Just British?

There’s an interesting post over at Mark Easton’s UK in which he comments on the minefield which is ethnic terminology. During last week’s controversial “Question Time”, featuring Nick Griffin from the British National Party (BNP), a woman in the audience upbraided Jack Straw of the Labour Party for using the term “Afro-Caribbean”, rather than her preferred version: “African-Caribbean”.

Meanwhile, Nick Griffin, possibly the least photogenic politician since Roy Hattersley, drew flak for using the expression “indigenous British people”. One of the standard arguments against the use of terms like this is that no-one in Britain can truly claim to be indigenous. We’re all descended from migrants; the only difference is that some of those migrant ancestors arrived here sooner than others.

No population is entirely separate from the rest of humanity, goes the rhetoric. We are all members of a single species whose ultimate roots lie in Africa. That being the case, how can it be meaningful to refer to anyone as “African”? How can that word be used to differentiate the origins of any human sub-group?

Then, the second part of her term: “Caribbean”. Surely the association between this lady’s ancestors and the Caribbean is likely to be even more ephemeral than is that of the average Welshman, say, and Britain? A few hundred years as opposed to a few thousand.

As for the lady herself, surely she is “just British”? If this isn’t true, then presumably the majority white population aren’t “just British” either. In which case, what are they?

3 thoughts on “Just British?

  1. Whilst reading this post I kept thinking of several things, especially the American obsession with ‘origin’ identification; Irish-American, African-American, Chinese-American and so on and so forth.

    I do believe in the whole concept of tribal affiliation, whether it be by country of ethnic origin, music genre, sports club or whatever. People love to associate themselves with something more. It helps define them, either in their eyes or in the eyes of others, or more probably both. I am not just ‘this’, but I am ‘this’ and ‘this’ as well. I am more than the norm, and I belong to these people, and they are my heritage, no matter how distant that heritage or culture may be.

    I once had a long heated argument with my brother about whether we were Engish-Filipino-Irish-Chinese or whether we were Irish-Filipino-Chinese. His view was that, despite our father’s parents both being born in Yorkshire, the fact that their parents were from Ireland discounted the English element. I couldn’t convince him otherwise, nor him me. I guess the point of this monologue is that people will claim ownership of whatever tribe they believe themselves a part of, and very, very little will convince them otherwise.

    Oh, and I don’t want to even think about the appropriateness of the ‘Chinese’ element, but I am proud to have it in there, no matter how remote that connection 🙂

    • Yes, i’m like that too. I think as myself as Welsh-Irish (or sometimes Irish-Welsh as the mood takes me) and yet English and British. The Irish and the Welsh identities are largely ethnic, whereas England is where i was born and Britain is what allows me to resolve all the various bits of my identity into one: particularly my ethnic heritage*.

      What you can see from the description above is that i identify “Welsh” (for example) as an ethnic heritage. If that understanding of what it means to be Welsh is valid, does that then invalidate an understanding of Welshness based on birth or long term residence, which might be the basis of the Welsh identity of someone of, say, Chinese ethnic heritage who nevertheless was born and raised in Wales? Or vice versa?

      If two or more understandings of words like “English” or “Welsh” are possible, then isn’t the same possible for “British”? It seems not, because if you talk about people being British on the basis of ethnic heritage, you are typically seen as invalidating the notion of Britishness based on citizenship (i.e. irregardless of familial origin). Even worse, it is often implied that to even talk about Britishness in these terms is to be racist in some way (this is what the condemnation of the term “indigenous British” is about, not a dispute about the meaning of “indigenous”, but a horror of the idea of “British” ethnicity).

      If is true that to frame identity in terms of ethnic origin is wrong, then why isn’t it wrong for identities like “African” or “Chinese”, given that many of the people who identify as African have never even been to Africa, let alone been born there (and the same holds for true for the “Chinese”). I admit, i was deliberately provocative in what i said in my post about the meaningless of the term “African”, but, it has to be said, if you follow the “all one human species” argument to its logical conclusion then we are all of African origin and therefore “Africans” if we are anything.

      Personally, i think that we need to get over our fear of ethnicity. People do tend to feel tribal allegiances to those they perceive share a genetic heritage with them – just as they tend to feel those bonds with those with whom they share a cultural heritage. This does NOT mean that those people are secretly harbouring the BNP’s demented notions of “racial purity”.

      Likewise, people need to put their ethnic identities in perspective. They’re as imaginary as they’re real (exactly how much do you have in common either genetically or culturally with someone who just happens to originate from the same country or continent as you?). They shouldn’t be suppressed but they shouldn’t be allowed to dominate (or suppress) discourse either.

      P.S. Thanks for your comment, Jose.

      * Actually, in many ways, i think of myself as identified with borders: i was only born two miles into England in a place whose identity is all about that border. And i’m on other borders too of course…

      • You have clearly thought about this way more than I have.

        The concept of racial purity is a difficult one. In order to quantify purity you have to build such tight criteria as to make the whole thing artificial in the extreme, or so loose as to make it notional at best.

        If I take my Filipino heritage, I know that my grandmother and grandfather belonged to two very different ethnic groups. It just happens they both reside in within a defined boundary that is the Philippines.

        In Britain there is clearly no such thing as a racial purity that can be defined as ‘British’ (the mind boggles at the sheer diversity of ethnic influences that historically have made up the population of this land). Like ‘American’, this does have vague cultural and ethnic tones, but they are both primarily a broad political and national label. I am British and quite proud to be so, but I am not British based on ethnicity, I could very much have been something else (in addition to or instead of).

        To digress slightly, I have noticed that, maybe less so than a few years ago, that being ‘English’ conveyed the same connotations of racism and small-mindedness. In some parts of Bristol it clearly still does imply that, sometimes vocally so.

        I agree totally that ethnicity has varying cultural and genetic appropriateness; they are mantles that people take on or identify with as is their wont. Ethnicity does dominate inappropriately, distorting and deflecting discourse and debate from areas that do need clear, balanced exploration. Ethnicity, whether real, imagined or tenuous, is an emotional minefield, and the meaning of the word is easily hijacked or abused by people like the BNP.

        Two final points/comments (I am still somewhat ill and have no idea if I have made any sense at all):

        1) My Chinese flatmate told me a few weeks ago that he had taken British citizenship – his joy and mine was instant and infectious. He is not any different to before, but he is now British, and wholly so, legally and psychologically.
        2) I was born in Botswana, so I could conceivably (if I was very, very brave) throw Botswanan and African into the mix too.

        Very glad you are still writing. 🙂

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