Behind most of the upsurge in contemporary racism, I believe, lies that age-old disease of the human condition: envy.
When I consider nearly every second- and third-generation migrant-descendent I know, I see astounding success. Despite the humblest of upbringings — often living in poverty, experiencing poor educational opportunities and suffering rampant discrimination — so many I know have smashed through glass ceilings to stand at the height of their profession.
A friend of mine, raised in a humble council house in north London, who attended one of the worst performing schools in England in the 1990s, is now Head International Partner of the foremost firm of solicitors of the City of London… and yet he is no aberration. I cannot think of one I once knew at college or university who has not gone on to achieve great success in some capacity.
At the weekend I came across a tribunal judge I believe attended the same college as me in the 1990s. I could be mistaken, of course, for in the twenty-eight years that have passed since then, I’ve forgotten what they looked like, though for some reason I never forgot their name. I can’t remember why we had a conversation then — I believe it was our first and only one — but I clearly recall us discussing our aspirations. What struck me then was that she already had a passion for law and clear goals.
By contrast, I had zero self-esteem and didn’t even apply for university at the time, because I wrongly believed I was destined to flunk my A-Levels. My parents, consumed by grief, may have been distracted from what I was getting up to then — my maternal grandfather passed away during my GCSEs and my paternal grandfather passed away during my A-Levels — and were probably surprised to find out that I had not made an application. On the other hand, I had been going off the rails for years and I imagine they were well aware of my disastrous life at college from the principal, who was a family friend. Perhaps they made allowances for that.
But to see our different trajectories and where we have each ended up in life is astounding. None of my fellow students knew just what a privileged background I had, for I hid it well, dressing like a bum and walking six miles home from college. None knew that I lived in a big house in the suburbs, that my dad drove a luxury saloon, that I had come onto college from private school, that my father was a successful solicitor and my mother had just been ordained parish priest.
In those days I was ashamed and embarrassed by our wealth and privilege, and my dreams then were limited to working as a graphic designer, or living a subsistence lifestyle as a farmer. I had no big aspirations or bold dreams. In truth, I was just trying to make it through the day. While everyone around me was planting seeds for a great future, I seemed to be running in the opposite direction. Back then I had no idea that all those around me were laying firm foundations for all that was to come.
I see that now. I see all that friends and old acquaintances — many from the most deprived backgrounds — have achieved over the past twenty-five years. Professionals, all of them, mentoring the next generation. Their own children have passed through private school and university, graduating into professional careers to start the cycle all over again. Perhaps their youngest son will go off the rails like I did, aspiring to something more esoteric, only to realise in his mid-forties that there was something in his parents’ pursuit of comfort and security.
Funnily enough, the friends who introduced my wife and I twenty-one years ago, have always taken on that role of the stereotypical pushy Asian parents in our lives. For the first five years of my marriage, despairing at the state of my career, they would regularly sit me down for a stern talking to, petitioning me to get a grip. Now they dispatch heartfelt advice, advising us to set long-term goals for our children and invest in one-to-one tuition, to ensure they have a life of ease at the top of their field.
I suppose I have become their orphaned albino wayward son — a sort of pseudo-immigrant through the strange decisions I made aged twenty-one — while my wife as a first-generation immigrant, here without family, has to be offered a protective helping hand. So it is that we have now taken up the role of overly-protective pushy parents, telling our children they must aspire for the very best in life, my own state offered as a cautionary tale as to what becomes of those without realistic dreams.
And as for the left-behind — those without the great dreams, the longterm goals, the lofty aspirations — for them there is only that biting envy. To begrudge those who gave their all, to make sacrifices beyond themselves, who studied hard, laying down firm foundations. For those who see the great success of those they believe should sit beneath them, there is just ego, misplaced pride, jealousy and envy. After all that an individual has achieved, they can still be put back in their box with a racial slur.