What is it like to be… British

Identity and belonging has always fascinated me. Although I was born and bred in the South of England, I have always been an outsider. Born to parents of Indian and Chinese descent, I was corrected when I said I was English. “You’re British” said my mum. I got the sense that to be English, you needed to have English parents or at least English blood running through my veins. I have neither but I am proud of my heritage. After all I get to celebrate two new years – the western one and Chinese New Year. I get to be part of three different cultures – Indian, Chinese and English and I have family all over the world. I also get to eat authentic, fabulous food.

Like so many children from ethnic backgrounds, my parents put a very high value on education. Even today, both my mum and dad still think the English education system is the best in the world.

I have suffered from mild racism. I have been told to “go back to my own country”. I retorted back with the history England, starting with the Battle of Hastings and if needed, going back even earlier to the Barbarians and such like. However, living in predominately white, middle-class, conservative town when my brother and I were one of the few very ‘foreign’ looking people (my brother has Indian colouring, where I am more Chinese), I think we got off rather lightly – no-one really cared, and plus, people loved our food.

It’s taken a long time to realise that I look different. It was in my late teens when I really looked at myself in the mirror and saw my Chinese eyes, my high cheek bones and the colour of my skin. For a long time, I thought I looked liked everyone else – I really did. For me my, racial features was as different as having different colour eyes or hair, not being from a different race at all. All my life I have been treated like the same a everyone else. In fact, I have suffered more sexism than from a mixed-race background.  I don’t even like describing myself as being mixed-race. For some reason, it makes me uncomfortable. I am just… me.

Racism is ignorance which breeds intolerance and fear. I recently found out that someone who I knew was a) from South Africa (I thought he was from Australia!) and b) a racist. I was very, very upset. I would see this person out in town, usually when we were both drunk. He has never uttered an unkind word to me. When challenged by others, he justifies himself saying it’s a culture thing. Like it’s ok to call someone a n***er. His views are outdated and unwanted. He is tolerated by his friends, who buy this sort of claptrap. So, yes, racism still exists, but not to my face.

I recently read an insightful article by BBC newsreader George Alagiah on what it’s like to be mixed-race in Britain. His final paragraphs resonated with me:

The UK was subject to the same prejudices and pressures as the US and Germany yet we avoided the worst excesses of bogus science or political extremism. There were calls for anti-miscegenation laws – but we never banned mixed marriages.

True there were ghettos – but the UK never accepted outright segregation. There were – and are – plenty of racists, but they’ve never been allowed to gain the foothold they did elsewhere.

Somehow – often by default rather than design – we have muddled through to where we are today, a country largely at ease with its rainbow people. Given what’s happening elsewhere that is something to be proud of.

So to me, what does it mean to be British? It means laughter, sarcasm, rounds of drinks, prevailing in the face of adversity (such as the recent UK riots), of keeping calm and carrying on. For me it means democracy, right-thinking, equality, the BBC, free education and the NHS. The royal family, I can take them or leave them.  Yes, I talk about the weather, I drink too much and of course, I queue. Manners cost nothing. I am British and proud to be. I was born here. Britain is my home and always will be.

Being British is different to everybody. I have asked some friends of mine to blog about their nationality. Indeed, I posed the question – do you see yourself as British? Over the next coming weeks, I shall be posting their blogs.

Tell me your views. What does being British mean to you. What is your perception of the UK? Does you see the difference between English, Scottish, Welsh or Irish?

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3 thoughts on “What is it like to be… British

  1. In football, I support England ( I say support, sometimes it would be more appropriate to say ‘despair of’ or ‘ignore’). In matters where the team comprises the British Isles, ‘Team GB’ for instance, then I suppose the default setting is to be British. It all depends which flag is available to be waved at the time. The two are not mutually exclusive. In the same way I can be a Yorkshireman from England. It’s just a case of appropriate geographical scale. For instance, if you were in London speaking to a fellow Londoner, you might tell them that you are from Notting Hill. The same conversation in Newcastle, you would probably say you are from London. The same conversation in France, you would probably say you’re from England and the same conversation in Tokyo, you might well identify yourself as British. More telling, I would never identify myself as European in any of those situations, nor can I think of a situation where I would! But thats just me. And therein is the most important point. There is no competition to be the most English or the most British. I am me. I may align myself with either label from time to time but the most important thing is that I am happy with who I am as an individual. The only opinion as to my moral Englishness or Britishness that matters is my own.

    • Very true. I do find it interesting that in sport people are either British if we’re winning but Scots or Welsh etc if losing. Or maybe that’s just the commentators…?

      It is important that you’re happy within your own skin. I was watching Newsnight a few months ago (hence the blogs) who raised the question of nationality. What does it mean to be English? I won’t say that we’re particularly patriotic (unless it’s sport), in fact, it’s not cool to say your a proud to be English – not in the same way that the Canadians are. What with the mix of cultures, are we losing the English identify and what was it in the first place?

      But yes, the point about being European, I too would never say that I’m from Europe (even though are passports are the same and a lot of our laws etc are dictated from the mainland). I don’t think I know anyone (other than Eddie Izzard) who would say they are European.

  2. I would like to reply to the bit about George Algiah’s article with a proposal that the racism of the British Empire has traditionally been both patriarchal and patronising. In fact, the biological-deterministic (‘pseudo-scientific’ arguments of ‘racial differences’, ‘brain size’ and so on and so forth) views of ‘race’ actually emerged in Britain.

    On the other hand, I would argue this was merely a way to justify imperialistic, oppressive foreign policies and that ‘multicultural Britain’ is alive today despite this propagandistic attitude, perhaps through the necessity of rather flexible immigration laws for workers for example, rather than in any inherent ‘tolerance’ of Britain or British people.

    I find it interesting that the person you mentioned near is end is from South Africa. Some of the most memorable cases of racism I have ever encountered (rarely about me, as my skin is ‘white’) has been from people from the colonies- SA, Australia and NZ.

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