Becoming British Sikhs: The Politics of Identity and Difference in Post-Colonial England

Hall, Kathleen Denise

     This study is about working class British Sikhs becoming middle class British citizens. It is the story of how forms of social inequality are reproduced as well as transformed in social practice. I portray the way in which British Sikh teenagers negotiate a central paradox of modernity, the contradiction between the liberal ideology of meritocracy and the collective boundaries of race, nationality, and class.
     The study investigates two fundamental problems. First, what kinds of collective and self-identities are British Sikhs creating as the first generation of 'black' British citizens to grow up on British soil? And second, how are members of the 'white' majority coming to terms with being part of post-colonial multiracial, culturally-plural Britain?. . . . This study documents the experiences of a diaspora in post-colonial Europe. It focuses on a number of interrelated issues about the nature of identities, of inequalities, and of cultural production and transmission from the perspective of a transnational community residing in a localized context." The study gives "an account of the experiences of British Sikh teenagers in Leeds who are attempting to achieve social mobility in the face of relations of reciprocal cultural exclusion. It is about the way in which members of a diaspora struggle to cross both vertical and horizontal borderlands in their everyday lives, the way in which cultural reproduction and transformation occur through these struggles."
     I began at a single high school, with a group of British Sikh teenagers, and directed my research efforts to learning as much as I could about the cultural influences, the sites of cultural transmission and production, and the people and places that were part of their lives. The majority of my time was spent at Grange Hill High, a site I selected because it was situated in a middle class neighborhood and its student body was mixed by race, ethnicity, and class. My data is drawn from these observations and from the interviews I carried out . . . with teachers, parents, community leaders, and students."
     The study starts "with a historical sketch of the colonial encounters between the British and the Sikhs in India, East Africa, and during the early period of Asian immigration to Britain. . . I [then] concentrate on the role of British law and public discourse in the production and representations of social difference marked in race, class, nationality, and gender" and examine "the legal construction of national/racial/gendered identities in nationality and immigration laws, in Race Relations Acts, and in anti-discrimination cases; and a critical analysis of the rhetoric of incorporation in educational proposals and debates concerning anti-racist, multicultural, and equality of opportunity policies. The ethnographic chapters are presented" next. "The first focuses on the dominant social order at school. . . I show how the contradiction between the ideology of merit and individual achievement and the collectivizing assumptions of white middle class cultural racism are worked out in practices within the school" and provide "an analysis of the processes which make 'Sikh' culture in the global ecumene. I consider the images, connections, and commodities that are emerging as sources of identification for young British Sikhs, most notably, the Khalistan nationalist movement in Punjab and the creation of bhangra, a hybrid form of Punjabi music. . . . I describe the Sikh status communities within the first generation and then turn to the experiences of second generation British Sikhs. . . . British Sikhs understand that, as one young woman stated, 'there's a time to act English and a time to act Indian.' They interpret the cultural conflicts between choosing to be what they consider 'Indian'/'traditional' or 'English'/'modern' as a matter of time and of space: their sense of their own identity choices are situationally defined in the cultural fields making up the cultural landscapes of their daily lives. I conclude by applying Gramsci's theory of contradictory consciousness to elucidate the way in which individuals negotiate the conflicts and ambiguities they face. I end with biographical sketches of the self-identities British Sikhs are creating for themselves as they fashion their present and their future lives.