My mother and grandmother arrived in the UK having fled persecution in newly independent Kenya, where our family had been sent along with millions of other Indians under the British Empire. They had nothing. My mum tells me stories of her childhood: the fear she felt watching National Front marches pass her house, the tears and uncertainty when my grandmother had run out of money, the hurt from being called “Wog” or “Paki” in the street or at school. A generation later, I sit in my North London suburban house writing this article, having just finished my first year at Cambridge.

As the story goes, the upward social mobility of British Indians such as my family is a perfect example of ‘bootstrapping.’ This is the idea that marginalised groups can become more prosperous on the basis of individual merit and hard work, subsequently reducing racial disparities. The problem with using British Indians to illustrate this concept is that, although we do work hard and we have eventually become one of the highest-earning groups in the country, racist hierarchies are embedded and reproduced in our achievements through the legacies of colonialism and the caste system. While we absolutely should celebrate how far we have come as a community, it is important for British Indians and other so-called ‘model minority’ groups to avoid idealising our own success.

"While we absolutely should celebrate how far we have come as a community, it is important for British Indians and other so-called ‘model minority’ groups to avoid idealising our own success."

A significant proportion of the Indian community in the UK consists of Indians whose families had settled in East Africa. The mass exodus of Indians from Africa was due to the increased discrimination and persecution they faced in these countries. In Kenya, several laws were passed in the 1960s to make it more difficult for Indians to be hired and to do business, while in Uganda, all Indian-owned businesses were expropriated in 1972 and Indians were given one month to leave the country.

However, African Indians have a longer history of contributing to the marginalisation of black Africans under the British Empire. My family used to live in Nairobi, the economic hub of Kenya, where many Indians (often Gujaratis and Punjabis, now two of the largest British Indian subgroups) were called in to help with the administration of the East African Protectorate. Living in Nairobi gave these groups a great deal of economic advantage over black Africans, who were forbidden to settle there. Together with Europeans, they monopolised East African industry, held powerful positions in the police force and army, and staunchly opposed any suggestion of black representation on the Legislative Council.

This background means that the story of many British Indians is not a typical tale of persecution and refuge. Indians occupied relatively powerful positions as business owners and government officials, and although they had been stripped of their status by the new governments, they had every intention of regaining it when they settled in Britain. Their social mobility involved regaining lost ground, rather than elevating themselves to a new, better position in the hierarchy.

This suggests that the experience of my family and others is not directly comparable to other ethnic group which faced more overwhelming political oppression and economic misery. It also reveals an uncomfortable truth: to some extent, Indians were complicit in the colonial subjugation of Black Africans. This does not negate the suffering experienced by Indians under the Empire, but a closer examination has helped me to increase my awareness of the historical context of race relations in my community.

There is also a harmful obsession with fair skin in Indian culture which needs to be addressed. I grew up watching two Bollywood songs every night before bedtime. For an enormous country, whose inhabitants have a hugely diverse range of skin colours and features, India’s film industry propagates an incredibly homogenous standard of beauty. Pale, hairless female bodies dominate depictions of feminine beauty in the entertainment industry, and these standards have spawned legions of successful companies selling skin-whitening creams and performing cosmetic surgeries.

The association between fairness with beauty and status is stitched into India’s social fabric; the caste system is as relevant a division as ever, with caste-based violence on the rise, and lower castes tending to be dark-skinned. Even as a relatively light-skinned Indian child, this standard found its way into my mind, and I remember wishing I were fairer. Although these ideals existed in pre-colonial times, the growth of skin-lightening and hair removal procedures since India’s economic opening to the West in the 1990s suggests that, to an extent, they represent a notion that emulates western, white standards as a path towards prosperity.


Mountain View

What they don't tell you about racism

My family and others followed this path. I study European languages at degree level but cannot hold a conversation in my heritage language. My grandma was reluctant to speak to my mum in Gujarati at home, fearing that rupturing the English-immersion environment would dent her chances of success. It is hard to consider British Indian social mobility as a ‘model’ example given that it involved abandoning significant portions of our culture and associating success with whiteness.

I am proud of what British Indians have achieved in only two or three generations, and grateful that previous generations’ hard work has given me the opportunities I have. But our progress was not perfect. Before branding British Indians as a shining example of a ‘model minority’, it is crucial to look at the history and complexities of race relations in our community in a nuanced way.