The new “respectable racism” needs to be challenged more

A new exhibition has opened in Roast restaurant in London’s Borough Market, founded by a distinguished friend – and generous supporter – of the Migration Museum Project, Iqbal Wahhab. Here Iqbal talks about the circumstances that provided the unfortunate inspiration for the exhibition.

No one really knows what’s going to happen post-Brexit. But we do know what’s happened post-referendum. An ugly antagonism towards Europeans has somehow unleashed a respectable racism – respectable, because it reflects the will of the people. Physical and verbal attacks have become common, and it was an incident in Roast, the Borough Market restaurant I created 11 years ago, that triggered the collaboration of the Migration Museum Project (MMP) for an exhibition currently on display on our walls.

This is what happened. A senior waitress told me that, soon after the vote, a customer had asked her where she was from; when she replied that she was from the Czech Republic, he asked her: “What are you still doing in our country?” I was repulsed when I heard that, angry that such ugliness was allowed to manifest itself with no filter for decency. That anger triggered many more thoughts, the first being that, apart from the rise of Islamophobia, Britain lives in a more racially tolerant time than when I grew up in the 1970s around south London, when Paki bashing and the National Front were the order of the day.

I’d hoped that no community would ever have to face what we had had to endure.

Workers sorting potatoes on a Lincolnshire farm. According to a National Farmers’ Union survey, almost 85 per cent of the seasonal workforce in British agriculture was from Romania or Bulgaria as of September 2016. Photograph © Jason Bye

Yet here, in a smart central London restaurant, an elderly man in a business suit deemed it legitimate to talk in such a fashion. It occurred to me that us so-called liberal elites have largely kept quiet about what is happening all around us. The Brexiteers won the vote, but how many of them would have predicted the opening of this can of vicious worms is hard to tell. I told the hardline Brexit campaigner Daniel Hannan MEP about this incident, and he was genuinely shocked. In London, many of us are. But what are we doing about it? How are we challenging the prevailing prejudice?

I hear many horror stories of how French, Spanish and Italians in London are being treated, but it’s those from eastern Europe who are facing the brunt of this ugly resentment – for taking “our jobs”, jobs, we all know, that it would have been hard to find candidates for from locals. So I asked the MMP to help me, in our own small way, to make a subtle but powerful message – that eastern Europeans have, like all previous migrant settlers here, made huge contributions to British culture and our economy. Our exhibition, Unsung Stories – Eastern Europeans in Britain, communicates that message.

Three-quarters of the team that brings you the very British experience at Roast are European. This was taken by Egle Puzaraite, who comes from Lithuania, was previously a head waitress at Roaast, and is now a professional photographer. ©Egle Puzaraite

At Roast, 75 per cent of our team are European. People from Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic are, ironically, the driving force behind the country’s most successful traditional British restaurant (founded by someone born in Bangladesh). This delicious diversity should make us hold our heads high with pride, yet we find ourselves bowing our heads in shame. Whatever happens with Brexit, we must conduct ourselves with greater dignity. The exhibition is a celebration, and we have much more to celebrate than we have allowed ourselves to do.

Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, immunologist and vice-chair of Cambridge University, was born in Wales to parents who were Polish refugees of the Second World War. Photograph © Phil Mynott

Born in Bucharest, Romania, Alina Cojocaru joined the Royal Ballet School in 1997 and is now principal dancer with the English National Ballet. Photograph © Richard Cannon


Unsung Stories – Eastern Europeans in Britain is on display in Roast until late autumn; eight of the nine photographs are on sale. The restaurant is normally open for breakfast, lunch and dinner from 7am to 10.45pm, with short breaks between meals; on Sunday the restaurant is open for lunch. As a result of the tragic events of Saturday 3 June, the restaurant will be closed until Monday 12 June.

Iqbal Wahhab OBE, distinguished friend and supporter of the MMP, moved into the restaurant business after an early career in the media. He is the founder of two influential restaurants, the Cinnamon Club and Roast, and the author of a number of books, most recently Charity Sucks.