I was inspired to watch the documentary, ‘Lost Boys? What’s Going Wrong for Asian Men?’ after I read an indignant and intellectual thread from an Asian Muslim lady (the brilliant Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan) who I understand has received a commission from the BBC to produce a piece about it.
My immediate response was ‘fantastic’ but surely the best person to analyse and discuss a documentary about our ‘lost boys’ and what is going wrong for Asian men is an Asian man himself? I reflected some more and realised, that’s the problem, that we don’t actually have a spokesMAN that I know of so I felt it was incumbent upon me to compose this blog. Don’t get me wrong, I’m an admirer of the person who received the commission who is clearly a very eloquent and perceptive individual. However, there are inherent limitations to her understanding of the subjective experience of an Asian man in Britain as there are inherent limitations in my understanding of what it’s like for an Asian lady who wears a hijab in Britain.
I’ll start off with the title which is blatantly sensational and that for me raises immediate concerns. It’s also hugely loaded. Are we lost? What ‘went wrong’ for us as if nothing ‘went right’ for us? I’ll return to this point. The next issue I want to raise is the selection of the presenter. Mehreen Baig, according to her website, is a teacher turned blogger turned TV presenter. I personally think the BBC made an error with who they chose for the task. What we need is one of our own; a Muslim brother from our own ranks who knows what it feels like to have a fire burning in his belly, who is an expert by lived experience and who can relate to the Asian men he is interviewing because he FELT the pain of exclusion and being at the receiving end of racial slurs and discrimination. A brother who is made to feel like he is a heathen beast and that he is below his white male counterparts. Such a brother would have lent the documentary more credibility and authenticity. The presenter clearly had her own agenda and, in my opinion, was not qualified for the job. She was also far too privileged for my liking. It almost felt as though the BBC wanted to justify their choice whenever she would launch into a soliloquy which indicated how thoughtful and caring she is.
The next issues are racism, Islamophobia and identity. Racism is rampant in the UK although it is important to state that inclusion and acceptance do exist albeit not as widespread as they should. Remember the London 07/07 bombings? The perpetrators of that horrific and heinous atrocity were from Leeds. I can surmise that from a very early age they, like me and other Asian men, were constantly told that they would never amount to anything in life. I know what if feels like to be avoided and ridiculed and let me tell you it hurts. A lot. These boys were ignored and not listened to and conjured a nefarious plan to make their voices heard. I condemn their vile actions in the strongest possible terms but I don’t think we have done enough to understand and address the social, political, psychological, cultural and economic factors that contributed to their despicable actions. There are a lot of Asian boys who are in pain and we need to have the humility to reach out to them, validate them, dignify them and remind them that they can make important and meaningful contributions for the betterment of our society. We need to make them FEEL that we value them, care for them and that we love them. We need to make them BELIEVE in themselves and, by doing so, we will empower them.
When I was younger it felt like there was a constant tug of war in my mind. I longed to be accepted by British society, but I did not want to forsake my faith. Vice is seemingly ubiquitous and I gradually strayed from the path of Islam. The temptation was just too strong and I succumbed. I recall beholding my reflection in the mirror one morning and being almost unrecognisable to myself. The realisation was overwhelming and I was consumed by remorse which drove me over the edge.
As a mental health professional, I think we must address identity and acculturation and be cognisant that many of our Asian boys and men experience an identity crisis and that this can precipitate psychological distress and illicit substance misuse (the latter is a form of escapism). We must also teach them the skills to reconcile both ways of life. I am a proud British Muslim; you don’t have to indulge in what is prohibited in Islam to be ‘British’.
So, what does it feel like to be an Asian boy/man in the UK? Are we truly ‘lost’ and did things go so terribly wrong for us? Well, I left my family when I was 17 years old and started off as a janitor cleaning floors on minimum wage. I was naive and will never forget how it felt when I would say good morning to people and they wouldn’t reciprocate. But at least over here education is a birth right, so I enrolled into a sixth form college and continued to work full time hours to sustain myself. I received straight A grades in my A Levels despite being in full time employment and matriculated into medical school. Structural racism and Islamophobia de-railed me and I was rendered impoverished, ostracised and homeless. Like our boys, I started to search for my soul and I found it in both my faith and in British society. I got back on track, resumed my medical training with renewed resilience and determination, qualified from medical school and in 2013 received the Royal College of Psychiatrists Foundation Doctor of the Year Award which marks the highest level of achievement in psychiatry in the UK. There are many Asian boys and men out there who, like me, have triumphed in the hostile face of adversity. Things actually went ‘right’ for us. So, we may at times be misguided but I would not describe us as collectively lost. Our boys are feeling stigmatised and a documentary that addresses and challenges this and the issues of structural racism and Islamophobia is what we sorely need.