The opening line of Deanna Rodger’s spoken word poem, “Being British,” is:
“I always get asked,
‘Where do you come from?’”
After I heard it, I laughed. I paused the video. Took out my headphones. And laughed. An audible, loud laugh that erupts from the pit of your stomach into the open and surprises you.
Where do you come from?
The memories sprung to mind of times when I had been ambushed with the question.
I answer. But the person replies with: “No. But where are you from, really?”
And I look at myself.
Born to Kenyan parents in Britain, I enjoy Ugali with my hands and a Sunday Roast. My name says I’m different but my passport, my accent says, I’m British.
I find myself in this loop.
And I know I'm not alone.
For descendants of immigrants (1st, 2nd, 3rd etc.) the question does not stump us because of ignorance but also because it questions our loyalty. We are directly situated between two dominant cultures: that of our family and ancestors as well as the 'new country'. Whether implicit or explicit, different traditions are gained, passed down or lost.
So, we find ourselves in this loop where we must question our identity.
This is a question of cultural and national identity. Let’s begin with cultural identity:
Cultural identity, according to Mike Storry & Peter Child’s British Cultural Identities, describes a ‘lived experience,’ shared by a community of people who relate to one another through common interests and influences. It denotes the similarities in values and practices collected - ultimately - through observation and learnt behaviour.
However, Storry and Childs also note, there is cultural tension in Britain, a tension seemingly caused by multiculturalism. When migrants migrate, they take with them their cultures and traditions. These may conflict and contrast with British culture.
But let it be clarified it is not the problem of immigrants.
Storry and Childs found, ‘unlike the American melting pot, migrants have not sought nor been encouraged to integrate into British society’. Although they may ‘develop local affinities,’ they ‘will not call themselves British’.
One reason they note is that immigrants have intentionally been ‘excluded from dominant culture’ and have ‘no representation’. In other words, for generations of immigrants, there has not been a receptive culture but rather a - as Gretchen from Mean Girls would say - “You can’t sit with us” culture.
Thus, migrants stick with the cultures and identities which they know.
This is where we begin to see the intersection between cultural and national identity. Keepers of the culture refuse to integrate others based on the ideology of belonging.
In the academic journal, “The Construction of National Identity in Modern Times: Theoretical Perspective,” Hüsamettin İnaç and Feyzullah Ünal describe national identity as a social construct built upon a series of inclusions and exclusions.
National identity is about belonging.
There are factors to measure belonging; for example, citizenship but also, as İnaç and Ünal found, common ethnicity or, as is the case for Britain, race.
In Paul Gilroy’s There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack, he denotes race and nation have been blurred together to show who belongs to the nation and who can legitimately claim national identity.
Gilroy’s book, which gets its name from Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech, illustrates how ethnic minorities (he concentrates on black ethnicities) are positioned to be the nation’s scapegoats. This has continued to this day. As we have seen since the EU Referendum, national identity has politically used ethnicity and race to unify the nation by finding a common enemy.
There is a certain assumption about being British, a certain *white* look to being British, which - for Black and Asian communities - could make finding one's own cultural and national identity harder. But does that mean that Black and Asian communities cannot claim to be British?
I asked people on my Instagram for whether Black and Asian individuals in Britain can ever be considered as British. These are two answers:
“I think we can be both but it’s finding a balance that the world is comfortable with. [P]eople are so judgmental, particularly in today’s climate, and with political issues, such as Brexit, people’s ignorance has become much more apparent. [S]o to answer the question, yes they can to some degree, but, unfortunately, we have to please ignorance of people before finding ourselves and accepting [our] being.” - H
“No. We will never be truly British or considered as such. Our heritages clash, our history is distraught with conflict that minimise our worth that is embedded in our society now with no real sign of ending” - E
These examples stood out to me as, although they oppose, they compliment each other. H identifies as a British Asian, combining and adapting both cultures. While E, although living in England and Scotland, identifies as Kenyan. Both have similarities in their experience but their opinions diverge.
As people of colour living in Britain, we have the right to choose who we want to be, to claim our own identity. Whether paying homage to the home country, adapting or adopting culture[s], it is your prerogative. You can be both because it is your choice.
However, I do believe, in claiming both, we must understand the dichotomous relationship. This is the point I believe Deanna Rodger makes in her poem and is also echoed in my conversations with E and H. For Black and Asian individuals in the UK, our cultural and national identity is not just about loyalty or individual choice but politics. Due to our skin our identities have been politicised, driving the hostility between cultures.
This can be seen in the fact there has never been a formal reconciliation between countries formerly colonised. Many generations of Black and Asian immigrants are descendants of those who came from countries formerly colonised*. Those who were described as the 'children of the motherland,' while their country was exploited. Those described as citizens only to find out they never had it to begin with.
So claim your Britishness or don't claim it. In the end, the choice is ours. But understand, we must be aware of our history, the conflict that led to this. The politics and ignorant rhetoric. People are always going to question it and have a *racist* opinion on it.
As for me, I'm British Kenyan or Kenyan British.
*(However, Britain was multicultural and multiethnic for centuries before colonialism and slavery.)