Race Matters

Cooking up change

Sondhya Gupta hopes the Great British Bake Off winner Nadiya Hussain will help change perceptions about Muslims

By now even if you don’t have a television, or don’t watch the Great British Bake Off, you can’t have missed the news that this year it was won by hijab-wearing Nadiya Hussain.

Reactions to the fact that a British Muslim of Bangladeshi heritage won a quintessentially British baking competition have ranged from ‘it’s a triumph of the BCC’s political correctness’ from certain tabloids; through ‘why is that so amazing’ from the colour-blind; to the delighted amazement that a non-white person was allowed to be celebrated in this way from people of colour.

In contrast to the Daily Mail, people of colour are surprised that she won despite her ethnicity not because of it. For us, we saw a remarkably level playing field – an unfamiliar experience.

Sondhya Gupta
Sondhya Gupt
For we are all too aware of the lack of diversity in the film and TV industry, know that journalism is overwhelmingly white, live with the disproportionality in the criminal justice system, feel racial discrimination when applying for jobs, and experience daily micro-aggressions.

When colour-blind white liberals wonder why people are surprised at Nadiya’s win then are, in part, denying this lived experience of people of colour. They are also ignoring the ways in which they benefit from, and their role in upholding, white supremacy.

That so many people have been surprised that Nadiya has charmed the nation illustrates the danger of the single story, mixed with a hefty dose of the Islamophobia that has blighted our media landscape in recent years. People are surprised that a ‘Muslim in a headscarf' can be likeable, that they can see themselves in her. That she's not alien and dangerous after all.

So used are we to seeing Muslim women depicted only as either passive, oppressed victims or the begetters and enablers of terrorists that they have become one dimensional objects - the other. And here is Nadiya, a three-dimensional relatable, familiar subject. Not ‘the other’ that so many people who fell in love with would have dismissed her as if they’d seen her on the street.

The GBBO final came a day after Theresa May announced in a speech that immigration makes a ‘cohesive society’ impossible. In parallel to declaring the importance of reducing the numbers of immigrants, politicians tell us about the importance of their integration and assimilation.

Under the banner of preventing (Muslim) radicalisation, we are seeing the promotion of  ‘British values’ now required from the preschool years, and poorly considered questionnaires circulated to primary school pupils.

There are many problems about this position. At its root is the misconception is that ‘British Values’ developed in isolation, without influence from any other nation or culture. They are therefore completely opposed to, and incompatible with, any other culture. As such migrants are required to give up all aspects of their heritage in order to become ‘safely British’.

That ‘British Values’ are a pure truth, uncontaminated from any other influence is clearly nonsense. Even a cursory evaluation of those things childminders are supposed to promote to 3 year olds – fish and chips (Jewish), the music of Freddie Mercury (born Farrokh Bulsara in Tanzania to Gujarati Parsi parents) – reveals that.

In reality, integration and cohesion is about exchange and adoption, which happens without the need for government guidelines and enriches our lives. Like Nadiya’s rose and pistachio cream horns.

This culinary cultural exchange has been going on for centuries. But so out of touch are our politicians that they fail to see how this sort of assimilation, cohesion and integration continues around kitchen tables up and down the country all the time.

The flavours I remember growing up were dhoi, keema & chapatti (that my British mother learnt to make from her sisters-in-law, as much as fish and chips from the local chippie and my maternal grandmother’s lemon tart.

All of these dishes and more have enriched my culinary palette, sit beside each other on my kitchen table and are shared with my friends and neighbours. As human beings we’ve been breaking bread with each other and sharing our common humanity for decades. What Nadiya did was to share it on television, with the nation.

Hopefully we will see many more Nadiya’s on our screens in future. Hopefully people of colour will be writ large in our cultural life and our many stories will be told. Hopefully it won’t even occur to Nadiya’s children that they might be ‘dismissed as Muslims’.
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