Interview with Linda Ali
Interview conducted by IPUP Research Associate Lucy Sackville, 22/12/2008
Linda Ali, researcher, York Diocesan member of the General Synod, and lay canon of York Minster for Riccall, speaks about faith and identity in Britain today, and about attitudes to young people and their opportunities.
Faith... When I first came to England, faith had been central to who I am; from the time I grew up in Trinidad, it played a huge part. Going to Sunday School, taking Sunday School exams, taking first communion, going to church with the family and so on. So the first thing I would have done when I came to England was to look for a church. And sad to say that church wasn't the very supportive thing that I had expected it to be in Britain, because I think the Church of England in particular seemed uncomfortable with the 'other'. And looking back, because I know a little bit more about the structure of the church, I felt that the congregation and the people who were elders in the church such as the church wardens and so on, seemed extremely uncomfortable with dark-skinned people coming into their churches, even the vicars. And so they almost... well, certainly they didn't shake your hand, they always put you to sit at the back of the church, and in some cases, some of my colleagues were told by the vicars ‘please do not come back here again, because the congregation doesn't like it’.
I mean, that was such a shock, that kind of behaviour, to us, who looked at church as the last resort of security after all else was failing us. We couldn't get jobs in our chosen careers, simply because of discrimination; we didn't expect to find it in the church. However, we looked elsewhere, and found that the Methodists were far more welcoming, and we didn't feel like the 'other' there. So I'd have to say that the Church of England created for itself a disaster by behaving like that in the forties and the fifties, and the sixties. As a result, today we find that the very people who were excluded have created for themselves a religious space that is growing faster and far bigger than the Church of England. We call them the black-majority churches, or some people call it by other names. I'm told that there are two and three thousand within those congregations. We are struggling in the Church of England - apart from the major cathedrals - to keep our congregations most of whom are elderly.
So the space, the religious space has changed, not so much in these rural areas, but in the major urban centres. As far as the rural areas are concerned, I have noticed the change when I've gone around speaking, during the bicentenary of the slave trade last year (2007), in a number of locations - in some very small villages and so on, I've always been very welcome. In some areas in small rural villages there are no mixed race people, or black-skinned people if you want to say that. So, I can't fault people if they still see people like me as something different, and strange, they never probably have come across it or spoken to a black person.
We cannot expect people just to change, and I'd hate England to change that much that it becomes unrecognisable from the England that I expected to come and find here. I certainly didn't expect the prejudice, but I expected a lot of the lovely kind of pubs, teas and castles but mostly the courtesies of the English (not always visible today!) - and I'm saying the English because that's who educated me in Trinidad - and I'd hate all that to be taken over by the diversity of cultures that now live here. I know we have to accommodate diversity, but to change England out of recognition; I would not like to see that. There are things that maybe we would want to change, or we would like them and us to change, but on the whole... I'm saying so, because when I go back to Trinidad, I like to know that there are some things that are really Trinidadian, and I can click back into immediately. The same must apply to England/Britain.
On religious diversity
As far as accommodating the other religions that are within the population today, yes, I think we should make provisions for them, because when I first came to England you didn't hear anything about other faiths. I mean, 82 per cent of this population proclaimed to be Christian; I know that less than 15 per cent are regular church attenders. However I think by the next census, we will see that that 82 per cent will have changed, so I know we are becoming even more multifaith but what I do not believe we should do is dilute Christianity while busy accommodating others because we will only create animosity in our society. I think if we continue pushing aside Christian people's festivals we will end up with a very bitter population, and I think that serves nobody
I could just draw a little example, again to Trinidad, I keep raising Trinidad, but then I was born there, and I love my island! And I love the diversity within that island. It's only got 1.3 million people, but it has a majority of people of African and Asian descent, 4 per cent or so of others, being white Europeans, North Americans and Lebanese, most of the population is of mixed heritage. However, in Trinidad, they seem to have got it right, everybody's festivals and feast days are celebrated, from the African Orisha and Shango religions, to Diwali for the Hindus, Eid for the Muslims, the Jewish new year, and of course, all the Christian festivals, and believe it or not everybody who would like to join in participates in these festivals. I know it will take time for England to feel that comfortable with the differences, but I see it could happen.
On faith in the media
Faith in the media has focused on the radical thinkers, and most newspapers seem to highlight Islamic extremists, or ridicule Christians in one way or another. I think the media, written and the radio and television, have to become a little bit more sensible in the way that they project the faiths of the people. And sure there are bad sides, but the majority of Christians, Muslims, Hindus, live their faith, and they do good things. One survey said that the majority of people doing voluntary work across this country come out of our church congregations. People have good hearts on the whole, they want to help those less fortunate. And I feel that the press have been cruel to them, calling people do-gooders, and putting them down. The Government also rely very heavily on the voluntary sector and these small groups/organisations receive very little funding but rely on church-goers to provide for the excellent work they do to help improve lives through education, health and general social welfare; the press must be more responsible by promoting the ‘faiths’ in a better light.
On identity, Britishness, and belonging
There are so many mixtures amongst peoples, mixtures of ethnicity and faiths and cultures, we cannot cater in a policy for all of them, it's difficult, I think what we have to do is nurture a society that is just, and accepts equality of opportunities, and within that, we will embrace all these diversities.
When we keep putting sections of people in boxes, I find that is the problem; I don't want anybody to put me in a box. That's why I find filling out forms very difficult, what do I fill-in? For example forms with “Afro-Caribbean” as a heading, well, I'm not Afro-, but I'm Caribbean, and I'm very proud of that.
This whole concept of Britishness, that's the difficulty, having introduced this term Britishness to embrace everything. We have multiple identities. Scottish people are happy to say 'I am Scottish', so are the Welsh and the Irish. Why is it not the same for English people to be proud of their heritage as English? Sure there have been not so great things in their history, but for goodness' sake, most countries have not so good things about their past? There are great things about the English past, and about claiming to be English. So what's wrong with having, English, British English, British Scottish and so on? We must become comfortable with who we are. I am very comfortable with being Trinidadian of Indian-Chinese heritage, British citizen, coming from a Muslim background, but always a Christian, living in Britain, educated totally by English people, gosh, how multiple could that be – hence I do not like being put in a ‘box’?
I think as far as Britain is concerned, Britain is made up of a number of units, and those units have to be comfortable in themselves in order then to accommodate the others who've come to live here, because that is where the confusion is. I might be wrong, but I feel that's the core problem.
The majority population isn't very clear about who they are, and it's created identity crises for the others who have come to live here, and have children, and don't quite know where they fit in, who they are. They've never been back, perhaps to their parental, mother countries, and yet they don't feel they're fully part of England or Britain. And that's created the crisis in our schools, I would like to say, get the English to become comfortable with being English. That’s the problem to be addressed!
I think, in groups like the one we're trying to set up here at the University, it shouldn't only be Caribbean people, African people, Asian people, or mixed-race people, I think we should include a good selection of English people, particularly in order to work this through, because I don't see it ever being resolved until the English, in particular, feel that they have had a say. I would hate, as a Trinidadian, somebody or group decides who a Trinidadian should be, or what I should feel like to be a Trinidadian. I think that it is only right and proper for the English to be included in any conversation we have on identity, because then we're failing, and we're adding to this bitterness in our society. We have to look back and see how often we've done things without including the people concerned.
On education and opportunity
I read in the Telegraph recently, 'gangs and street terror are now part of the fabric of the national life'; whether we like it or not, it seems a reality. Why? Because in gangs children feel they belong, that's their way of belonging. In previous times people enjoyed joining groups, societies to sing, to cook, to walk etc together. We haven't created an environment of belonging, and that has been a real problem. And whether it is for the working classes, or for Black, Asian, or other minorities, it is this inequality of opportunity that's created the aggression, the anger, not giving over enough time, enough resources, funding – whatever is needed - to securing the young people, and giving them this sense of I can do it, I can aspire to become something more than a footballer or a celebrity. Even if they do not have a goal to begin with, they should be helped to develop interests in order to understand what it means to achieve, and to fulfil their personal goals.
Children have creative minds; in the right environment they will learn at an early age, expand their minds. If we don't do it, then we create for ourselves this rod. How much money is being spent in these last years to try and redress teenage problems, binge drinking, drug abuse, knife crime? The money should have been spent before hand in providing suitable after-school activities. Children are telling us all the time, there's nowhere to play, nowhere to go develop their interests, no recreational centres. Children are energetic little people they need to be productively occupied. By colouring their hair, piercing their bodies etc are ways of wanting to be noticed. Young people are jolly creative, you know, and we haven't homed in on that at all. It's been stifled.
You know as a religious person, I believe that God has given us all talents, and so many of us have had our talents suppressed, and depressed, that when the time comes and you say, well, you really should get a job you’ve been so wounded, that you say stuff it, I don't want to even think about talents and skills any more, because you've been so hurt. That is a difficult thing to try and recapture. What you need to do is to have the opportunities available when the flower is blossoming. Education is a beginning; we can't expect schools to do everything. Parents and Society, through proper Government funding, has to also set up schemes and projects. It really is true, young people have ambition, and the desire to do things, whatever the thing is, and if we don't try and capture it when they have that great energy, you've lost.
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