Researching Race and Racism

By Martin Bulmer; John Solomos | Go to book overview
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Writing race

Ethnography and the imagination of The Asian Gang

Claire Alexander


One morning in early November 1996, I found myself - for the first, and undoubtedly last, time - on a film set. It was 7.30 a.m., raining and bitterly cold, and I was standing in a housing estate in East London, wearing only a thin salwaar kameez and a deepening scowl as the day crept on, seemingly unending and unproductive. I had gone, under some protest, with Yasmin, the Bengali woman who ran the project I was working in, in response to a call for Asian extras for a new British film, B. Monkey. The film was a 'love story/thriller' about a teenage girl who joins 'a gang', but is redeemed by her love for a teacher with whom she runs away to Yorkshire, only to be pursued by the aforementioned gang.…I'm not sure how it ended, but I imagine with happiness for the heroine and well-deserved, probably bloody, punishment for her socially pathological teenage friends. By 4 p.m., having done nothing all day but shiver and drink tea, I didn't really care.

My eventual career-making role was to walk up a staircase with shopping bags while the heroine and one of her 'gang' friends ran down. They were, possibly, the most excruciatingly banal moments of my life. Through the repetition of these meaningless moments, as the minute-that-never-ends wore on, however, the invidiousness of my position became increasingly explicit and oppressive. Yasmin and I were the only Asian women on set (there was also one older Asian man) and it was clear that our role was to provide 'ethnic colour' - literally and figuratively - for the gang scenes. In search of an authentic inner-city backdrop, the film was located in a condemned block on one of the poorest housing estates in London. When this proved not quite 'authentic' enough, the film crew imported three White skateboarders from a public school in Hampshire, and a burned-out estate car for added urban grit. The presence of Yasmin and myself was, it seems, as additional 'reality' props - walk-on markers of inner-city deprivation and decay. It was a disturbingly surreal experience, being transformed from an 'urban ethnographer/anthropologist' with a morning to spare and her own 'traditional costume' (to quote the casting agency) into the object of a racialised gaze that constructed me as the embodiment of ghetto unfabu-


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