Identity crisis: who decides if you’re ‘English’ or ‘British’?
All too often, people from minoritised ethnic communities or who have non-English accents are told they’re not from this country instead of being left free to choose their own identity.
There is a bizarre double standard of anyone who is not from a White British family being expected to ‘integrate’ into British society by adopting ‘British values’, whilst being told by these same people that they are ‘foreign’ or cannot possibly accurately identify themselves as English or British. At its core, this is an example of unconscious bias and institutional racism in society taking an individual’s free choice away from them to maintain a position of power.
Even within the immigration system, there is no concrete permanent definition of a ‘Brit’. Whether it’s people of Caribbean heritage being told they don’t belong in the country even though they were born here, or EU citizens suddenly finding themselves having to provide documentary proof of decades of their life here to legally stay in the country — sometimes, even in vain — the past decade has shown us many examples of an incoherent immigration system. Apparently, the “right sort” of immigrant can change at the drop of a hat according to the government’s priorities at any given time.
This inconsistency about what being English or British entails tends to come down to a question of what the “right sort” is. Essentially, this usually involves being White and speaking with a crisp English accent, and — most importantly — involves decisions made by a random stranger based on first impressions.
Sometimes, a person must have been born in the U.K. to be allowed to be British (or born in England to be English). Other times, a person must be able to claim unbroken descent from Anglo-Saxon stock to be English.
The most recent well-known example of this is the self-professed African-Caribbean-English MP David Lammy being told by a misinformed caller to his radio show that he would “never be English” because he has African-Caribbean heritage. Though the caller then backtracked to permit him to be British, she stated he could not be English, because she would never call herself Caribbean as a White person.
Herein lies the crux of the issue. Apart from where dictated by law — and even that gets complicated — national identity by personal characteristic is one of the last vestiges of the version of the UK that many groups cling onto as a familiar aspect of, or explanation for, a country that seems to have left them behind. Whilst in some ways understandable, this is wrong, both on a factual and interpersonal level.
Defining Englishness by skin colour, we would find that Boris Johnson is English, and David Lammy is not. Defining Britishness by birth, we would find that David Lammy is British, and Boris Johnson is not. If being English means being born in England, St George is a foreigner whose international associations preclude Englishness in any case, and Emma Watson could not possibly be English as she was born in France, a country with no links to the British Empire. This becomes even more problematic if we judge Britishness purely by skin colour: George Washington was a White man and Marcus Rashford is Black.
Accents are easily absorbed and easily dropped. Birthplace is something over which no individual has any choice. Indeed, some would argue that being British or English whilst having a non-British accent or birthplace shows the perseverance required to start a new life in a foreign culture or more diverse life experiences. These characteristics are highly fickle phenomena.
Ultimately, national identity is a hugely personal choice with no wrong answer — as long as the individual has some sort of association with their chosen identity. Apart from in terms of legal status, no one can make that decision for us, and we must not make that decision for anyone else. JAN Trust works with many beneficiaries from marginalised minority communities who find themselves isolated from society on the basis of their English skills or skin colour. We know how difficult it can be to try to ‘fit in’ in a country that sometimes will not let them win either way. Our beneficiaries all receive equal support from us, and we empower them with the skills to take ownership of their identities and flourish in British society, whatever their chosen identities may be.
So, what is the answer?
You. You, and you only, decide if you’re ‘English’ or ‘British’ based on what you feel.