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What does Channel 4's Defiance documentary tell us about DEI?

Updated: 4 days ago

Much of April was spent watching Defiance, a three part Channel 4 documentary exploring racial tensions across the UK in the late 70s and early '80s. Southall, the west London town where I grew up, featured heavily. Although I had heard stories and read articles, the reality of Southall’s past was brought to life–and I was hooked. 


Southall today is well-connected to central London, being on the Elizabeth Line. The sign for Southall train station is written with a Punjabi translation underneath, paying tribute to the local community. People visit Southall to eat authentic South Asian food, buy jewellery, and bargain for textiles. But little thought is given to how this town became the vibrant cultural hub it is today–or to the people who fought for the survival of the local community and its culture.


The changing landscape of Britain in the 1960s and 1970s; We’re here because you were there


After the Second World War, thousands of semi-skilled and unskilled men from South Asia immigrated to the UK, some of whom had already fought for Britain in the war. Britain would often tap into labour from Commonwealth nations. According to a study by Ram (1987), one of the main reasons for Indian immigration to the UK was due to “economic attraction” and an improvement in levels of “status” for individual families. Great Britain encouraged migrants into the country to plug the gaps in labour and skills shortages. Intentional campaigns were run to lure people from South Asia over to the UK in search of a better life–including my grandad, later joined by their families. Like many in his generation, my grandad immersed himself in manual roles working in a bakery and carpentry until he had the idea of offering traditional Punjabi food to the community, opening one of the first Indian restaurants in Southall. According to my family, living in Southall was generally harmonious and with different ethnic groups, it was outside influences that started causing issues. 


By the 1970s, racial tensions were rife across the UK, with right-wing groups such as the National Front explicit about anti-immigrant ideology. Racism was overt, exacerbated by the media, and resulted in acts of violence against Black and Brown people. Britain had been naive in thinking that integration would happen easily, or had perhaps expected migrant communities to conform to British ideals and way of life.


A turning point for Southall was the murder of Gurdip Singh Chaggar, an 18-year-old Sikh student who was brutally stabbed to death on Southall High Street by white youths. This took place yards from my grandad’s restaurant, it was close to home. Chaggar’s death ignited action: the community was not going to tolerate racism or its lethal consequences. 


Challenging systems and structures 


There are some ironic parallels between how racism is covered in the documentary and the culture wars we are facing today.


The role of the media and institutions 


The documentary shows many news clips and newspaper cuttings of how immigrant communities were talked about. These communities were “othered”: there was resentment towards them having their “own food” and opening “their own businesses”, wearing their “own clothing”, and not fitting in with held ideas of being British. Perhaps there was resentment against the sense of empowerment immigrant communities had through holding onto their cultures, although this was not without challenges. We often forget that racism is not just about commenting on the colour of people’s skin, but also degrading the values and norms of communities. 


Furthermore, the manner in which violent incidents such as Gurdip Singh Chaggar’s murder were reported downplayed the role of racism and dehumanised immigrants, indirectly allowing right-wing views to dominate rhetoric. In 1968 senior Tory politician Enoch Powell made the famous Rivers of Blood speech where he strongly criticised immigration from Commonwealth nations. This week, our former prime minister Liz Truss has come out to say that Powell “had a point” when it came to migration, with immigration being one of the most important and divisive issues in the UK and set to influence forthcoming elections. 


The institutions that are set up to protect all citizens such as the government and the police failed to do so. For example, the National Front was allowed to hold meetings and concerts in high-population immigrant areas without any opposition from authority figures. Margaret Thatcher shared narratives around immigration needing to be “controlled,” a very familiar rhetoric we are used to seeing in modern-day Great Britain (Theresa May, Suella Braverman and Priti Patel, for example). Communities took matters into their own hands to survive. 


The police’s role in escalating violence and the abuse of power is palpable in the documentary, particularly the death of Blair Peach who was hit over the head by special forces while exiting a protest in Southall. Later, he died in hospital. No one has been charged with the death of Blair Peach as yet, this week being 45 years since the incident took place. 


The need for defiance and anti-racism still stands today


Recently, DEI initiatives have been given a bad name — with claims that DEI should in fact DIE. We are seeing the media and senior politicians dismissing ideas of employee networks and even the existence of institutionalised racism, which is being exacerbated as we see DEI roles decline within corporate businesses. However, organised networks had a huge role in challenging the status quo in immigrant towns. Organisations such as the Southall Youth Movement protested against the National Front, failing to be intimidated by the right wing. They made it their sole purpose to keep their community safe when institutions failed them. Alliances formed with similar youth groups across the country, where they shared ideas, resources, and support. 


Whilst in-person racism may be more covert these days with fleeting comments and microaggressions, the rise of social media hate proves that these ideologies still exist and need to be challenged. Research into workplace experiences shows that those from marginalised backgrounds are still uncomfortable talking about their identities at work. Therefore, the solidarity of purpose-built networks and the support of allies is still needed.


Like many South Asians in the UK, my family's journey here started with immigrant towns such as Southall, through community, networks, and support we have been able to build careers and stable lives for ourselves. They survived so we could thrive. Although I no longer live in Southall, I am proud of the values it represents, the safety it has created for immigrant populations and how it has embraced the tradition and nuance of South Asian culture. I continue to celebrate it and share it with others. 

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