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Escape white culture – put on the hijab!

The BBC’s White Girl was stuffed with prejudices about the scum of the earth (white working-class families) and the salt of the earth (Muslims).

Alka Sehgal

Topics Culture

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Quite inadvertently, the makers of White Girl – a drama about a white schoolgirl who embraces Islam, shown as part of the ‘White’ season of programmes about the white working class on BBC TV – alluded to two important points in the public debate around British identity and values.

First, the apparent embracing of an ostensibly foreign culture (Muslim in this instance) is motivated by a reaction against what is perceived and/or experienced as British culture, rather than being driven by any inherent strength or attraction on the part of the foreign culture itself. Second, individuals’ embrace of apparently different cultures today is more akin to a teenager having an angsty tantrum than it is the product of a deeply felt or thought-out conversion.

Of course, this was not the overt idea behind White Girl. The drama featured a dysfunctional white working-class family, complete with an alcoholic, drug-taking mum who ‘shags shitty men’, a part-time dad who offers cigarettes to his young son, and a young teenage girl – Leah – who looks with silent scorn at her family, especially her mum.

So Leah puts on the hijab and leaves home to live with the Muslim family next door. She refuses to come back until her mum agrees to break away from dad. In one scene, Leah shouts that prayers at the mosque make her feel safe. Eventually, low-life mum has a Damascene revelation and confesses her guilt at having been such a bad parent (the actress’s accent slipped slightly during this scene). She dumps her man, buys some milk, and the dysfunctional family shares a spartan but happy, hopeful breakfast. Yes, it was probably Coco Pops, but rest assured viewers, given a few weeks and a few intensive parenting classes they will soon hopefully be eating healthy muesli and yogurt.

The programme’s representation of both white working-class and Muslim working-class families resolutely refused to go beyond trite stereotypes. The long shots of the back alleys alive with poor Muslim or white kids playing on bikes is culturally over-familiar now: we saw it in East is East and Billy Elliot. The repeated image of the sun shining through the clouds almost had me singing Second World War songs about silver linings. At least at an aesthetic level, this was not innovative or interesting TV.

What was interesting, though, was that the visual images of Muslim family life and culture felt very familiar to me, and no doubt to many other viewers, even if we are not Muslims. Children sat quietly in a circle, listening attentively to the earnest adult telling them religious tales – well, that is what I used to do in Sunday school each week. The quiet manner of going about everyday life, the gentle loving gestures of parents to their children, the hard-working individual café owner… such characters, behaviour and attitudes used to be associated with British middle-class and respectable working-class culture. Even the lusciously filmed close-ups of the Muslim mum cooking and offering food to the family reminded me of those old, oh-so-British TV ads for Oxo (or was it Bisto?).

Clearly, in the imagination of the programme-makers, portraying white working-class people or even middle-class characters in this way would have far less credibility. As such, it struck me that White Girl had very little to do with Muslim religion or culture; rather, the main characters express both a yearning for what are often dismissed as old-fashioned values (as represented in the Muslim family) combined with a belief that such values cannot be readily found in ordinary white working-class families (as represented by Leah and her dysfunctional parents). Thus, the sought-after values of British society tend to be transposed on to a ‘different’ group of people these days.

White Girl’s Leah, or Layla, as she comes to be known, doesn’t reject British values and culture per se: rather she is recoiling in horror at a fictitious, pathologised depiction of the working class and longing for the warmth and respectability associated with Muslims by today’s cultural and political elites. The only other option on offer apart from ‘going native’, so to speak, and becoming Muslim, is to openly recant the alleged sins of living an obese, slovenly working-class life, and adopt a middle-class lifestyle instead (based on healthy eating and no ‘shagging shitty men’).

The question of what values we share and decide to prioritise cannot be answered through appealing to a selective memory of past ‘goodness’ – as represented in White Girl by the Muslim characters. Nor is there much that is attractive in the hollow-sounding, self-righteous, middle-class moralising about how people live, which is rather feeble and off-putting to much of the population. Are they really the choices on offer to white working-class families today: ‘go Muslim’ (that is, become respectable in an old-fashioned way) or embrace middle-class self-regard and paranoia? No thanks.

For a far more interesting, intelligent and perceptive film which alludes to similar issues without having to pathologise or patronise the white working class – even skinheads – look to Shane Meadows’ This is England.

Alka Sehgal is reading for a PhD in the disappearance of British identity.

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