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Britishness is at crisis point

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This idea of Britishness has become an increasingly contentious question. What does it mean to be a British-born person of colour in the UK today? What does it mean to be born under West Indian parents or grandparents? And what about being born to South Asian immigrants from places like India or Pakistan? Where are the intersections of your family’s culture and British culture? Reading Brit(ish) by Afua Hirsch as part of my dissertation research and then Black and British by David Olusoga made me think about my own cultural identity, and I came to the consensus that I feel more British than West Indian. And I felt most British when I was on holiday, or abroad. That even in my own country, Britain, British-born people of colour are still seen as “foreigners” – “aliens” – “interlopers” – “immigrants.”

Afua Hirsch, former-barrister and journalist – and author of Brit(ish)

There have been Black and brown people coming to our shores since Roman Times. We have been a multiracial nation for hundreds of years. The idea that people feel threatened by this supposed “immigrant problem” is crazy. “There were Africans in Britain before the English came,” wrote the late journalist, historian and academic Peter Fryer. There were Africans on these shores before we even thought about Englishness. And when people boast about their Anglo-Saxon heritage, they’re boasting a Germanic ancestry. And those dark features like hair and eyes that are often named as Celtic are probably more likely Mediterranean. And by Mediterranean, there could be a North African influence there as well. Centuries ago, they’d have called those North Africans “blackamoors,” or more simply, “moors.”

There were Black British communities in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, and by Black I mean “historically Black” (so non-White, including Asians). Did you know the first Asian MP in Britain was in 1892, when Indian-born Dadabhai Naoroji was elected to represent Central Finsbury for the Liberty Party? Britain’s ignorance to its own history is very much tied up in how we teach history at schools, a very White-centric history curriculum when that ethnic diversity is something that’s been part of British history for the best part of two thousand years. The postwar immigration boom after WW2 is just one example of people coming and going, but simply one of many.

And now in 2019, people here, especially people of colour are experiencing a Brit(ish)ness of sorts. When Britain abolished the Slave Trade (1833) and compensated the slave-owners to the tune of £20m (£17bn today), the establishment saw fit to spread their newfound morality on other slave-trading nations. This became known as Britain’s moral mission. This was the “great,” Victorian, moral righteousness in full swing. It didn’t matter that we used enslaved Africans for the best part of 300 years, toiling on sugar, tobacco and cotton plantations. What mattered is we abolished. It didn’t matter that Britain’s cotton mills were filled with US, slave-picked cotton, what mattered is we weren’t “officially” slave traders anymore. Britain transformed from leaders in slavery to a nation with integrity. Ahem.

Margot Robbie plays Elizabeth I in Mary Queen of Scots,
a pioneer of slavery in her day, endorsing (Sir) John Hawkins in 1562/63
(Mary Queen of Scots, Focus Features + Universal Pictures)

And still today we are uncomfortable talking about the racial thinking that in-part came out of colonialism and Slavery. Whilst learning about the Nazis and condemning their racial thinking, we refuse to take a look at our own backyard. From Cecil Rhodes to Enoch Powell and Winston Churchill, our history is filled with people who held White supremacist views. And acknowledging the heinous crimes of the British monarchy and the Empire is still something that’s controversial and uncomfortable. The monarchy couldn’t possibly have been the pioneers of slavery before the independent traders. That colonialism was so long ago that it couldn’t possible matter?

And when it comes to discussing racial thinking in British history and general race and ethnicity in modern society, people suddenly become silent. The racial hierarchies at The Front during The First World War for instance. And even today, from education (racism on campuses) to the police and the NHS, institutional racism runs riot (but quietly, insidiously). And when you complain, you are told to go home. To leave. Well, Britain is home. And that ties back to how Black and brown people are seen as alien and White people are seen as indigenous. Race equality, social justice and identity politics matter, and these talks and discussions need to be had.

To me, British is an ideology more than anything else. You can spend forty years living in New York or Cape Town, but if you migrate to London you’re now a Londoner. To be British is to be White and that’s tied up in (historic) institutional racism (how Britain sees / saw itself, and its neglectfulness to portray images of its people of colour with the same pride it did its White population). Or unconscious bias as we love to say at universities, which in my view is just a more palatable term for structural discrimination.

For people of colour, this question is loaded with race and identity politics

I feel most British when I’m on holiday. When I was campaigning for my student union role I was told “You don’t look British.” Does British have a face? Yes, (in a way). It’s white. And that’s how White Privilege operates.

White is the default setting but there were Black and brown people in Britain before the English came, weren’t there?


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