Please stop treating me as the mouthpiece of my community

'It's a question of identity. Few of us have a single, all-defining identity you can use for all seasons'
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Imagine this scene. In the next election, a black woman gets selected to fight for a seat somewhere in middle England. She goes to the constituency and asks to meet the leader of the ethnic English community. Who would she be taken to? The editor of the local newspaper? The vicar? The mayor? The chairwoman of the WI? And would any of them, or even all of them, "represent" the English people in that area? Of course not. Yet, "take me to your leader" is what white politicians and others demand whenever they alight upon an area where there are substantial numbers of black and Asian people. If ever we needed proof that we are still regarded as aliens, it is this fact.

Imagine this scene. In the next election, a black woman gets selected to fight for a seat somewhere in middle England. She goes to the constituency and asks to meet the leader of the ethnic English community. Who would she be taken to? The editor of the local newspaper? The vicar? The mayor? The chairwoman of the WI? And would any of them, or even all of them, "represent" the English people in that area? Of course not. Yet, "take me to your leader" is what white politicians and others demand whenever they alight upon an area where there are substantial numbers of black and Asian people. If ever we needed proof that we are still regarded as aliens, it is this fact.

Not surprisingly this demand for "community leaders" produces a rush of individuals who are only too ready to stick out their chests and claim that they speak for Muslims, black Britons, Hindus, Asians, whatever. They run their own little groups to keep people in order; they produce poisonous "community" newspapers and when talking to ministers and others with power, they constantly raise the spectre of "extremists" and civil disturbance, the implication being that without them all hell could break loose and who wants that on this quiet little island?

Powerful white institutions and individuals have actively helped to foster these invidious zealots. These are the people who you then see elevated into the Lords (where some seriously believe that this makes them into representatives), sitting on Government advisory groups, and as the election comes closer, playing an ever more active role as middle men (and they are all men, although some have dragged their wives in) between political parties and various groups who never voted them to these positions.

Increasingly, key voluntary organisations are finding it hard to access funds because they refuse to be confined within the ideological pens built for them by community helmsmen. The Home Office, for example, has just awarded grants to various "ethnic" and equality groups. The Muslim Women's Helpline, which does extraordinary work enabling Muslim women to deal with domestic violence, got no money at all. The reason? I suspect that it is because too many influential "community leaders" find the helpline troublesome.

I despise these so-called leading lights. They corrupt the meaning of democracy and abhor individualism and independent thought. They stamp mercilessly on people - especially women - who do think of themselves as autonomous human beings. A moving monologue by the talented Nina Wadia, which is on tonight on ITV, demonstrates how much we have to struggle against these invasions into our lives and hearts. We may feel bonds with the various communities, which I clearly do, but will not be bound by the tyranny of community politics.

These have been my views for 15 years, yet this week, prompted by some of those I have described above, an Irish journalist wrote a vicious attack on me for claiming to represent people who have never chosen me to do this on their behalf. I suppose she was speaking for all Irish people when she wrote it. I am a writer and a broadcaster, not a mouthpiece, not an envoy, not an agent, not an archetype, not an ambassador. What I do is no different from what, say, Polly Toynbee or David Aaronovitch does. We all write and speak on issues in ways that are conditioned by our backgrounds. But they are white and I am not, and this is what makes the difference.

One of the most pernicious effects of living in a racially unequal and divided society is that both sides conspire to rob you of your individuality.It is only in the last two years - 14 years after I started in the business - that I have been permitted by some imaginative white editors to express views, however controversial, about all those issues I am interested in, including politics, sex, food, children as well as race, class religion and ethnicity.

This is obviously too shocking for some to take. People like me are not allowed to have to distinct ideas. Everything we are has to fit into simple labelled categories; all that we say is believed to be representative and all that is expected are platitudes from a brain washed of the capacity to dissent.

Many of Toni Morrison's early novels explore this quest for a self which needs to live and breathe even as it locates itself within ethnic, racial, religious and political territories. In Tar Baby, for example, one of the characters, Jadine, says that she feels guilty for liking Ave Maria more than gospel music and Picasso more than an African mask. Sometimes, she says, she longs: "To get out of my skin and be only the person inside - not American, not black - just me." I know exactly how she feels. It is not that we wish we were white. Just that we cannot simply be cows in a branded herd throughout our all-too-brief lives.

The deeper question here is about identity. Few of us have a single, all-defining identity which you can use for all seasons. When the Lawrence case was so much in the news, I felt black. This was our battle - whether Asian, Muslim, Hindu, African - against racism. On forced marriages, I react as an angry Asian woman. Watching Palestinian boys dying, my emotional response comes out of feeling for them as a Muslim. And since devolution, I have felt profoundly British.

All of us - black and white Britons - feel this multitude of allegiances, some connected to an ethnic past, some not.

In his stirring new book, On Identity, the French Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf deconstructs this very modern phenomenon: "I'm challenging the notion that reduces identity to one single affiliation and encourages people to adopt an attitude that is partial, sectarian, intolerant, domineering... Their view of the world is biased and distorted. Those who belong to our communities are 'ours' ...but if they are thought to be 'lukewarm' we denounce them, intimidate them, punish them." Or worst of all, deny them the right to be free human beings with choices about when they can support a cause and when they can't; when they operate as individuals and when they place themselves within a group.

* y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

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