Disenchanted with the “Asian” label

bradfordOver recent years ‘Asian’ has been the term used in Britain to refer to all people from the Indian subcontinent. Of course, ideally, Asian should also refer to Chinese, Malaysian, Arabs, Japanese, Vietnamese and many other groups, but that is not so in Britain. Hence, if you notice, ‘British Asian’ newspapers, such as Asian Age, Eastern Eye, Asian Express, and Asian Voice deal almost exclusively with matters relating to communities originating within the subcontinent. The famous line from the radio station Sunrise radio proclaims itself as the ‘greatest Asian radio station in the world’, but it deals exclusively with people and cultures of the subcontinent. Of course, this is pretty poor use of the word ‘Asian’. But it is not too unreasonable or at least understandable because it is difficult to call a newspaper something like ‘People of the Indian Subcontinent Express,’ and since in Britain it has become accepted that ‘Asian’ means precisely this – we can understand the use of this short and convenient term.

However, with a little further research into the subject, we can see that as well as being poor use of the word ‘Asian’, the use of the term to refer to all communities from the Indian subcontinent has other serious shortcomings.

Lets take the race riots in North England in the summer of 2001. The media mainly proclaimed these as ‘Asian riots’. But the truth is that these were specifically Pakistani and Bangladeshi riots. In fact, in the Bradford riots many Hindu owned shops got ransacked and burnt by these ‘Asian mobs’, who marked out the shops that they were going to attack with a yellow stripe the night before the riots, which included the shops of several Hindus. Barely a word was spoken of this in the mainstream media with the result that today, very few people are even aware of it. Truly, the umbrella term ‘Asian’ let down Hindus, causing Hindus of Bradford to suffer without voice, as well as lumping Hindus together with the actual perpetrators of the violence. In fact, Hindus were subjected to a double whammy of hostility, being seen by the white population simply by the colour of our skin (therefore associated with the rioters) and at the same time actually subjected to planned violence by fellow ‘Asians’.

One Asian newspaper even launched a campaign encouraging its readers to agitate to get sentences reduced for the jailed Bradford Rioters. Hence the ‘Asian’ media, not only failed to report the crimes perpetrated against Hindus in Bradford, but to add insult to injury asked us to agitate for the early release of these individuals. This is the height of insensitivity, and truly added insult to injury.

The continuous use of the ‘Asian’ label also contributes to the problem of the wider population of Britain not having any clue about the different cultures and traditions that are followed by communities stemming from the Indian subcontinent. An MP conceded to me during a meeting at the House of Commons that the average white Briton is an ignoramus when it comes to knowing the cultures amongst which they live. He is right, and the indiscriminate use of the word “Asian” just compounds the problem.

Of course there are some areas where all ‘Asians’ are virtually the same. For example the incidence of diabetes and heart disease is shockingly high in all our communities (although even in this case lifestyle and dietary differences has meant that significant differences exist (see here), but for most social problems and their coverage lumping together all ‘Asians’ often doesn’t enlighten very much. Take the example of forced marriages, something that is currently given a lot of media coverage. It is referred to as an ‘Asian problem’. While it has been tentatively recognised that it has the highest incidence in Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities, many Hindus suspect that there are virtually no cases of forced marriage amongst Hindus in Britain. But because it continues to be seen as an ‘Asian’ problem, and is studied as such, there is no way at present of knowing.

Examining some statistics regarding the employment, crime and educational records of ethnic minorities in the UK, one can further see that it is quite absurd to speak too often of the word “Asian” to refer to the various peoples from Greater India as a common entity with common challenges. (For illustrative purposes please refer to National Statistics on Education, or the Ethnic Minorities Economic Performance Report)

The solution is not simply to stop the use of the word ‘Asian’. It is too entrenched for that to be viable – and in some cases it is an appropriate term to use (for example when we collectively face the ‘skinhead problem’). But its current indiscriminate and inappropriate use needs to be rethought.

Additional note: Originally written about a decade ago, I don’t necessarily agree with everything written here, but the article is still somewhat relevant presenting a widely held Hindu perception to race relations in the UK.

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