Veiling: Thanks, Jack
Guardian Unlimited | Special reports | Dangerous attack or fair point? Straw veil row deepens:
Muslim opinion on the streets was not unsympathetic to Mr Straw, but hardly anyone put other communities' feelings before the religious right - duty in the eyes of a sizeable minority - to wear the full veil. A self-employed electrician waiting for the end of lessons at St Nicholas and St John infant and junior school - which is overwhelmingly Asian - said that the roots of social division were much older than veil-wearing.'It's all to do with the way we were treated in the Seventies - I was regularly chased along here when I was a kid by white lads. Other communities just didn't want to know about us - funny that they're all so interested now in things like veils. I was a soldier in the British Army for 11 years and I can tell you very clearly how I couldn't get anywhere because I wasn't white but brown.'
The electrician knows best.
In all the stuff I've been reading for my current project on multiculturalism, with every conceivable theory and speculative fantasy concocted by journalists, pundits, politicians and academics on the table, the remarks of people on the ground--when they manage to be heard above the noise--point in the same direction. Immigrants and people of color face discrimination and exclusion. They can't get into the mainstream so they cluster together. Their children, who expect more than second-class citizenship, take up cultural affirmation and identity politics with the blessing of multiculturalists: better to be Other than under; if you lock us out pooh on you--we've got our own club.
Then along comes Jack--fretting because he can't read the emotion on his constituents' veiled faces. Of course this isn't the issue, any more than Islam, female modesty or female subordination is. The issue is people publicly asserting ethnicity, cultural identity and otherness. That assertion of otherness makes group identity more salient, promotes further discrimination, and sets back the interests of most Others who just want to assimilate, be regular plain vanilla citizens and, most importantly, to be treated as such.
Fat lot of good it does to get women to take off their face veils or otherwise encourage those Others to dress and behave like regular guys if the color of their skin still marks them as Other and they're treated as such. It's not the bus--it's us.
The response to discrimination helps perpetuate it. Bigots who wouldn't dare to say they didn't want brown people around can point triumphantly to veiling and other forms of Otherness to make the case that the problem is the refusal of those people to integrate, their commitment to radical Islamicism or their rejection of mainstream cultural values. There are, of course, Those Counterfactuals: if all those Muslims dropped their veils and converted to industry-standard CofE agnosticism, the bigots still wouldn't want them around. It's reminiscent of anti-semitism in Christian Europe from the get-go to the Holocaust. "We don't want you Jews around because you dress funny, talk funny, reject our culture and reject Christ. Oh, you've assimilated and converted, and don't dress funny or talk funny? Well, we still don't want you around."
Still, it's the state that hasn't kept it's part of the bargain--or at least what I believe the bargain should be: "we'll see to it that you're treated in the same way as other citizens if you behave like other citizens." Shifting the burden to minorities accomplishes nothing. Immigrants and their children can't avoid discrimination and exclusion by assimilating any more than the Jews in Nazi Germany could. Only the state can break the vicious circle by aggressively promoting integration and equal treatment, by affirmative action, by every available means.
But such policies are expensive and unpopular. It's cheaper and easier lob the ball into the Others' court, and then complain that they won't play the game.