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What does it mean to be 'British Asian'?

The term ‘British Asian’ fails to recognise the diversity of British-born, second-generation Asians according to policymakers and researchers who took part in a roundtable discussion at LSE on cohesion, integration and social mobility among these communities.

A pilot study presented at the roundtable suggests that even Hindu Bengalis and Muslim Bengalis that live side by side in the East London Borough of Tower Hamlets have different experiences. This is in spite of the fact that the two communities come from the same ethnic group, speak the same language, migrated at approximately the same time, have the same socio-economic origins, emigrated from the same region – Sylhet in Bangladesh – and settled in the same places.

ganeshAccording to the study by Dr Indraneel Sircar, Visiting Fellow at LSE, and Dr Jyoti Saraswati, a Lecturer at New York University in London, Hindu Bengalis from Tower Hamlets show relatively high levels of social mobility when compared to the findings of research on other Asian communities in East London. Although the first-generation had largely come without professional qualifications and took up ‘blue collar’ jobs in East London, most of the second-generation respondents worked in ‘white collar’ professions, such as jobs in the financial sector or as medical doctors. 

They felt high levels of self-identification with the term ‘British’ relative to other options. They felt least affinity with the term ‘Asian’ when choosing between ‘Asian’, ‘Bengali’, ‘British’, ‘Hindu’ and ‘Indian’ because they felt it had negative connotations, particularly in the media. Hindu Bengalis, and British-born Asians in general, in London were found to prefer more nuanced identities instead of umbrella terms such as ‘British Asian’.

However, the research indicated that second-generation Hindu Bengalis were not socially integrated. Eighty per cent of the respondents had some or many of their closest friends within the Hindu-Bengali community. Of those who had long-term partners, only one respondent had married outside of the community.

Dr Indraneel Sircar said: “We need to appreciate the ‘diversity of diversity’ within the British Asian communities rather than thinking about them as a uniform entity. This means policymakers tackling issues such as social mobility or integration by ethnic group, religion, class, gender or generation.”

Participants in the roundtable argued that the experiences of British Asians are affected by factors such as where they settle, whether they are first, second or third generation and the socio-economic background of the first generation.

A counter-intuitive intergenerational pattern discussed was that the older generation, even from traditional and rural backgrounds, may have been involved in the anti-racism movement, joined the Labour party and had social circles across different Asian communities. In contrast, the subsequent generation may be more traditional with, for example, British-born Muslim men growing beards and British-born Muslim women wearing the niqab.

Another factor affecting the experience of British Asians is their aspiration to return home. This may help explain the differences between the Hindu Bengali and Muslim Bengali communities in Tower Hamlets.

It was argued that first generation Muslim Bengalis in East London always had the intention of returning to the ‘homeland’. Thus this community was less likely to actively integrate with education, housing and employment in the UK. By contrast Hindu Bengalis left, sometimes as persecuted minorities in a Muslim-majority country, to establish a new life in the UK. So, in contrast, there is no homeland for them to go back to.

The workshop and report were funded by the LSE Annual Fund

From pardesi to desi?: Cohesion, integration, and social mobility amongst British-born Asians