This post is the first in a series looking at how popular culture and the media have shaped the ways we look at racism, and therefore our approaches to anti-racism. As part of this self-reflective project, we can begin to understand the importance of bringing these skills of criticality to everyone in the education system and probe sometimes fond and familiar parts of our past for how they work in a white supremacist culture. This is open for all to contribute! Please think about what pieces of media have shaped your conception of racism/anti-racism, and share your thoughts on the blog. We advise a word limit of 1000 words, and accompanying photos and videos are very welcome.
East is East
There is an undeniable connection between the ways I think about race and the media I have been exposed to throughout my life. Whether serving to reinforce my own internalised racism, illuminate the slippery structural racism that pervades daily life, or make me feel accepted in society as a non-white subject, the books, films, TV programmes, and podcasts (amongst many other things) I have taken in are inextricably a part of my own anti-racism and being a person of Pakistani heritage. This post will look at a film for which I have conflicting feelings: East is East.
At the time when British society was making Asians more visible and seemingly less of an existential threat to the “British way of life” in contrast with my parents’ generation, we all watched East is East. The film tells the story of a family in Salford in the early 70s as they navigate life at school, work, and love. The dad is “George” (Zahir) Khan from Pakistan, and mother Ella Khan, a white Roman Catholic woman of Irish descent, and with them are their seven children whose stories look at the tensions between “Pakistani” and “British” cultures. The expectations of their mother and father diverge from one another, with George being an Asian elder whose idea of success centres around (a hetero idea of) marriage for his children to other Pakistanis, a loundess that borders on belligerance, and an obsession with his family’s image in the community, in contrast with Ella who is ostensibly more concerned with the actual welfare of her children than what everyone else thinks of them.
One thing which I remember appreciating about East is East was its conversation around Britishness, and the tensions between the culture of family, and the dominant white, British culture. Some people call it “double consciousness” when one is caught in between two competing and seemingly incompatible ways of being, to never quite measure up to either. Recognised as a source of stress and anxiety for people of colour, East is East showed audiences what it meant to inhabit two cultures and try to both read the Qur’an and go out to clubs, get married the halal way but also flirt when you’re at school. Non-white people in white majority societies often feel the push and pull towards and away from different sources of belonging, just like Tariq (Jimi Mistry) feels when his father sets him up with a bride from Pakistan, while he has a white English girlfriend to whom he has promised himself. In the end Tariq and his siblings manage to confront their father and assert their right to make decisions for themselves, and rely on each other to tell him what’s what. Myself growing up in an extended family where men often called the shots at the expense of their children and wives, this felt like refreshing honesty which even my ten-year-old self could take account of. The film also showed an image of “integration” in the relationship between George and Ella which I appreciated.
But it is now 20 years later, and living through a time when Muslims and particularly Pakistani ones have had a pretty bad rap, I am forced to reevaluate East is East. Muslims weren’t exactly being held up as ideal citizens before 2001 (look at the Salman Rushdie affair and Norman Tebbit’s “cricket test” to find out more), but after there was a tangible change in atmosphere when political capital was staked upon demonising Muslims and executing warfare abroad in Muslim-majority countries. Muslims, and Pakistanis in particular, were deemed to be unassimilable, inherently alien to the fabric of true British life with their unwillingness to learn the language, fly the flag as proudly as the others, and loudly condemn their wayward coreligionists. Questions like “Is Islam a violent religion?” were regularly bandied about on Sunday morning debate programmes, and I had to face up to the reality of my humanity being conditional upon adhering to the majority’s clearly dehumanising expectations.
While East is East is but one film and can hardly be argued to be the main thrust behind PREVENT and a hundred Islamophobic Daily Mail headlines, I believe we’ve got to look at how pieces of popular culture can contribute to an environment suspicious of and disciplining people of colour and Muslims. One stereotype of the backwards, un-British Pakistani man finds a prime example in George Khan and sticks in the mind as being dangerous precisely because of his religion and culture. When George abuses his wife and children, it is not down to the structural patriarchy that no culture is immune from, but is rather shown a logical result of his being from a foreign culture that inherently has little respect for women and demands absolute respect for men from the women and children below them. We know domestic abuse is a huge problem here in the UK amongst populations of all ethnicities, but the scenes in East is East suggest that specific cultures are at more fault than others. Sitting in at a stage production of the movie in Glasgow a few years, I saw the full effect of this and the pillorying of George’s stereotypically Pakistani accent and mannerisms being lapped up the vast majority-white audience who were being entertained by a caricature of Pakistani-ness. I and my family sat in awkwardness when the George Khan character shouted and joked in an exaggerated Pakistani accent, emphasising how out-of-step he was with the rest of the characters. This and the film reified the otherness of the Pakistani immigrant.
The film also relies on a false dichotomy between Pakistani and British cultures, asserting that they are inherently different and that one has to “choose” between one or the other. This is what makes us laugh and eventually leaves us fearful. It leaves us without the potential emancipation of hybridity between the two.
Looking back from 2019 to this point in time two decades ago, East is East is a case study in the possibilities and limits of multiculturalism for the New Labour generation. We were told that it was a civic duty to all get along and respect each others beliefs (perhaps along the samosas, saris, and steel bands approach) and I feel that East is East fits into that cultural moment. It was a film that simultaneously represented and parodied our Pakistani culture, a hugely popular production that made us all laugh but not ponder at whose expense those laughs were.