prime minister.

Previous successful minority groups, such as British Jews, could take a more assimilationist view in the 1950s, but there is an obvious limit to how far more visible minorities can tone down the very fact of being British Asian. That is perhaps helpful for integration – everybody has to deal with the fact of diversity in order to put our values of equal opportunity into practice. The next generation of British Asians should benefit from that.

  • Sunder Katwala is director of British Future, an independent thintank on integration and identity. See for more.