For many British people the answer to this is simple and straight forward, for some it is an infusion of multiple identities and for a few the concept of being British can vary according to their experiences. Identity in general for most of us is an evolving mesh that adapts according to the importance of roles in our lives and or how we are received by others. However, there are often fundamental parts of us that consistently affect our adult lives, although for some our emphasis on these things may be minimal, they still influence us in various ways. Things like our environment, gender identity, sexual orientation, core beliefs, ethnicity and health are often underlining parts of who we are.
For at least 20 years of my life if I was asked to state the most important part of my identity, I would always say being a woman and a mother as my children have been my motivation which has driven the majority of my decision making process since the age of 20 years old. Having had children at this age I didn’t have much opportunity to develop other parts of myself until later in life. Having been an educator for over 15 years, when I took a break from this for a year during the pandemic, I felt the keen loss of this identity which had become so ingrained into my life. This was because it allowed me to express one of my fundamental core beliefs which is to help others.
Last year I was lucky enough to host a discussion about British Identity on a webinar I hosted with employees from Aviva Insurance. Whilst the variety of responses were unsurprising it was interesting to hear that conflict in identity that White people from Scotland and Wales faced were similar to those People of Colour who had been born outside of the UK or whose parents had been born outside of the UK. Some White Scottish people that were on the webinar and that I have met over the years, expressed a stronger identification with being Scottish than being British. Strong cultural identity and historical knowledge of how England had mistreated Scotland seemed to be at the heart of this, although I have never heard any of them say their Britishness was questioned.
An anecdotal observation about elderly British People of Colour over the years has led me to conclude that the colonial education that had taught them they were British also meant they fought against racism and for the right of British identity, seeming to embrace it whilst also incorporating it with the cultural identity of where they were born. The extent to which their children and grandchildren have accepted the idea of being British seems to vary. I know that my own Black children for example up until their teens referred to themselves as English (something I have never used to refer to myself as) and interestingly whenever we have visited other places abroad whether it be Belize, Spain, or the Caribbean we are called English not British. Perhaps this is unsurprising as they are half Angolan and the Angolan community always referred to me and my children as English. The language and culture of England is what we have all grown up with, so this begs the question of why we do not call ourselves English? Many People of Colour will also call themselves British but are less likely to call themselves English. Interestingly I have heard more People of Colour refer to themselves as Scottish, Irish or Welsh than English.
When I posed these questions of British Identity to People of Colour during the Webinar the discussions seemed to centre on how much they felt they belonged and how much they’d been made to feel like an outsider. Although other factors like family and community support also mitigated the effects of not belonging, this issue of British Identity remains a complex issue. When discussing Britishness one of the most asked questions that many People of Colour experience is ‘Where are you from? No where are you really from?’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QpFnGrJ8auE
I have met people of all backgrounds who see this as an innocently asked question and in many cases these days,
it is simply curiosity and an attempt to find familiarity and common ground. However even when no offence is intended, the effects of this question continually being asked can gradually erode a person’s sense of belonging, as in many peoples’ experiences, it has been asked as a way to racially profile and deny the person’s Britishness. This is particularly inappropriate to ask in a job interview or when you do not know the person well, making them feel obliged to talk about their family history with a stranger they may not feel comfortable with. The result can be a feeling of being interrogated and not accepted.
I was asked this question last year in a pub when discussing football and teams which in my mind alluded to the area I lived in as opposed to area the pub was in. Of course, my responses of living in Hackney and growing up in Dunstable prompted the ‘but where are you really from’ question. The presumption of the White Englishman in the pub that I was Jamaican eventually led to me having to explain I was from Belize and why I was born there but British. His eyes promptly glazed over, and he looked aloof and unsure of himself, leading me to believe he had wanted to categorise me with an origin he was familiar with. However, the unfamiliarity of me now left him clearly uncomfortable in my presence, making me wish I had never said anything. Yet again I was an outsider, and yet again this was something I had experienced many times before, but in a more hostile way. My first memory of this was when I was about 10 in an all-white school where we had a class discussion in an English lesson about citizenship. I clearly remember being forced to defend why I had a British passport to the class when I was born outside of the UK. I obviously did not have the historical knowledge and language to articulate the fact that Belize was a colony of Britain when I was born so I had automatic citizenship, although I’m sure if the teacher had wanted to clarify this she could have. This left me feeling like an outsider and not accepted by my peers, who declared I should go back to where I came from. Again, a phrase I heard daily growing up.
Living in a White area where racist slurs were shouted at us in the street, going to schools with a handful of students who were of colour and experiencing persistent racist bullying by staff and students over 8 years has shaped my sense of British identity. Despite having no other strong cultural identity related to my country of origin, British remains a designation on my passport. Briefly for a few years before and after the 2012 Olympics I felt for the first time in my life proud to be British as I live in one of the host boroughs. This gradually eroded away as the hysteria of Brexit and the so call migrant crisis exploded from 2015 and brought an increase in xenophobia, islamophobia, antisemitism, and racism.
The increasingly hostile environment of immigration policies, openly offensive language used by politicians, broadcasters, the General Public, and social media racism led to me feeling increasingly not accepted in my own country. This was further compounded by continuous incidents of racial bias against Black students I witnessed across a school as a Year Lead, the Windrush Scandal, the election of 2019, the high deaths of People of Colour with Covid-19, the ‘all lives matter’ backlash, bias media and politicians’ portrayal of Black Lives Matter protestors compared to right wing so called ‘counter-protestors’ and treatment of migrant workers in the NHS. All of this on top of personal experiences of racism that myself, friends, family and members of my community have faced. For many years I felt completely rejected until the explosion of the Black Lives Matter protests across the country made me realise that young people especially were rejecting hate. Seeing the incredible resilience of NHS workers, volunteers and community organisations across the country pull together during the pandemic reminded me of what I liked about living here.
Now my identity as a British person is more pragmatic. I accept it is my nationality and right and I clearly have British cultural norms as part of my life. I also value the freedoms available in this country, particularly as a woman and I have an appreciation and enjoyment for British heritage I never had before. However, that has only come from researching and learning about the complexity of British History over the past 10,000 years and understanding the rich cultural origins these islands have, when taken in a global context it simply reflects the human migratory processes that we as a species engage in. It reminds me that humans have far more in common than they have different, but that our differences bring richness and innovation to our lives.