Make Bradford British – fragmentation, fear and the hope of transformation

Channel 4 tonight shows the second part of a documentary on a social experiment in Bradford, one of the more highly segregated cities in the UK, bringing 8 very different local residents together in a shared house to ask what being British means.The first programme, still available on 4oD, made for uncomfortable viewing as prejudices, stereotypes and issues of privilege played out and the various housemates are confronted either with their own unconscious racism and stereotyping or the impact of being treated as the ‘Other’: “the Paki”, “the Black-bastard”, “the terrorist”.

Leaving aside criticisms of the quasi-reality TV format, the programme raises thought-provoking questions.

The programme highlights the contemporary state of our fragmentation. Barry Oshry has called this Connection Commonality Deficit (CCD), a social disease, characterised by over-individuation emphasising our separateness and independence, and over-differentiation where our difference predominates to the neglect of our commonality and connectedness.

The programme is an experiment in creating more integration. Whilst it was small scale and time-limited, the programme highlights a number of issues which are relevant to organisations as well as communities.

The Dominant group are blind to their own culture. The Dominants are those who have more privilege and who are members of a group that has easier access to the valued resources of the system. Their culture – their ways of seeing the world, their values, their norms – are invisible to them. It’s just the way things are and should be. Diversity usually refers to the difference, usually seen as the odd, often inferior or wrong values and behaviour of the ‘Others’. 

Privilege is like a drug. The more you have of it the less aware you are of how it affects others negatively. Privilege is in itself is not necessarily a problem but the lack of awareness of your privileged position and the impact it has on others causes much conflict. A male, white, middle class, retired detective recalled a time when he joked with a fellow detective whether to go “Paki-bashing”. He was oblivious to the anger this would trigger in the Asian housemates, not just their personal experience, but unconsciously how it triggers the collective inter-generational history of oppression.

Those in the Dominant and Other Group are both vulnerable. The Dominants are socially powerful but they are also psychologically vulnerable; they are frequently blind to their privilege and unable to understand others or see the cause of the anger or the conflict that they have generated.  The Dominants often lack insight into the nature of the conflict. The oppression of the Others is sometimes self-evident. In the programme tonight a young Muslim woman, who ventures to work in a pub in the spirit of integration, encounters harsh stereotypes and racial abuse. Often, the marginalisation of the Others is more subtle and seemingly rational, based on the ‘unacceptable’ behaviour of the Others. This may be no less invidious.  

Group identities – ‘Us and Them’ dynamics – form very quickly. Social psychology research indicates how in-group and out-groups form very rapidly and often out of very scant material. Research indicates we then tend to treat the in-group in more favourable ways: feelings of trust towards members of in-groups and distrust of those in the out-group, seeing members of the in-group as individuals and those in the out-group as homogenous. Tonight, a white working class man visits the mosque for the first time and says honestly to the Muslims he talks to: “I thought you were all terrorists.”  It is easy to condemn him as ignorant and the exception, but many of us also treat those in ‘out-groups’ as a homogenous whole.

So where’s the hope and the possibility of transformation?

Constructive confrontation of stereotypes and discriminatory behaviour can reduce prejudice. There was evidence that challenging the behaviour of the white detective by his housemates led to some examination of his own attitudes and behaviours. More generally, research indicates that creating a climate where we can challenge stereotypes reduces prejudice.

Empathy – stepping into the shoes of the other is possible.  Empathy isn’t a quality we either have or don’t have; it’s a practice we can cultivate. The programme points to the minimum conditions needed to generate more respectful relationships including:

  • Common goals or a shared purpose (in this case creating more integration in Bradford).
  • Conditions which foster a quality of personal contact and relationship. The process of honest conversations, where others are able to listen without feeling annihilated, can dissolve fears, stereotypes and projections.
  • Willingness to cooperate and compromise.
  • Support of institutions and authority (given the controversy raised by the programme it is unclear whether Channel 4 had mobilised community and institutional support for the idea).

Everyone has unconscious biases and stereotypes but we don’t have to keep them or act on them. As human beings we are quick to categorise others and make inferences based on whatever data is available. But our stories about the Others are often inaccurate. The programme provided first-hand, positive experiences of the Others; experience which contradicted popular stereotypes. Participants edged towards, as the days unfolded and conflicts were worked through, a commonality of human experience, needs and aspirations that provided some common ground.

The programme demonstrated in embryonic form some of the key capacities that sustain an abundant and integrated community:  sharing food, offering and giving hospitality, compassion and challenge, generosity, cooperation, human fallibility and forgiveness.

Peter Block, in an interview  I conducted with him last year, said our central challenge is to transform the isolation and self-interest within our communities into connectedness and caring for the whole – creating an experience of belonging. This is the challenge everywhere, not just Bradford.

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