Magazine

A Point of View: Race, class and house parties

  • 23 October 2011
  • From the section Magazine
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Dinner party

Racism is rarely a sole cause of social injustice, but alongside other factors it can limit people's social mobility, says Will Self.

A few years ago my wife and I threw a party. This isn't a common occurrence, and the guest list elongated as we sought to include many of the people we liked. It turned into a rambunctious affair, the house seething with more than 200 revellers.

A couple of days later I was speaking to my oldest friend - we've known each other since we were 12 - on the phone: "I was surprised," he said. "And frankly a little disappointed, at how few black people there were at your party."

I knew that what he in fact meant by "black people" was what once might have been captured by the equally euphemistic - and now discredited - expression: "people of colour". He himself is a British Asian of Pakistani heritage, but a career in the National Health Service has radicalised him in the direction of identifying - when it suits him - more with those of Afro-Caribbean and African descent than the white majority.

When we'd hung up I thought back to the party and did a mental head count. There had been a friend of my wife's who is either mixed race, or dual heritage depending on which you prefer - Nigerian and Italian. There had been another friend, also dual heritage, but Indian-Belgian and a third who's Anglo-Pakistani.

Indeed, the only, as it were, single-heritage black people at the party had been my oldest friend Althea, a close family friend who's Afro-Caribbean, and Raj, who possibly didn't count because (although we're on amicable terms - we went to his wedding), he was actually there to do the catering.

So a mere, six brownish-to-blackish people in a pasty-faced throng which meant approximately 3%, and so less than half the 2001 census results for the ethnic minority proportion of the entire British population.

However, this wasn't just anywhere in Britain, say, for example, the East Riding of Yorkshire, where - or so I was informed by a local restaurateur of Bengali extraction - there are scarcely any ethnic minority people at all.

This was Stockwell in south London where a large proportion of the population, perhaps as high as 30%, is of either African, Afro-Caribbean, and Asian sub-continental extraction. Or else belongs to the burgeoning "dual heritage" group comprising the offspring of their intermarriages with the longer-established white community.

How could I account for the failure of my own social circle to intersect - like some demographic Venn diagram - with the world beyond our front gate? When I came to consider it, it wasn't ethnicity that was the real party-pooper here, but that other and still more divisive factor in our social relations - class.

It would have ill-behoved my radicalised pal to castigate me for the lack of working class people at the party, because he himself is a consultant psychiatrist. As for the others, the Belgo-Indian is a highly successful newspaper columnist, the Anglo-Pakistani a prominent novelist, and the Nigerian-Italian is a controller here at the BBC.

The case of the latter may be particularly instructive, he is, so far as I am aware, the only black person - following my psychiatrist friend's use of the term - to hold that position. Indeed, because of his singularity, his friends sometimes refer to him jocularly as the "black controller". And he's told me that other black staffers at the BBC have, from time to time, made hortatory remarks of the form: "It's great that you have the job, because it makes it clear that we can all get to the top."

If you like, he occupies an analogous position to Barack Obama in the political firmament - a bright star at its empyrean towards which others can aim. And of course, like the "black controller", the US president is of dual heritage.

Class question

But what people don't seem to say to him, given he also comes from a fairly modest background, is: "How great it is to see working class people like you succeeding, it shows that others can as well." They don't say it, because in the past decade or two the rise of identity politics has led to the covert assumption that race - or sex, or sexual identity - trumps class. That it is a more telling disadvantage.

Recent statistics showing that considerably more British people are of dual heritage than previously assumed to be the case, have led to contradictory responses. On the one hand, recalling the benighted 1970s, when racism was institutionalised and socially acceptable, the optimists say: "Our melting pot is working." But others, less sanguine about the multi-heritage future ask: "Why is it that these people - specifically those born of an Afro-Caribbean and a white parent - don't do so well academically, or in the wider world, as say the white majority and the Asian minority?"

Indeed, now that demographers have questioned survey respondents as to the ethnicity of their parents, rather than allowing them to self-report their own, there seems to have been created a more defined stratification than ever upon which to speculate.

Not, of course, that anyone save actual racists would say that ethnicity affects innate ability. Oh no, rather the search is on for what other factors in the cultural matrix that surrounds these minorities may adversely impact on their life prospects. Could it be, these seekers muse, that dual-heritage people find themselves alienated from both their parental communities as well as the wider society? And if so, why is it that the children of Indian and white British origins buck that trend?

Barack Obama
Barack Obama is an inspiration to many - but is he really a relevant role model?

But I think all these discussions miss the point. All too often pundits and policymakers seek a single cause for social stratification when they should accept that in a nation where inequality in real monetary terms is increasing - and has been doing so for quite some time despite the so-called boom years - the reasons for being at the bottom of the heap are manifold.

It's not a case of class or family or education or money or race, it's a matter of class, family, education, money and race. The reason, I would hazard, why dual-heritage people self-report as being racially unmixed is that there's still plenty of racist poison in the body politic.

The racial minorities look to identity politics as a means of self-respect and advancement - which the growing number of dual heritage individuals would seem to vitiate, while plenty of the white majority in this country remain good, old fashioned Alf Garnetts - they've just learned to be less blatantly toxic about it.

In my local Caribbean takeaway, where unemployed youths hang about in the day drinking Coke and sauntering outside for the occasional smoke, there's a curious shrine.

Not just one but several pictures of a wealthy, upper middle-class former law professor are stuck up on the walls. Pictures with admiring captions like "Our Future" and "Bringer of Hope". I often feel like asking the young people what they actually have in common with the current incumbent of the Oval Office beyond the approximate colour of their skin.

The other day I was discussing all of this with the tailor who's altering a jacket for me. He's an urbane, well spoken, fiercely inquiring man, with a successful business. He told me that the morning after the last US presidential election a lawyer client of his came by, and when he was leaving said: "Well, it's great that Obama won, but it doesn't really affect the likes of us."

This remark would seem to have been spot-on on two counts, for both men are black and middle class. In the current debates about "fairness" - that contemporary sop for the aspirations to what used to be called "equality" - there is scant acknowledgement of the paralysing impact of poverty on social mobility.

It was Mao Zedong - not a role model one would wish on anyone of any heritage - who observed that a revolution is not a dinner party, but when I attend middle-class parties and cultural gatherings in contemporary Britain and see the paucity of black and brown faces, it occurs to me that for all the mood-music of inclusiveness, the real revolution has yet to occur.