Kamal Ahmed and The Struggle for Adaptation

Kamal Ahmed.jpg

Meriem Mahdhi, Journalism Undergraduate, University of Roehampton

“Our lives Kamal are very similar. We are almost brothers. We are both sons of immigrants, both grew up in London, studied politics and both kick-started our careers at The Observer and ended up at the BBC.”

This is how Robin Lustig introduces BBC News Editor Kamal Ahmed at Wimbledon BookFest.

“Despite all those similarities we had to face different obstacles and situations in life, simply because the colour of our skin is different.”

Kamal Ahmed is the author of The Life and Times of a Very British Man, a book about identity and racism. Why does the colour of our skin, rather than the colour of our eyes or hair, play such an important role in the lives of second-generation immigrants living in the Western World? This is the question that Ahmed attempts to answer.

“It’s perfectly reasonable for the brain to differentiate people into groups,” says him. Skin colour is often associated with particular cultural and religious behaviours and that is why it’s such an important factor in the creation of stereotypes.

His childhood was characterised by a lot of insecurity and a continuous neglection of his Sudanese roots. As a child, when asked if he was British or not, he would often say that his name was Neil rather than Kamal.

“Neil is the most vanilla name I could think of. My Indian friend called himself Tony and one of my Pakistani classmates was always saying his real name was Gary.”

According to Ahmed, his insecurity started at school, from the way the developing world is portrayed and taught. For him the UK appeared as a place of powerful kings and queens who ruled the world while Sudan and African countries were nations devastated by poverty and famine.

Kamal Ahmed’s father came from a wealthy Sudanese family in the 60s to study in London. His mother is British and belongs to what he calls “the most English family in England.”

At the core of Lustig and Ahmed’s conversation is how Ahmed adopted a British identity but did not feel British.

He spent his childhood in Ealing in the 70s and believes that this outsider culture is still present in schools, it is just less toxic.

“Children are affected by people’s talk and make those looking different from them feeling as outsiders.”

He recalls when as a child he was often told during fights to “go home.”

‘Alright,’ he used to say ‘but just so you know my home is just down the road.’

His book is a reflection on the struggles for an adaptation that is not necessary, as he just like many other dual-heritage individuals do not need to adapt themselves but rather is our society that still needs to overcome deep issues related to identity and racism.