Melanie McDonagh, writing in yesterday’s Evening Standard, reported on some comments made by Boris Johnson in Australia about the cap on non-EU immigrants, proposing that Commonwealth citizens be given “preferential treatment.” Melanie agreed:
“Arguing about immigration simply in terms of bald numbers always seems a dud idea because it ignores the fact that some immigrants assimilate without even trying; others don’t.”
Without qualifying exactly what this means, she pressed on:
“Australians don’t have integration issues the way migrants from, say, Somalia or Pakistan do; indeed, nobody really thinks that Australians are foreign at all.”
Her statement sums up why I am suspicious about the “assimilation” (or integration) discussion with regards to immigration in Britain. It’s a coded discussion and the code here is race.
Melanie and everyone else who makes these sweeping statements about neighbourhoods changing and people not assimilating are talking about difference. Australians are white, that’s mainly why “nobody thinks that Australians are foreign at all.” They blend in with 97% of the population because Britain is still a white country (despite claims to the contrary).
And if invisibility is the acceptable standard for assimilation, ethnic minorities will never make the grade. Before we even start to talk about religion, or dress, or food, or whatever other markers of difference there are, the fact is that Black and Asian people can never make this grade because we will always stand out. We will always be the symbol of change because we are visible. And if it’s change that Melanie and her cohort are against…well…that ship has sailed.
So what do we really mean when we talk about assimilation? I’m yet to hear a coherent answer to this question.
All across the country immigrants of all races are going about their daily lives in the communities in which they live. Some wear Western dress, some do not. Some have a better grasp of English than others. Some bring their culture with them and open restaurants and businesses that enrich the cultural life of a city like London. Where on the scale of assimilation are they?
A final thought: Pakistanis are Commonwealth citizens, too. However, by Melanie’s standards, I guess they are just not the “right type” of immigrant – and it’s clear that they (and anyone else who looks different) never can be.