Ethnicity and Class in London

Americans moving to London may well be a bit shocked by the immense range of cultures, religions, nationalities, and people that you get in a large city like London. It is thought that around a third of London’s population is made up from ethnic minorities. As well as people from all over the British Isles, there are numerous European nationalities represented in London. Some groups even have their own little “ghetto,” usually based near their national school, such as the French and the Lycée Français Charles de Gaulle in South Kensington or the Spanish and the Instituto Español Vicente Cañada Blanch in North Kensington. Golders Green and Stanford Hill in North London both have large Jewish populations, while to the west of London you’ll find a large population of people from an Asian background, such as those whose family originated in India or Pakistan.

That strong American sentiment that “with hard work you can achieve your goals” doesn’t always ring true here.Even though there may be areas of town that are popular with certain groups, they are by no means exclusive, and people from a wide background can live almost anywhere in town. On my street alone there are people from or whose heritage is from: England (London and elsewhere), Wales, Ireland, Germany, Spain, Belgium, India, Jamaica, Greece, and, of course, the United States—and these are just the ones I know.

A pair of Indian men sit on a bench in Southall, London, England.

A pair of Indian men sit on a bench in Southall, London, England. Photo © jo.sau, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

The amazing range of people and cultures in London is exemplified by a visit I made to my local hospital’s emergency department. I wasn’t badly injured, but had been advised to go to a hospital to get it sorted out. While I was there an older man was brought into the department. He had collapsed inside his apartment building, and a neighbor found him. Although the neighbor didn’t know the ill man, he could tell that he was seriously ill and needed to get to a hospital. Unfortunately the ill man did not speak any English, so no one could work out what was wrong. The ill man looked North African, so doctors addressed him in French, but to no avail. An Israeli tourist tried speaking to him in Arabic and Hebrew, as did the neighbor—again nothing. Person after person tried to address the poor man in different languages and dialects, but he simply became more withdrawn, confused, and frightened. Finally, a young translator arrived, and she was able to communicate with him through a shared Eritrean dialect. The patient and translator were then whisked off so that he could be diagnosed and treated. To think that on an average night in a large London hospital you could get a handful of different people able to speak such a range of languages shows you the extent of London’s cultural diversity.

It is also worth mentioning that although they are a small minority, there are those who are not as accepting of other races, religions, or sexual orientations. The far-right jingoistic British National Party (BNP) does have a bit of a following in parts of London’s East End (and elsewhere in the country). I hasten to add that the BNP is very much out in the political wilderness, with its extreme views a cause for concern by many. More mainstream politically, but with a strong anti-immigration/anti-European Union sentiment, the UK Independence Party has seen an increase in popularity and is forcing other political parties to rethink their stance on immigration and Europe.

Class Divisions

A doorman stands in front of Fortnum & Mason department store.

A doorman stands in front of Fortnum & Mason department store. Photo © Jan Kranendonk/123rf.

Social immobility in the United Kingdom has a long history and to a certain extent can be deeply ingrained, with people from the lower class encountering real obstacles to their climb up the social ladder. Some of these are external restraints from society and family (a “don’t try to get above your station” attitude), and some of it may be a self-limiting belief that they are incapable of getting ahead—that is, of course, unless they are the next David Beckham. That strong American sentiment that “with hard work you can achieve your goals” doesn’t always ring true here. Even to this day, you have a distinct advantage if you have a “posh” non-regional, non-working class accent. Thankfully, this is less prevalent than it was 50 or even 20 years ago, but the barriers to social class are still noticeable at times.

Excerpted from the Second Edition of Moon Living Abroad London.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *