Monday, July 22, 2024
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Provenance – the new taboo


ASKING someone where he or she comes from has become the new taboo, poisoned by spurious accusations of ‘racism’. Why it’s racist to ask a black Briton in African clothing, with an affected African name, who runs a charity which serves only people of African descent, if she has origins outside Britain, is a question few would dare ask. 

Lady Susan Hussey learned this too late. At the age of 83, she was caught out by an awkward social encounter. But the truth is that, contrary to political correctness, background or provenance is still something we’re all persistently interested in. We can’t help it. Look at the fascination today with discovering our ancestry. Where we come from is a major part of our identity, to use that fashionable word, in our own eyes and those of others. We know that it combines nationality, genetic inheritance, and the perception of who we feel ourselves to be, regardless of how others see us. (Never more obvious than in those ‘middle classes’ determined to assert their working-class roots.)

As David Isaacson recounted in TCW recently:  ‘In Dublin, the locals thought me Italian. In fact my mother was second-generation South African, my father first-generation Irish, and both families came from Lithuania. Not that they would have identified as “Lithuanian”; they were Jews, originally from Judea.’ 

For me, this is fascinating, involving a uniqueness to be proud of and willingly volunteered. For others, however it remains deeply problematic, tainted with a legacy of resentment, injustice, and an axe to grind.

When Ms Ngozi Fulani was asked where she came from, she asserted she was born in Hackney, of Jamaican parents with African heritage, and had a British passport. She also defined herself as CEO of the charity Sistah Space. But her decision to wear African dress, adopt an African name, even the spelling of her organisation, invited comments about her origins (not, mark you, her British nationality).

Today many of us think of ourselves as ‘anywheres’, as Isaacson (and before him David Goodhart) defines it; as opposed to ‘somewheres’, or people still rooted in their ancestral place of birth. But this tends to over-simplify things. Legally we cannot be ‘anywheres’ unless made stateless, and many of us are passionately supportive of the passport we carry.

I’m happy to acknowledge where I come from. I was born in Scotland, of Presbyterian working-class parents, lived in England, and retired to Switzerland. My Glasgow friends would be horrified to learn that I often tell Swiss people that I’m ‘English’, because that’s how UK nationals are often referred to. 

With many of my husband’s relatives living in Golders Green, my son, who was born in Glasgow but grew up in South London, sometimes refers to himself cheekily as a ‘Scottish Cockney Belarussian Jew’. Less controversially, he would normally give his identity by using his postcode, his profession, his own family, and certainly his football team. 

Yet the stereotype problem does remain, a short-cut first impression which can shape the opinions others form of us, before taking the trouble to get to know us properly. That is Ms Fulani’s defence. The prosecution would say she deliberately provoked this human response.

That aside, while established groups share many characteristics, the perceived ‘differentness’ of newcomers can lead to perceived or real hostility. Degrees of assimilation can vary, and awareness of skin colour, even the length of your nose, combined with the baggage of historical persecution and religious bigotry, remains deeply rooted. The notices that post-war landladies pinned up in their windows – ‘No blacks, no Irish’ – do lurk in the consciousness of some. The prejudice of my own family to my proposed marriage were revealed in ‘Well, at least you’re not marrying a Catholic.’ 

The 20th century had two great opportunities to address this. First came free access to education, which gave the poor and disadvantaged the opportunity to fulfil their true potential, and greatly widen their horizons. Language played a key role, as local vernacular morphed into an acceptable norm. Second came the application of law to rebalance social injustice, starting with universal suffrage, and culminating in the 2010 Equalities Act which introduced equal rights for all minorities. 

Whether it is down to this or an underlying British tolerance despite high levels of immigration Britain, until recently, was remarkable for its absence of racial prejudice.

Sadly, progressive ideas in education policy, ending up with critical race theory, have invaded traditional curricula, negating past values of acceptance, and have exploited ideas of difference and dramatised ‘exclusion’. The chief culprit was the amendment of the Equalities Act to include legally enforceable ‘protected characteristics’, which simply put the boot on the other foot and created a redefined hierarchy of privilege, or victimhood, as you choose.  

What a regressive measure, almost calculated to divide people and symptomatic of the damage done by meddling governments which invariably end up making a problematic situation even worse. ‘Progressive’ thinking has succeeded in weaponising identity, even monetising it, and it’s now expanding into gender. Far from progressive, this is a symptom of the decline of our society. 

Guido Fawkes,  in ‘Awkward conversations with minorities’, suggests we all adopt his mantra ‘I’m British like you’re British. Our ancestors all came from somewhere else.’

Sadly not everyone is prepared to ‘Get over it!’ There are too many people who understand how to make people feel angry and victimised and are prepared to exploit it. This is a tragedy. The concept of multiculturalism has not brought a pot of gold, instead a reconfiguration of the old bigotries into hard new bullying ones. 

Equality and social justice have been betrayed by education and the law, both of which have deserted the high ground of real progress, to pander to or worse, exploit the basest of human instinct, not the best.

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Janice Davis
Janice Davis
Janice Davis is a grandmother and former girls’ grammar school teacher

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