Why Britishness, as an identity, is in crisis

Journalist Afua Hirsch’s new book, Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging, explores her experience as a mixed-race woman and she discusses what it means to be British.

By Afua Hirsch
Published 19 Apr 2018, 12:53 BST

Britain has been a multicultural society for centuries. To the extent that racial homogeneity has ever existed anywhere, it has certainly never characterised this clutter of islands in the North Sea that has been home to Africans, for example, far longer than it has been home to the English. Continuing archaeological finds give evidence that black people lived in Roman Britain before the Germanic Angles and Saxons brought pillage and destruction in their wake. The dark hair and eyes that are still romanticised in Britain as Celtic features more likely come from the Mediterranean. The thousands of African, Caribbean, and Asian people who inhabited Britain in the 17th and 18th centuries had disappeared by the Victorian era, their genes dispersed far and wide throughout Britain’s gene pool, their physical and cultural presence no longer visible at all.

But Britain’s idea of itself as a modern nation is rarely troubled by historical fact. The multiculturalism that politicians grapple with in contemporary times is a more recent invention, a response to the changes Britain experienced to its racial and cultural makeup after the Second World War. As mass immigration from many other countries continued throughout the 20th century, the modern struggle to create a narrative of what it means to be British began.

The puzzle for Britain’s political classes has been how to create policies befitting a multicultural future while avoiding questions of race. The reason for this avoidance has been simple.

Cultural Baggage

Afua Hirsch's book, Brit(ish), has sparked a lively debate about race, class and privilege.

Britain transitioned seamlessly from an imperial motherland passionately convinced of its own racial superiority to one with the moral integrity of having defeated Nazism. Acknowledging the crimes of the British Empire was neither an appealing nor convenient option. The debate about immigration has been ahistorical, but also loaded with the cultural baggage of a nation reframing itself in a post-imperial reality. The answers have come in the form of integration and diversity: Modern aspirations that equip British people— famously awkward when it comes to engaging in the language of race and identity—with the tools necessary to organise a newly multicultural society.

Integration is an especially strange word in Britain. Unlike other countries where the law formerly kept the races apart, integration does not mean the end of segregation because segregation never existed as an official legal regime on British soil. Instead, integration means something vaguer, something closer to social mixing and assimilation.

Immigrant Communities

Italian-born photographer, Christian Sinibaldi, captured portraits of the people who live in Hackney, London. He photographed them where he found them as part of a project that revealed the rich diversity of people who lived there.
Photograph by Christian Sinibaldi

It is immigrant communities, rather than society as a whole, who are encouraged to integrate. Yet the barriers to integration are well-known and far more complex than that narrative suggests. A high-profile government report in 2016 singled out Britain’s Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities as particularly failing to integrate but found that only one of the factors—the desire to live near and have the support of a community of people from similar backgrounds—had anything to do with personal choice. The other factors were the pull of the labour market and the poverty trap. Twenty five percent of young black people and 28 percent of young Bangladeshi and Pakistani people are unemployed, more than double the percentage of white job seekers of the same age—a reminder that opportunity in modern Britain remains structurally uneven along race as well as class lines.

Different immigrant communities have different track records when it comes to integration, yet the evidence is patchy as to whether that has contributed positively to these groups’ socioeconomic success. For people of African and Caribbean heritage, who are regarded as better performing when it comes to integration, 50 percent of families still live in low-income households, compared to 20 percent of white households. The mixed-race children of Caribbean men and white women suffer an “ethnic penalty” placing them further down the socioeconomic ladder than their parents. Integration has not been the answer to the barriers they face. Britishness, as an identity, is in crisis. It is still linked in the imaginations of people of all races to the concept of whiteness. A 2017 poll found that more than half of the British population felt the presence of people from ethnic minorities threatened their culture.

Related: The People and Places of Hackney

Not surprisingly, there is widespread distrust in the language of integration. It’s the only answer political leaders currently have to offer and represents the unspoken hope that eventually these visible “others” will have their otherness neutralised by British culture. They will eventually disappear, leaving nothing more than a trace of curly hair, a splash of extra freckles, a liberal, harmless version of a foreign faith, or the memory of a funny-sounding name, their culture blending seamlessly into the mainstream British experience. It’s a hope that can only offer more division in a nation that desperately needs an identity to bring it together.

A resident and his family from Hackney, London.
Photograph by Christian Sinibaldi

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