Sunday, 1 February 2009

Year of the Invisible Ox

The third largest minority ethnic group in Britain have just started celebrating the Chinese New Year. It’s the Year of the Ox, an animal that embodies many of the characteristics often ascribed to the Chinese: quiet, hard-working, high on productivity and low on maintenance. You can let them get on with laboring to get things done, and you don’t really need to pay too much attention to them.

Not surprisingly, in the struggle between the white establishment and the champions for the ‘black’ minorities, the Chinese have been cloaked with invisibility. It is notable that in professional or entrepreneurial roles where a practitioner’s skills and commitment are directly rewarded by appreciative clients or customers, many Chinese have achieved success for themselves. But where progress depends on getting through a large organisational hierarchy, few make it up the corporate ladder. Culturally disinclined to blow their own trumpet, they seldom if ever question being overlooked.

On the other side of the fence, ‘Black & Minority Ethnic’ consciousness hardly stretches to the Chinese either. Black (covering African and Afro-Caribbean) and Asian (covering those from the Indian sub-continent) groups are the ones to be given more support. Though the Chinese are the ones with the lowest participation rate in civic engagement and voting – and let’s not forget, there is not a single MP of Chinese descent in the House of Commons – little is done to rectify that anomaly. Indeed one highly influential advocate of BME rights had been quoted as saying that more must be done to increase the representation of Black and Asian – not Chinese or any other group – in public life.

There are two possible lessons here. One is that the Chinese should learn to adapt. They must stop cultivating in their children outmoded deferential attitudes, and all the meek and mild nonsense of getting on with their responsibilities quietly. Instead, they should teach them to be far more assertive, make their presence felt, sell themselves to those in senior positions to get on.

The other lesson is for the champions of equality and diversity to open their eyes and see what needs to be done to counter the neglect of Chinese people. No, they are not all successful business leaders. Many live in poverty. A large number have to put up with dreadful working conditions. They suffer the slings of prejudice and arrows of discrimination, but their ill fortune is seldom if ever covered by the media. Many have no prospect of career progression because their cultural diffidence is interpreted as signs of limited abilities. They have no political role model, because Parliament has no place for a single one of them.

So what is going to be the way forward? As we know, on Animal Farm, not all animals are equal. Between pigs and human, black and white, the ox will have to speak out before others take it seriously.

Happy New Year.

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