An Outsider’s Look At Racism In The U.K.

Studying abroad in London has been an eye opening experience.

I have observed several things in my first month here. London is very different from Northern Virginia, and I was not prepared for the sprawling metropolis. But, part of the study abroad experience is being exposed to a new city and culture.

In the short amount of time I have been here, I found some similarities between America and England, like the importance of time and using it wisely. However, when it comes to politics, I see more differences.

As a political science major, studying in London was a chance to study a different political culture. One of the most interesting things to me are the parallels between British and American hot button issues. Immigration has become a touchy subject for the Brits in the last few years.

When I first arrived I read an article on a political group called the English Defense League (EDL), and was immediately intrigued. The EDL claims to be a political action group formed in protest to Islamic extremism and the growing “Islamification” of the United Kingdom. At first they seemed to just be blatantly racist, but it seemed like every day there was a new article about the EDL or their leader, Tommy Robinson. The more digging I did, the more conflicted I became about the group. Protests are a way of life in the United States. If you feel strongly about something, you are within your constitutional rights to try and convince others to like it too, and just as quickly a group that dislikes what your group does will be created. To me it is a beautiful process, something that our founding fathers thought was so important that they included it in the First Amendment. The political process is built on civil disagreement, so reading about the EDL’s protest of Islamic extremism was something I could agree was important. After all, I dislike extremism, Islamic or otherwise.

Then I watched a speech given by Tommy Robinson at a rally in Sheffield, and I immediately had images of Hitler running through my mind.

“We don’t want any more mosques in this country. Today’s demonstration is to show the officials of this city that there is now a defense against the Islamification of this great city, that any mosque application will be opposed, with our presence on the streets, and the people will no longer sit by and watch their towns and cities be taken over…”  His speech continued for several more minutes, where he addressed his recent arrest and claims that the community of Sheffield did not want the EDL in their town protesting. This, in conjunction with the half-face masks and the EDL flag, was just too much, and I felt sick to my stomach.

This group claims to protect the rights of non-extremist Muslims and respect their right to practice their religion, and even states so on their website, but Robinson’s speech indicates that the EDL believes that no more mosques should be built, to prevent the “takeover” of England.

I am reminded of the contention in New York City when plans for a mosque near Ground Zero were proposed, and the amount of racial profiling that went on after 9/11. Perhaps this bothers me because there was a time when the color of my skin would have kept me from using the same bathrooms as white people. Tommy Robinson’s speeches remind me of the stories I have read about KKK rallies, where blacks and Jews were seen as inferior. I am filled with images of internment camps, of hatred that teaches little children that it is okay to use the N word, or call an Arab something derogatory.

“At what point does diversity become takeover?” This question was posed by Robinson to the crowds gathered in Sheffield. Part of the EDL’s mandate is to protect “British” culture, but in London, a city with millions of different ethnicities, I can only see this as a subtle way of wanting to protect “white” culture. These statements hint at a deeper issue.

The Office of National Statistics reported that 566,000 people migrated to the United Kingdom in 2011 and the number of immigrants into the country has risen yearly since 2000. The requirements for citizenship in the UK are less strict than the U.S., with anyone living in the UK for the last five years able to apply for naturalization. The U.K. will soon face a situation similar to that of the U.S., where children of color will outnumber white children. The other day I was in Bailey’s, a fish and chip shop, and saw firsthand how immigration is changing the culture of London. A young black boy walked in with his mother and began speaking Spanish to the one of the servers. They had clearly been in there several times, and the boy was pleased when the man admired his finger painting, and became even more pleased when his friend gave him a bag of fresh chips. The server’s ethnicity was ambiguous and quite honestly does not matter to me, but I found the sight very sweet. The blending of cultures in a fish and chip shop, simple interactions between various races stopping by to enjoy a traditional British favorite made me smile.

This is the future of the U.K. and the U.S. which is why when the EDL was created, so too was the opposing EDL- English Disco Lovers- which seeks to promote understanding and multiculturalism by spoofing the English Defense League. As much as I dislike the English Defense League and wish they did not exist, they represent a small minority of closed-minded people whose fear of the future and misunderstanding of Islam causes them to lash out at those who are different. But they can serve as aggressors to unite those who do not fear change and embrace an adapting British culture.

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