TogetherintheUK was fortunate to speak with Dr Marius Turda, Professor in the Department of History, Philosophy and Religion at Oxford Brookes University. Marius has undertaken research projects in the history of ideas, science, and medicine and is a well-considered author on race, eugenics, and racism. He is the founder-director of the Cantemir Institute at the University of Oxford (2012-2013) and founder of the Working Group on the History of Eugenics and Race (HRE), established in 2006. He also hosts The Eugenics Podcasts and Confront Eugenics which give fascinating insights into how 20th century eugenics ideas and practices continue to influence aspects of our lives.
This is the first in a series of articles taken from the TGIUK interview.
Knowing and understanding our history, successes and failures, great moments, and many moments of great shame does not prevent us from continuing to make the same mistakes. History tends to repeat itself, and no more so when it comes to racist attitudes and behaviours. And sadly, over recent years, we have seen a revival of some of the more pronounced aspects of racism, according to Dr Marius Turda, particularly towards Eastern European migrants living and working in the UK.
Marius Turda came to the UK in the late 1990s from Maramures, a region in northern Transylvania, Romania, to study for his doctorate at Oxford University. And he is now, amongst many other things, a professor at Oxford Brookes University. Indeed, for Marius, one of the best things about the UK is the quality of the education system and academic life. In his opinion, the UK’s educational reputation attracts great scholars and professionals from around the world, creating, as he calls it, a cultural vortex that sustains a sense of learning and development. And like many other migrants who come to the UK to study, Marius found a community that embraced him and offered him professional and personal opportunities that his country of origin could not. He is now a British citizen and has set new roots with his family here in the UK. He is proud of his heritage, but as he so eloquently put it, his feeling for Romania is like a flickering light, connected only through family and memories.
From both personal experience and academic findings, Marius explains that while migrants make the physical transition to a new country, they must also complete the mental transition to survive and succeed. From his perspective, if a migrant wants to achieve a sense of belonging in a new community, they must change their mindsets and be open to this new culture. By immersing himself in English culture he was able to survive and successfully carve out a new life and career for himself. He is not suggesting that migrants need to lose their own culture, traditions, and outlook. Only that they must be open to taking the necessary steps to be accepted into society such as learning the language, adapting their dress, and living and interacting with UK citizens. Nonetheless, Marius reminded us that not all migrants want or need to adapt to a new culture; there are those who are very content to live within their own ethnic enclave, speak their native language, and maintain a social distance from people outside their ethnic group. There are many reasons why migrants choose not to integrate into British society, and one is where they have come to the UK as fixed-term economic migrants who plan to work in the UK only for a set period. Working here allows them to earn more money than would be possible in their home country and once they have saved the monies they need for a better life for their family back home, they leave. The UK has benefitted from their labour, skills, and productivity in exchange. For some migrants, this is a perfect balance and a win-win situation for everyone involved.
However, there are numerous challenges along the way for migrants who arrive in the UK and plan to make their new life here. Marius explains that regretfully, we live in an inherently racist society. He describes racism as a subterranean creature that always lives below the surface and raises its ugly head at different times, against different people and for different reasons and always with various degrees of intensity.
For Marius, this was typified by the vilification of Eastern Europeans, particularly Romanians and Poles, during the Brexit referendum. He believes that the damming narrative around Eastern European migrants was not just personally insulting but was a low moment for England and highlighted a surge in racist attitudes amongst some people. Marius’s criticism of the inflammatory language used during the referendum is supported by the findings of the Runnymede Trust 2021 perspective on England Civil Society Submission to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination which highlights the role politicians play in inciting discriminatory or racial abuse against minorities.
For generations, discrimination of any form and against any race, religion, gender, sexual preferences, or any other distinguishing feature that makes a person “different” from “the rest” has impacted an individual’s ability to succeed either personally or professionally. Marius spoke of the challenge of ethnic minorities to flourish in all spheres of life, particularly in their professional capacity. As he rightly points out, while we are finally seeing diversity up to middle management, we have yet to see an appropriate proportion of ethnic minorities succeeding at the higher echelons of society. According to Marius, the level of racism experienced can revolve around physical features. Migrants who fall under the ‘white people’ category are initially not exposed to the same direct level of racial abuse as a black person or a person wearing a hijab. However, the ‘glass ceiling’ exists for all minorities. There is much public discussion around positive discrimination. While acknowledging it is a positive signal of intent, it only adds significance when the rhetoric is matched with the actualisation of definite and tangible changes to policies and a gambit of activity that validates the role and purpose of appointees. As Marius explains, we need to empower every person, particularly minorities, with the sense that they have been brought to the table because of their skills and knowledge; otherwise, it is just what it seems, tokenism. When society is ready, willing, and able to see an individual in terms of their value to that society rather than their race, we will begin to see the demise of racism and the emergence of equality.