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USA How Kent Has Adapted To The Challenges Of Multiculturalism




1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004
Home to thriving communities of Muslims, Sikhs, Gurkhas, Chinese and many other races and religions, Kent must be as multicultural a place as they come.

With its proximity to both London and Europe, the Garden of England is a popular destination for people of all backgrounds to settle, visit and enjoy.

But Prime Minister David Cameron’s recent comments on the supposed failure of state multiculturalism raise serious questions as to how diverse Kent really is.

While the majority of people are capable of sharing their communities with others, no matter what their background or beliefs, is that because they want to or because they have to?

Do they really live in the same communities, or rather separate communities in the same villages or towns?

Professor Frank Furedi, an author and lecturer of sociology at the University of Kent, said: "I think people have always had a clear sense of their own identity, and sometimes the way they make sense of their own world is to compare it with the lifestyles of others.

"Sometimes people are concerned if their own world is changing or being influenced in ways they don’t quite understand, but quite often they are attracted to other people’s customs and traditions and will actively join in.

"Compared with other parts of the world, I think Kent is a pretty open county. That’s not to say every individual is welcoming of other people’s cultures, because there are pockets of suspicion, and sometimes people’s fear is that their way of life could be disrupted and altered by others.

"But by and large, you will find it’s actually a pretty liberal and open place to live."

Stick a pin into a map of Kent and it is likely the area you select will be home to at least one community of people with beliefs and traditions vastly different to your own.

For example, Gravesend has a thriving Asian population and is home to one of the largest Sikh temples in the UK, while there are more than 3,500 Polish ex-pats spread out across towns including Canterbury, Maidstone and Ashford, and a growing number of Germans in Tunbridge Wells.

Evidence suggests the way certain groups are portrayed on television and in the press affects how they are treated in public, and the editor of the Medway-based Nubia magazine for the black and ethnic minority (BME) community, Angela Asieba, says this is certainly the case.

"There seems to be a lack of awareness and education in Kent, which results in people of colour being labelled and stereotyped.

"We should be promoting positive images of the BME community, because if you only focus on the negatives, you will end up with hostility towards people."

Available online as well as in libraries, community centres and places of worship, Nubia magazine focuses on education, health and business issues and showcases BME people in a positive light.

Mrs Asieba, who was born in England to Jamaican parents, says people need to be better educated about the contributions made by all members of society, regardless of the colour of their skin. "Medway in particular has a long way to go," she said. "It’s worrying to think what sort of abuse people from abroad receive here, especially as I’ve lived here all my life and get so much hostility myself.

"The only way to tackle the problem is to talk about other cultures in a celebratory way."

The outpouring of public support for the hugely successful Gurkha Justice Campaign of 2009 perhaps adds credence to Mrs Asieba’s point of view.

Portrayed as loyal, hard-working and courageous – all positive character traits – the

former Army servicemen are therefore rarely spoken of in a bad way, even though the law of averages suggests not every Gurkha can be a model citizen.

Nevertheless, the affection for the Gurkha community in Kent – based mainly in and around Folkestone – has made it easier for them to settle in the county.

"I would proudly say that multiculturalism is working very well in Kent," said Folkestone town councillor and retired Gurkha soldier Dhan Gurung.

"We are working hard to become one community here in Folkestone.

"People can always learn from the culture and customs of others. For example, Gurkha people have very good discipline and show respect to others, and these are traits we hope to share with everyone."

Whereas the Prime Minister was criticised for showing a "lack of clarity" with his comments on multiculturalism, his deputy – Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg – came up with a more concise definition of what the concept should mean.

It should be seen as a process by which people respect and communicate with each other, he said, rather than build walls between each other.

Prof Furedi shares a similar view.

"It’s important to understand that we belong to the same community," he said. "People are often critical of multiculturalism because they don’t know how to celebrate what binds us together.

"We should be aspiring to achieve a more robust sense of community while being open to other people’s customs and traditions."