Immigration is as personal as it gets

Posted on May 1, 2013


Recently I watched a series of segments on Channel 4 News about immigration and the effect it has on UK society. I haven’t blogged about immigration before but it’s a subject I feel strongly about and the bits of that programme I caught last week were the catalyst for this piece.

Immigration features in my family, in its own way. My mother, although a resident for over 30 years and a UK passport holder, wasn’t born British. My wife is American, meaning not only is my daughter half (quarter?) British but she has the mixed ancestry of my wife’s side – which confusingly brings her back to the British Isles (Scottish, Irish) as well as elsewhere (German, Cherokee).

DNA double helixI don’t feel any of this is at all unusual. It feels natural to me and not just because it’s my life, mostly laid out before me with little choice (unless you include your choice of partner – and some people even consider that fate).

We live in south-west London and in my daughter’s class of 30 students there must be over 15 languages spoken. That’s not at her school – that’s just in her class.

She shares her days with children whose parents are local white British (working class and other), and others who have one or both parents from Bangladesh, Barbados, Brazil, India, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Jamaica, Kenya, Lithuania, Pakistan, Poland, Romania, New Zealand, Sri Lanka, Venezuela and Uganda. I have inevitably left somewhere out but you get the point.

There is not a single child who cares about that. They all speak English to each other and make friends across every racial/religious/cultural divide you can imagine. They’re still young and as they get older maybe society will get to them. Isn’t that sad? But the point here is to remember that to them it’s all about who you are and how you act – not where you “came from”.

Me, age 7

When I was a kid it was very common for me to be asked, not just by children, where I “came from”. Although I liked to answer “Sunbury”, I knew most people were asking about my family background.

It’s a stupid question, especially put like that. But it’s also a valid question. Today I don’t feel bad about asking people “What’s your family background?” or “What part of the world did your family come from?” After all, everyone’s family came from somewhere. (And more on that in a bit.)

But “Where do you come from?” in my case, in the late 1970s or 1980s, carried undertones of being ‘other’. Like I said, “Sunbury” was the answer they deserved, though somehow never believed.

I grew up in a school in some ways – size, set up, even school colours – very similar to my daughter’s, only a few miles west of where we live now. The area was and still is suburban.

But in important ways it was very different. There were literally one or two faces that weren’t ‘white’. As a result, by the age of seven or eight plenty of kids felt I should be grouped with all those who were visibly different, with pretty much every racial slur you could imagine, which I won’t repeat here.

On the one hand it was hilarious. Any kid who came from an Asian or African background literally laughed at it – to them I was another white European with all the advantages that gives you.

(Off on a tangent for a moment, the other day, during a recent racism in football row (AC Milan players walking off after suffering insulting chants from a lower league team’s resident racist mob) several prominent black footballers talked about the issue of lack of top managers of colour. One commented that “maybe one day we will have a black Guardiola or Mourinho”, meaning there’s no reason why the best managers in the game today should only be white. Wait a minute – I’m the same colour as those guys. Would that quotation make any sense to the racists from my childhood?)

So I had that whole experience – bizarrely – of experiencing racial abuse for years. I never told my parents or many other adults because they would hardly have believed me and I had heard them say racist things. A few close friends of mine saw it up close, so they inevitably knew about it and how strange it was, but they were the exception. We all got on with our lives.

But it did mean I always felt strongly about being anti-racism. It was quite something when I first found out (in the 1980s?) that people campaign against such things and – no matter what people say in the street – even right-wing politicians had come around to saying racism makes no sense.

It also means I appreciate my daughter’s school all the more.

She will find out about racism in the wider world. It’s inevitable. But the thought that it could happen in her school, in her class, is ludicrous. (This is also a product of more enlightened and aware teachers, I should add, which is a big difference to 35 years ago.)


Coming back to the Channel 4 News segments, one show gathered people together in Southampton – a mixture of long-time residents, some of whom may or may not have been aware they were descendants of French Huguenots or immigrants from farther afield – post-war immigrants such as Sikhs from India, and then recent immigrants including Poles and others from the EU.

There turned out to be too much hysteria about a supposed crime wave as Bulgarians and Romanians are allowed to travel freely to the UK – a point not lost on politicians who exploit such situations.

What the politicians are less inclined to do is talk about how immigrants are net contributors to most societies in the form of taxes and in other ways. Certain tabloid newspapers or blogs will always find a large immigrant family that claims benefits – they won’t always show the many thousands who start new businesses, do jobs others won’t or can’t do and add to the cultural richness of any community.

Living on benefits is shit, make no mistake. Coming to a new country, often without knowing the language, and supporting yourself – quite possibly also people back home (remittances of that sort far outweigh any government aid programme, by the way) – is hard. But it happens every day.

All of this is without mentioning the demographic time bomb of countries such as Germany, Italy, Japan and to some extent the UK (though not the US, where young immigration is happening and generally positive, whether legal or not, frowned upon or not).

However static, in population terms, leaders of those countries want to keep things, they know that as their populations grow older there are fewer people of working age and those people carry an increased tax burden. Bringing in younger people who will work – often the least attractive or rewarding jobs – is one of the few options. Cutting benefits for older people, who have mostly worked hard for decades and know how to vote, isn’t an option.

Back in Southampton, those contributing to the programme complained about full schools from a baby boom from the mid-noughties, when the economy was buoyant and immigrants from the then ascension countries (Poland, Baltic states etc.) settled in the UK.

Who would build the secondary school the neighbourhood would need as those children turn 12? Maybe the extra money those children’s parents contributed in taxes could have been used? Just an idea.


And for all the problems of here and now – overcrowding, budgetary shortfalls, petty racism and more – aren’t we all essentially immigrants?

I’m lucky in that I know where I ‘came from’. (That includes leaving Sunbury.)

Others, even the most bigoted on those Channel 4 segments, don’t. A few years back cultural critic Andrew Graham-Dixon filmed a slightly left-field TV show in which he invited various English people – famous names such as Carol Thatcher as well as non-famous participants – to take a DNA test that would break down their genealogical heritage.

To cut a long story short (see the link), it turns out no one is 100% English.

Everyone had their own definition of what it’d take to qualify, some people more strict than others. One man said you should be able to trace Englishness back 10 generations. So that’s 2,078 people. No chance.

As Graham-Dixon says in the article:

“Perhaps the most interesting thing about these tests is that they cut through pretty much all of our notions of nationality and cultural identity (which are, of course, social constructs) to a much greater truth: we are all related to one another.”

Later on he quotes an 18-year-old soldier: “For racists to find out that part of them may be what they have discriminated against for years, well that would certainly throw them off their game.”

Remember the Hungarian anti-Semite politician who found out he is maternally Jewish? Yeah, that type of thing but for any of us.

A few years back I found myself in a bar, drunkenly speaking to a South African who kept on telling me he was English. In fact he could trace his English roots back one thousand years. He had the name of that relative and how dare I ask if he was South African. (He was. And even more drunk than me.)

I worked it out later but assuming 25 years per generation, going back a thousand years you could have an incredible number of forbears:  109,951,162,776. Of course that’s more than the total number of people who have ever lived. But even for allowing the fact that people marry relatives (however distant) means the number is nowhere near as large, pinpointing one relative from the times just before William the Conqueror’s big day trip got out of hand doesn’t really mean much.

Not only are all of us related in the not-too-distant past but we are rarely of one place, even for a period of several hundred years.

(When I lived in Japan, a good friend of mine was a Buddhist priest. His family had lived on the same plot of land in his village for 400 years (his Buddhist priesthood was handed down to eldest son each generation). Not only that, he knew the town the family had lived in before that. That is truly exceptional – and note wives for all those first-born sons came from sometimes hundreds of miles away.)

What does all this mean?

Racism makes no sense. We are all related to each other, every family has wide roots (“Where are you from?”) and nationality is a social construct that some people exploit (politicians, man-in-the-street racists et al).

The good news is that our kids are less and less likely to make major decisions based on how someone else looks or where their family roots lie. (If they ever read this, they might also be inclined to wonder what the heck ‘roots’ actually means.)

In the here and now, we should be tolerant to those who are – for now – strangers in a strange land. I’ve been that stranger abroad, as are millions of British people now. (Did you know 15% of our annual immigration each year is actually returnees?)

The world has always been about people moving (by choice, by necessity, by tiny raft, by large plane) and always will. For the most part it’s better that way, for all kinds of reasons. Don’t let the ignorant tell you otherwise.

Follow Tony on Twitter – @tphallett

Posted in: Family