IDENTITY is always complex, nuanced within the black and brown culture. African Americans not knowing the exact country in Africa of their ancestors. British Asian children not learning the language of their ancestors due to assimilation into the country, or other complex reasons. There is always a question mark hanging over identity when you’re of colour.
I always said I was English – being born in England and supporting the England football team 😉 When I was living in Germany, I felt more English (as is often the case for people living abroad) and people accepted my identity as such. But coming back to the country of my birth, the identity question is asked again: ‘Where are you really from?’ There has to be more to you than ‘born in England’ as you are brown. A fact I can hardly hide from; there is no changing your skin. So I explain the British Empire in a few sentences: I was born in London, my parents born in Kenya and my grand-parents born in India. A look of confusion followed by recognition – ah yes, India. That fact people can cling onto. ‘So you’re from India’. Well, not really… My heritage is Indian, yes. I sigh and wish that British colonial Empire history was widely taught in schools. At least I had visited India as a teenager; my husband got this too and had never even visited India until he was 39. Such is the identity story.
A friend of mine has a teenage daughter who was asked this same question a few years ago: ‘Where are you really from?’ This highlights that the colour of our skin is always going to shine a question mark into our identity as British or English. We will not be seen in the same light as a white-coloured person. Colour is the first thing people see and a perception is already formed before you say anything about your identity or who you are.
But is the UK currently going through a wider, whiter identity crisis? What started as protests after the killing of George Floyd in the US, has spread worldwide and here in the UK the movement has started looking into the dismantling of the unequal systems, and in so doing has brought up the identity question over everyone. Does anyone know who they are or what they stand for? I watched The Unwanted: The Secret Windrush Files this week and in that documentary, historian David Olusoga highlighted that it had been the Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s government which prior to the 1955 election, suggested using the slogan ‘Keep Britain White’. A Prime Minister who had led so many soldiers during the Second World War. A Prime Minister who your grandfather or great-grandfather would have looked up to. How does it feel knowing that he held these race-related views? Of course, if we had learned history, we would already know his government’s policy and how it attributed to the Bengal Famine of 1943, in which 3 million people died. But the Second World War is taught in a ‘we won the war’ way with very little self-analysis. As British citizens we are conditioned into knowing that we are amongst the most civilised nations of the world. We uphold law and order, justice and basically are one of the better countries. So how does this fact about Churchill and the bringing down of statues of slave traders leave people feeling about their identity of Britishness.
It is now finally, in 2020, that we see the UK having this identity crisis and fully looking into its past. There has been systemic racism built into the systems of this country – into education, into health, into housing, into the corridors of the public and private sectors. It is here, in the UK, that racism was born centuries ago, and now finally there is an awakening to that fact. Which yes, is leading to an identity crisis all round. Was this needed so that change could happen? Possibly.
Will there be healing from this? Yes! Let all colours and creeds come together as we all confront our individual and collective identity crises. The pain is deep, my loves – but we can start healing from this centuries old hurt. And in order to move forward, we must start the healing process.