What I Learned from London's Diaspora Communities

Jan 17, 2020 10:30:00 AM / by Guest Posts

CAPA Diversity Advocates scholar Uma Balaji interviews everyday people of color from the streets of London in order to better grasp the impact of British colonization. This project resulted in the Instagram account @_brownlondon_ chronicling the stories and backgrounds of various London migrants and their international cultures.

At this point, to call London a “diverse” city is basically a cliché. Yet somehow, paradoxically, when I pictured London before this semester, I pictured well-dressed white people marching through soggy streets with sullen expressions, briefcases, and umbrellas. So when I arrived in London, at my flat in Shepherd’s Bush, surrounded by women in hijabs, homely Indian and Caribbean takeaway shops, and African hair salons and stores, I was immediately excited to learn more about London’s various migrant cultures.

For my project as a CAPA Diversity Advocates Scholar, I chose to interview everyday people of color from the streets of London in order to better grasp the impact that British colonization—particularly of South Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean—continues to have. Inspired by the popular photoblog Humans of New York, I posted excerpts from these conversations on the Instagram account @_brownlondon_, so as to give the stories I collected a platform. As an African proverb goes, “Until the lion learns how to write, every story will glorify the hunter.”

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(Originally from Gujarat, India; performing at Diwali in Trafalgar Square) • "Originally, my family is from the Kutch desert in Gujarat. My grandfather originally emigrated to Africa, to Mombasa (Kenya), and my dad immigrated here when I was eight. Here, whenever there's an Indian function, we attend. It's awesome. It's not very difficult in London. It's very diversified. You look at Harrow, Wembley, Southall, you can get pretty much everything. People want costumes for Navratri or weddings, you can get it." • "When we first came here in 1978, there were a lot of stereotypes. There were skinheads, and we used to be called names--'Pakis' and stuff--but now it's disappeared. You don't get that at all. People have become used to the culture. And you'll see, here, there's many Europeans attending. They love it. They love the costumes. They've just been commenting on how fantastic the costumes and dances are." • "In India, people are much more friendly. Here, even if you're neighbors or just live two doors away, you could never meet. You just say hello and goodbye. In India, you swap food, feed each other, and it's just a different culture. But it's difficult because you can't just move the whole culture. You have to adapt it to the culture here, British culture." • "What's nice, if you go to India, is if you're Gujarati, you're Gujarati. If you're Sikh, you're Sikh, or South Indian, or whatever. But look at our cricket team--we're all Indian first."

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There is a reason why these stories are overlooked in our history textbooks. And whether or not I heard what I had expected to hear, by just listening and engaging in these conversations, I have learned more about London’s cultural and historical landscapes than I ever could have done in a classroom.

Multilingual Street Signs on Brick Lane in London.

From Brick Lane to Southall and from Brixton to Harlesden, the immigrant experience is varied, even among people who have come from the same country. Some immigrated to receive a better education and achieve more social mobility than they could in their home country, and others are multiple generations removed from immigration, while others still have fled war-torn states and persecution. Some are blunt and open about their experiences with racism and discrimination, and others skirt around the subject, either for fear of punishment for speaking out or genuine lack of such experiences. Some spoke for hours on end, recounting their whole life story, and some responded to me with curt, one-word answers. I spoke to artists, businesspeople, students, food vendors, and street performers. I spoke to teenagers and grandparents. But whether they realize it or not, every person that I spoke to represents a particular, unique aspect of the so-called “immigrant experience.”

Mural in Brixton

Among the most prominent commonalities that I noticed, especially among the immigrant generation, was a longing for the collectivistic spirit of their homelands. In London, many of them said, you could live in the same house on the same street for 10 years and never meet your neighbors. Some even expressed pity for the generation of kids born in London to immigrants, who would never know such a world, where they would be able to play more freely, where it is literally the responsibility of a whole village to raise the child. Though such admissions can be taken simply as nostalgia for these immigrants’ childhoods, it is also important to consider the toll that such a drastic lifestyle change—especially later in life—can take on a person’s mental health.

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(Grew up in Grenada; now living in Greenford and working in West Ealing, London) • "I came here 20 years ago to study finance and accounting. Now I run my own business. We have a school, a hair and beauty salon, we have a gym, and we rent the premises to offices. Every business's objective is to make a profit, but at the same time, we create employment. Within our community, we see a lot of unemployment, a lot of social degradation. If you look in prisons and juvenile detention centers, you have to ask: why are there so many blacks in those places? And then kids don't see a way out, or any opportunities. So I felt that they need to see more black businesses. It sets an example. They say, 'if he can do it, I can do it too.'" • "When I was trying to find premises for the business, I would see a place up for lease or sale, and I'd take the phone number. I'd call, and they'd say it's vacant. Then when I went to ask in person, they'd say no, it's gone. I remember one night I went home and cried because all I wanted to do was start a business. I had come from Grenada not very long before, and I saw no black businesses, and I was turned down and turned down. And when I found something, it wasn't what I wanted. It was hidden, it was upstairs, but I had to take it." • "Black History Month is important because the more the younger generation know about their history, the more purpose they have. All world history is important, but especially coming from slavery and colonization, I think it's important to have a sense of history and a sense of progress. Having that knowledge propelled me forward. The deeper the roots, the taller the tree." • "As a boy growing up on the beach, there was a sense of freedom and adventure. Sometimes we'd steal a boat to go to another island and get fresh fruits. I feel sorry for the kids who were born here. I find that second generation, their mind can be more tentative. Back home, the food, the music, the community--it brings everyone together. There's a togetherness that you don't really see here, so it's easy for our kids to go astray. It feels like you're living amongst strangers."

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The other big trend that I noticed in my conversations was the importance of food to culture. Whether it was the Afghan woman who studied medicine and now sells Afghan food at Portobello Road on the weekends or the Grenadian businessman who eagerly recommended that I try One Stop Caribbean Takeaway in Harlesden, it was clear to me that, in an increasingly xenophobic world where cultural identities must often be contained within the home, food is a sacred expression of culture and an escape to home. This was my experience growing up, as well—I would go to school and eat sandwiches that my mother had attempted to make the “American” way, and come home to yogurt rice and lime pickle. But because I had nobody to share this experience with in my childhood, it has taken me until now to realize how such routine, mundane practices can be so profoundly grounding and connecting. The Goan woman whom I spoke to in Oxford said it best: “If you know how to cook, you will never be lost.”


I was not able to record or post every single one of the conversations I had because many people did not feel comfortable attaching their face to their story and putting it online. But even with these individuals, I often had long and meaningful conversations. In most cases, whether people were comfortable with having their story told to strangers on social media or just wanted to talk to an eager young Indian-American student, the biggest lesson I’ve learned from this project is that everyone has a story to tell, and everyone wants to be heard.

Thanks, Uma!

DAP_Uma Balaji Circle Headshot

Uma Balaji was a Fall 2019 Diversity Advocates scholar who spent her Fall 2019 semester at CAPA London. She is a junior at the University of Pittsburgh studying Psychology and Sociology with minors in Neuroscience and Linguistics.

At CAPA, we seek to foster increased student diversity and to provide all participants with the opportunity to explore, challenge and redefine their identities in distinct ways. Launched in Spring 2017, the Diversity Advocates Program (DAP) is an extension of this philosophy and provides resources for advocates to pursue diversity initiatives of their own within their global cities.

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Topics: London, England, Diversity Abroad