According to the Christmas story in the Gospel of Luke, Caesar Augustus had issued a decree that a census should be undertaken across the entire Roman Empire. It was against this backdrop that Mary and Joseph made the journey to Bethlehem: most will know what happened next.
The census at the time of Caesar Augustus would have been quite different to those that take place today. Instead of trying to keep track of adult males fit for military service, today’s census provide politicians, policymakers and academics – as well as many others – with information and data about the many and varied attributes of the population.
In contemporary Britain, we have a census every ten years. Data from the most recent – the Census 2011 – was released earlier this week and what it presents is clear evidence that the ethnic and religious make-up of Britain in the twenty-first century is changing. But whilst Britain is changing, are we clear about how and what impact it will have?
I’m reproducing below a report from an event I organised and facilitated last Friday as part of the University of Birmingham’s ‘Brum Dine With Me’ research day. To read the report in its original form, click here.
On Friday 28th September, the University took its research ‘onto the streets’ of Birmingham as part of a Europe-wide day of celebrating research. Along with 52 other universities across the continent, the theme of food was used to highlight the wide range of research that is currently being undertaken across the University.
As part of ‘Brum Dine With Me’ – the name given to the University’s celebration – IASS’s Chris Allen hosted an event entitled ‘A Taste of Multiculturalism’ at MAC Birmingham.
As well as inviting those visiting Mac Birmingham to indulge in a range of foods that reflect the diversity of today’s Birmingham – including meals from Britain, the Caribbean, Poland and South Asia – visitors also had the opportunity to participate in a quiz and watch a short presentation on multiculturalism. Those who did were surprised to learn that in today’s Birmingham, people with almost 190 different nationalities are currently resident in the city. Likewise also, that Birmingham is likely to become the UK’s first ‘minority-majority’ city.
This morning I was interviewed by BBC Radio WM’s Phil Upton about the increasing diversity in Birmingham.
Focusing on this year’s Census, raised concerns about how Birmingham’s ‘white’ population would soon be a minority.
Here’s how the interview went:
Phil Upton: “The Census later this year is expected to show white pupils in Birmingham’s schools will be in a minority…we’ve all known for some time that Birmingham will become the first white minority city in the UK but we didn’t think it would be for a few years yet – is this change is happening faster than we expected?”
Chris Allen: “Well I’m not sure things are moving any quicker…when you look at BME communities in the city they have a much younger demographic profile than the white British population and so you’ll see more BME heritage kids in our schools because of this. If you look at older communities, you’ll see that they remain predominantly white.”
Upton: “How does Birmingham compare with elsewhere in the country, are we notably different?”
Allen: “We’re moving into a period of what we we might call ‘super-diversity’. This means that Britain is moving into a time where not only are we diverse in terms of our ethnicity, we’re also diverse in terms of our culture, religion, ethnicity, language and so on. When you look across Britain, there’s a number of cities that are beginning to look like this. London has always been much more diverse and so Birmingham’s better being compared to places like Leicester or Manchester. We’re moving in a different way to both of those in terms of what our diversity looks like but it is a general process that is moving across other areas of the country also.”
Upton: “There will be a social impact of this change and there will be concerns amongst the white population that is becoming a minority, they’ll feel threatened”
Allen: “We let’s remember that Birmingham has been a diverse city for over half a century now so this change is something that we are well aware of. Having said that, no-one likes change and in the past ten years, the diversity of the city has changed a little bit more rapidly than in preceding decades. What we all need to do is look at how all people can identify with a place. How we identify with Birmingham will help us to locate the positives rather than merely pondering on the potential problems…”
Extremely short and, I guess, sweet also. The joys of trying to be an ‘academic’ on breakfast radio…!!!
Next month, I’ll be presenting a paper at the “Diversity, Inclusion and Social Justice: Strategies for Inclusion” conference held at London South Bank University on Thursday 18th March. As the blurb for the event goes:
The University of Southampton (School of Education, Pedagogy and Curriculum Research Centre) and London South Bank University (Gender Research Forum, Department of Social and Policy Studies) are organising a one day conference on Diversity, Inclusion and Social Justice: Strategies for Inclusion at London South Bank University.
The conference brings together scholars under the following themes:
- Educational Inclusion: Difference and Diversity
- Policy, Practice and Social Justice
- Professional Experiences of Inclusion
My contribution to the conference will be a paper entitled, “Towards greater inclusiveness? A critical review of the ‘religion or belief’ equality strand”
The conference is FREE to attend but you do need to book in advance. To do so, contact the Conference Administrator Melanie Walters via email firstname.lastname@example.org by 5th March to avoid disappointment.
A flyer for the conference can be downloaded here
A conference programme can be downloaded here
Below is a transcript of a paper that I presented at the West Midlands Regional Observatory conference, ‘Changing Populations’ on Tuesday 31st March 2009.
When considering issues of equality and diversity, it is very easy to get sidelined by statistics. This event today is not only about looking at the statistics of today but also about planning for the future: about making sure that we do not become statistically challenged and that our policies and strategies are ‘fit for purpose’. If we fail to achieve this in terms of equalities, then we will fail the challenge of ensuring the West Midlands region becomes a fairer and more equal place to live.
So how might we be statistically challenged?
Well a quick review of the information we have already highlights some real challenges in terms of equality and diversity, terms in themselves that we routinely bandy about but rarely engage with. So what do we know?
Headline figures and trends lay claim to the fact that the West Midlands is becoming increasingly diverse. Take for instance the marker of ‘race’ or ethnicity.
Having recently raised concerns about the (impending?) protests against the publication of ‘The Jewel of Medina‘ and the complaints about recent episodes of ‘Eastenders‘, another story relating to ‘Muslim outrage’ has hit the headlines. In The Telegraph on 10 October, ‘Sarah Maple’s Exhibition Poses Questions that Anger Muslims‘ reported that:
The artist, who has shown at Ronnie Wood’s Scream gallery, has a new exhibition with a headline picture showing a Muslim woman cradling a pig.
Already, Mokhtar Badri, the vice-president of the Muslim Association of Britain, tells Mandrake that his organisation plans to visit the SaLon Gallery, in Notting Hill, west London, to demand that it remove Maple’s painting when it exhibits it next week.
“Although we condemn violence, Muslims have a right to express their disgust at this work,” he tells me. “An artist has the right to free speech and to express him or herself, but people also have the right to protest. She clearly wants to provoke a strong reaction from Muslims and that is what she will get.”
Maple, 23, who was brought up as a Muslim, has already evoked Islamic wrath. Her exhibition at Rolling Stone Wood’s gallery earlier this year depicted Muslim women in provocative poses, including one suggestively sucking on a banana.
Badri explained the upset that would be caused over the image. “Muslims believe that all of God’s creatures should be treated with respect, but we are taught to keep our distance from pigs because they are unclean,” he said. “That is why this picture is so offensive to us.”
A spokesman for the gallery explained: “She doesn’t intend to offend anyone but simply wants to pose questions about Muslim culture and identity.”
It is difficult in these situations to work out exactly what it is that ‘offends’. As far as can be ascertained, there is no theological justification whatsoever for (some) Muslims being ‘offended’, upset, distressed or perturbed by pigs and especially nothing that encourages an outright hatred of pigs, let alone the painting of one. Just because Muslims – as indeed are Jews, Rastafarians and Seventh Day Adventists amongst others – are forbidden from eating pork, this clearly does not mean that ‘forbidden’ equates to ‘offending’, ‘upsetting’, ‘distressing’ or indeed anything else that might be similar.
Because of this, it would seem that when those in relevant positions of authority and influence subsequently decide to ‘ban’ such things, they are completely removed from what they believe to be ‘respecting’ or ‘tolerating’ the beliefs of others. What they are instead respecting and tolerating are not ‘religious’ beliefs but the personal whimsies and fancies of a handful of individuals.
Why is this so, and why is it that the response to all people’s personal gripes are not afforded the same levels of respect?
A useful and interesting analogy is that of Mary Whitehouse. Following her death, the BBC wrote:
To some she was the guardian of Christian family values, to others a self-appointed busybody.
For more than 30 years, Mary Whitehouse led the charge of the middle-class moralists to purge the “poison being poured into millions of homes through television”…
…She complained vehemently of the increasing “blasphemy, bad language, violence and indecency” she saw on television.
It went on:
She was the scourge of the “permissive society”, and pilloried by the media…tainted with an image of a blue-rinsed reactionary, Whitehouse endured years of abuse, stink bombs and pies in the face
As someone who was ‘offended’ and complained in response of this, Whitehouse was rarely afforded any credibility whatsoever. Instead she was regularly and repeatedly referred to as a figure of ridicule. Few took her seriously, even though she was able to mobilise 37 coach loads of supporters to lobby against the media in Birmingham Town Hall: a significantly higher number than those who have more recently bothered to respond to Maples, Eastenders or even the likes of Jerry Springer the Opera a few years ago.
Why then is it that we nowadays afford these similarly ‘offended’ individuals and groups a far greater credibility?
Why is it that we have a seeming tolerance for some who are offended but a complete intolerance of others?
Is there something substantially different underpinning the ‘offence’ experienced and voiced by Whitehouse and her ilk to those ‘offended’ by Maples and hers?
All legitimate yet un-answered questions.
Rather than society starting from the premise that some have the right to ban what ‘offends’, surely the way forward is that all have the right to be ‘offended’? Going against this and banning whatever a handful of vociferous individuals – Whitehouse or whoever – take ‘offence’ to is based upon an entirely subjective basis and one where those who shout the loudest will eventually gain the upper hand.
Which is a shame because the voices of those such as Maples herself get lost: dismissed as being Muslim, dismissed as having anything legitimate to say. And this is exactly what Maples is trying to challenge. In an interview that is reproduced on ‘Art Space Talk‘, Maples is asked to respond to the ‘controversy’ that her art causes:
My work with Islamic themes comes from my own experience of being mixed race. because of cultural and religious clashes I think it’s very hard to mix east and west. I think many Muslims get it so confused, for example I know people who will celebrate Eid by getting pissed, it’s such a contradiction! I suppose I get fed up with the ‘judgment’ I feel is put on me by other Muslims who may see me as substandard because I don’t pray or cover myself. This is reflected in my work.
The best example of this is my piece ‘White Girl’ (which is a derogatory term I discovered is used amongst Muslims for a non-Muslim or a ‘bad’ Muslim) I made this after feeling angry when speaking to an old Muslim friend about my art.
Being ‘offended’ may then be a useful smokescreen: one that hinders intra-, inter and self-reflection as well as the need to recognise that many other significant problems exist within today’s society that desperately need attention. Restricting the right to offend in any way whatsoever then is far from something that should be seen to be a victory: convenient for some, yes; a victory for all, no.
The question then is not whether the humble, lowly and ‘unclean’ pig (feel free to substitute with painting, soap opera, book and so on) is really worth all this hassle, but why so many are trying to make out that it is?
This work by Chris Allen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 UK: England & Wales License. Based on a work at www.chris-allen.co.uk.