White People Need to Learn How to Integrate
The discourse around integration in Britain is always about foreigners being "more like us". But in areas like Leyton and Notting Hill, it's middle-class whites who are failing to assimilate.
In 2015, shortly before he left office, David Cameron commissioned an independent review into integration and social cohesion in the UK. The resulting Casey report blamed Muslim communities for failing to integrate with British values. One of its solutions was "the introduction of an integration oath on arrival for immigrants intending to settle in Britain".
This is familiar rhetoric when it comes to the issue of "social integration" – a process, according to the dictionary, that's about bringing people or groups with particular characteristics or needs into equal participation with, or membership of, a social group. Yet, in Britain, it's only ever discussed as a one-way process: what can new immigrants do to be more British?
Whether it’s a Daily Mail front page with a "warning" about "UK Muslim Ghettos", further government reports which single out Pakistani women failing to integrate, or Theresa May’s claim that high immigration makes it "impossible to build a cohesive society", the message remains uniform: "they" need to be more like "us".
This message has been strengthened by the emergence of a "British values" narrative. First employed by Gordon Brown and since adopted by subsequent governments, it has been embraced perhaps most wholeheartedly by Theresa May, who says: for too long, the government has stood "neutral" between different sets of values rather than promoting "British" tenets such as "the rule of law, democracy, equality and free speech". Casey’s report also highlighted the importance of groups learning English and entering the workplace.
Yet these values are applied haphazardly. Theresa May isn’t focusing on getting Surrey’s large population of housewives into work; teaching the Bullingdon boys the importance of democratic principles; or Russian oligarchs how to speak English. Instead, these narratives around cohesion are focused on poor ethnic minority communities, normally with a particular focus on Muslims.
There is nothing wrong about wanting to uphold values like gender equality and democracy, and it makes sense to do so in these kind of terms. Britain is British, new immigrants coming here are not, so it’s understandable why assimilation is thought of as a case of foreigners being more like the natives. But that narrow understanding of integration ignores the values of minority communities, assumes political superiority and ignores ways in which white Britons are failing to integrate with BME communities that have been here for decades.
Let’s take Leyton as an example. Leyton is an area in London where 64 percent of the population is from a black, Asian or minority ethnic (BAME) background. It has been this way for decades. But in recent years, locals are experiencing an influx of new residents who are struggling to integrate with the local community: middle-class white people.
The newcomers are having a major impact in the existing communities, and not in a good way. Leyton has seen the highest house-price rises in Britain in recent years. Land Registry figures show a 4.3 percent rise – over five times the London average. The change has been noticeable on the high street, where 25 new shops have opened in the last four years. You might think all this change means regeneration and more business. But when I get to Leyton’s Francis Road, it’s a ghost town. The local hairdresser’s phone has been ringing out for days and I arrive to find a notice on the door saying it will be shut for a few more.
Major works to pedestrianise the road are going on. It’s been claimed that a desire to attract "a new clientele" was cited in a public consultation as a motivation for the project. After wheeling around a maze of barriers and cordoned off areas, I make it to one of the few open shops.
Anthony* – who asked for his name to be changed to protect his place of work – is suspicious of me when I first approach him. Despite having grown up in Leyton, mine is just another new face he doesn’t recognise in the area.
"It’s not Leyton any more," he says to his friend, kicking off an exchange between them about the changing demographic and how uncomfortable it makes them. They talk about the newcomers in a way that, if you swapped some of the words – "white" for "brown", "posh" for "foreign" – would sound quite UKIP.
But Anthony says that this is about far more than disliking new faces: "I don’t mind if there are more white, rich people in the area; the problem is that they’re so scared of me." He points to a police camera that’s been installed opposite the shop, adding: "There are police cars outside constantly now. It scares my customers. We’re not doing anything wrong."
Anthony is not the only person who talks to me about feeling suddenly alien in his community – another local informs me that she was dropped from her job in a newly-opened deli after being corrected on dropping her Ts.
The council's plan for a "mini-Holland" has been welcomed by many of the newcomers, who describe wanting a "Walthamstow market feel" in the area. But the move also looks to have a huge impact on the businesses and community already living there.
"It’s Friday morning. Normally I’d have ten customers by now," says Anthony. At present his customers, who normally pop in when heading to other places by car, are all having to pre-book appointments. On top of that, the need for parking permits increases the cost of his services by about 35 percent.
"I don’t mind if there are more white, rich people in the area – the problem is that they’re so scared of me."
While a pedestrianised street may well look more in fitting with the new coffee shops and delis on the high street, it poses the threat of older businesses being completely wiped out. Round the corner at Deeney’s, a new café on the high-street, owner Paddy Dwyre believes he is serving the local community. "We obviously opened the cafe because we saw a gap in the market. There’s been a huge change in the demographic… and they need to be catered for," he says.
He quickly picks up on the stereotypes of "yummy mummy" and "young yuppie", but reframes the discussion, saying: "Young people are increasingly becoming freelance and can’t afford a place to work. Pregnant mothers on maternity are often isolated."
I ask him how he accommodates all of Leyton’s demographics. "We’re trying to bring higher quality food and coffee. It costs more," he says. "Some people are opposed to it; there will be places that cater to them as well."
Dwyre acknowledges that the presence of a shop like his isn’t without its tensions: Caribbean women have come in to tell him that he’s not providing for their community, but he argues that he doesn’t want to take business away from existing shops either. "There are difficulties over maintaining a brand and trying to cater for every group," he says.
The conflict for a place like Deeney’s is also symbolic of a bigger battle. When new communities rub up against old, even with the best intentions, the path to cohesion isn’t obvious. Trying to inauthentically gel with the less affluent brown community as an incoming white, middle-class resident is no more of a good look than completely shunning them. If Deeney’s suddenly started selling Jamaican patties, for example, it would hardly help matters.
There is, however, a successful model for integration that is already in place: research suggests that ethnic minority groups are better at integrating with each other than they are with the white British majority.
Ethnic minority groups who were originally concentrated in specific areas have become more dispersed over time. Census data shows that while places like Bradford or Hackney, for example, have become less White British, they have significantly increased their numbers of Black British residents, Turkish residents, and people from White Other backgrounds – such as Eastern Europeans.
White Brits, on the other hand, have become marginally more segregated over that time. If ethnic minorities mix well with another, it seems fair to question whether it’s White British communities not integrating with them, rather than the other way around.
These phenomena are partly due to structural issues like class and wealth. As house prices in Britain have crept up, those living in estates across the UK have been singled out for "regeneration". In practice, this has meant a wide-scale forced dispersal of poorer, ethnically mixed communities from estates, who are "decanted" while their estate is regenerated, often promised they will get the chance to return, only to find that no affordable housing is available in their newly regenerated estate.
The result is that high-rise developments in mixed areas become home to an entirely different community. Tim White, who is researching high-density living for the LSE Cities project, describes the new demographic as "wealthier, quite transient yuppies who are there for convenience".
Many of these residential developments are concentrated in poorer areas. "They are popping up in quite a lot of deprived areas, like Newham and Barking," says White. "On an immediate, physical level, they discourage integration – these huge balconies overshadowing poorer communities."
Reports show how these developments explicitly market convenience to attract a young professional audience. White links this with more segregation: "Increasing hotel-like services within these buildings, such as concierges, gyms and bars, make people less reliant on the community around them."
While high-rise new-build living makes it easy not to leave the apartment, the people inside don't become part of their communities: "Many of these places are marketed on community living, but how much can you promote community if all the people living in that building are from the same demographic?" says White.
In the same places, private members' clubs are also popping up to cater to this demographic. The rebranding of these clubs – from sleazy, gentleman’s hangouts to creative haunts for hipsters – means trendy 20-somethings are drawn in by services like rooftop pools, workspaces, bars and super fast broadband. However, hanging out in these exclusive clubs in some of the UK's most diverse areas – like Brick Lane in east London and Notting Hill in west – new residents aren't obliged to mix with locals.
Kensington and Chelsea, home to the private members club Electric House, on Portobello Road, is the richest borough in the UK. The area is also host to one of the huge divides: between wealthy and poor, and black and white. In the 1950s, the borough's slums were home to many Caribbean immigrants, kept out of local pubs with infamous "no blacks, no dogs, no Irish" signs. Today’s private members' clubs, and pools and parks in private blocks, threaten a striking modern-day equivalent, but the divide is class rather than race.
"Expensive fees are a barrier to mixing. It’s definitely a different ethnic and class mix in there than on the high street," says Frankie Lambert, who has lived in Notting Hill for about ten years. He speaks of how the W11 postcode became coveted due to the vibrancy of its diverse community, but problems with integration arise when, as Lambert puts it, those who move in "don’t give a toss about the indigenous population".
That conflict materialises in the willingness of the local community to benefit from all of the "exotic" foods on the market, while campaigning against some of the prided cultural possessions of those cultures, like Notting Hill Carnival.
Allyson Vernon Williams MBE is a costume designer and a founding member of the Genesis Mas band. Her late husband, Vernon Williams, was one of the founders of the Notting Hill Carnival. Williams says: "This area became the playground for the rich and famous after the film Notting Hill. But they came here, saw the carnival, boarded up their homes and left whilst it was on."
On the question of integration, Williams says: "They need to do more to integrate. The white, middle-class community need to be educated on what Carnival is about. If they joined in, they would understand the long-standing West Indian community in this area a lot better, and the historic significance of Carnival."
Of course, the preservation of some cultural artefacts in Notting Hill are of concern to both sides of its divided population. Frankie Lambert says: "For something like the food market, residents do come together" – explaining that it’s something that benefits all residents. But beyond exotic food, white middle-class residents aren’t interested in community projects that affect the working class people of the area.
Jacob Rety led a campaign to prevent the local library from being turned into a private school. He is sympathetic to the fact that, naturally, people become involved when an issue affects them, but also sees how it can be problematic, stating: "When there was an issue with local tennis courts, some more affluent residents might turn up and campaign. That’s great, but if the issues don’t affect them any more and then they stop campaigning – that’s an issue."
Shopping around for issues like this might be instinctive, but it makes areas more like holiday resorts and less like communities; some opting in and out of the services that interest them, like tourists. But the same people who provide the exotic foods on the market or play the steel pan – who build up the rich cultural life that so many house prices in the area rest on – might rely on those services to live there. This was something that was shown in the horrific Grenfell Tower fire.
"The issues that divide different socioeconomic groups are things like housing," says Lambert. "Those in social housing have concerns around fire safety, or care about the costs of flats; whilst those who are wealthier are concerned about their house-prices dropping."
Whether it's that these communities choose to segregate themselves or that they do it by accident, what's clear is the damaging effect it can have on existing communities.
Integration is hard. From Leyton's Francis Road, an existing community almost completely wiped out in the bid to cater to a new, more affluent group; to Notting Hill's more entrenched, wealthier parts that don't participate equally in all parts of the community – these are not stories of evil immigrants, but of communities trying to learn to live side-by-side.
One thing that can't help that is the increasing drive to place a monetary value on certain communities, drawing them in at any cost. Companies capitalising on the subconscious drive within humans to be around people like them are increasingly encouraging people to syphon themselves off from community, taking all of its benefits and never having to be a part of it.
That means that our conversation about integration has to change, to protect society rather than the dominant group. Recognising how hard integration is for ethnic minority groups doesn’t mean denying the concept of society; it just means accepting that not all groups are asked to integrate equally.