Some days, I talk to my co-workers about mundane things like the weather or what I had for dinner. Other days, it seems, the conversation is doomed to descend into a racist, xenophobic, and often factually incorrect rant about immigrants, the EU, and the ‘destruction of England’. This seems to be inevitable in a country which, until recently, I considered to be part of Europe (my American education never disputed that idea and it is, you know, right there next to it). Men carry bags, people go to cafes for lunch and tea, they have a queen: Europe! Many of the residents, though, would be strongly opposed to that assumption, and would likely voice their opposition very loudly. Central to all these conversations is the assertion that ‘Some day, there will be no one truly “English” left in England’, an assertion I find really laughable. After all, the government deemed me to be ‘English’ enough for it to say so on my passport, and I still get confused by the difference between ‘chips’ and ‘crisps’ sometimes.
As a person who hails from a country often referred to as ‘the melting pot’, and specifically from a state where white, English-speaking Americans (‘real Americans’ as many unabashed bigots would happily tell you) are often in the minority, I find this strange conversation to have heavily racist undertones. The same person who will tell you that ‘Englishness’ is under threat will start the next statement with ‘I don’t mean to be racist, but…’, leading me to roll my eyes and immediately exit the conversation. (If you don’t mean to be racist, I think, you should probably just not say what ever it is you are about to say). After all, no one has ever confronted me about my easy citizenship, granted to me simply because my biological father happens to be from England. And, if you wanted to be really pedantic about it, you could point out that my fathers family is actually from Scotland originally, and therefore isn’t really even English at all. I may very well have distant cousins who recently marched in the streets for their independence from the British Parliament.
But what really strikes me as interesting in all this is the idea of ‘Englishness’. What, I find myself asking the speaker, does it mean to be ‘English’? What is this ‘Englishness’, and how exactly is it threatened by immigrants and refugees? Once, in the US, we had this crazy idea that all you had to do to be ‘American’ was to live in America. People came from all over the world simply to become American, and once they were granted that privilege they took great pride in their new titles. However, in England, this doesn’t seem to be the case. People who immigrate to England, it seems, often still identify as whatever they were before they arrived. I remember my confusion is university when a girl introduced herself to me as ‘from New Delhi but grew up in Islington’. I though, if you grew up in Islington, aren’t you English? After all, I’m from Nottingham but I grew up in Alabama, and despite my issues with the title I still identify myself as American most of the time. It seems, then, that ‘Englishness’ isn’t something people particularly want. Why then are we defending it with so much anger and vitriol?
When I ask people these questions, however, it rarely gets me anywhere at all. People only get angrier when you try to dig further into their prejudices, with internalized racism often being the most aggressively held bias. The only thing stronger than a subconscious racist’s racism is their anger when you try to deconstruct and analyse that racism. If you, for example, point out that India was in fact a colony of Great Britain until very recently, and that many Indians may still see Britain as a part of their cultural heritage and identity (not necessarily a positive one, but its there all the same), and therefore those Indians may feel that coming to England for work or study is not only a privilege they’re entitled to but something essential to their education or professional development, you better prepare yourself to be on that person’s shit list. Point out that the reason those refugees are fleeing their country’s army is because the UK government sold weapons to that army, get ready for a whole world of ignorant, downright stupid responses. You’ll hear all the regular ones – ‘They should stay and fix their country, not leave it! They’re the reason their country is so terrible!’ (Okay, you try going up against an armed militia who wants to murder your family, using nothing but the objects you have in your house); ‘People have the governments they deserve’ (Yes because you, personally, have fought so hard to ‘deserve’ your government); ‘We’ve already helped enough of them!’ (Yes we have reached our ‘helping people and being good human beings’ quota for the month. We cannot help anyone else now. You’ll have to come back later. Or never. Preferably never.) – along with some outlandish and ridiculous thinly veiled racist statements. Ask them what it really means to be ‘English’ though, and often they won’t have a clue.
‘Holding citizenship’ – I hold citizenship and I consider myself to be an American.
‘Being born here’ – I was born here.
‘Speaking English’ – I have a very good friend who speaks fluent English but was recently denied entry to the country because he’s a Saudi Arabian citizen.
‘Having English blood’ – considering the amount of rape and pillaging (sorry, ‘colonisation’) you lot are responsible for worldwide, I’d wager there are quite a lot of Pacific Islanders out there with ‘English blood’.
The list goes on. Eliminate all of them and you seem to be left with one single, solitary category left. In order to be suitably ‘English’, to possess the right quantity of ‘Englishness’, you must be white, British, and nationalistic to the point of utter denial of reality. How else do you explain the fact that, every time I hear someone ranting about immigrants and I speak up to remind them that I am an immigrant, they immediately insist they don’t mean me. It’s because I’m white, and therefore I’m suitably ‘English’ to pass.
The idea of ‘Englishness’ is something that’s often brought up by extremist right-wing parties like UKIP or the BNP, and to insist that it is anything but the assertion that no one can be truly ‘English’ unless they are white is utter denial of the internalized racism that drives this type of xenophobia. People want to defend ‘Englishness’, in my opinion, because defending ‘whiteness’ sounds bad. The world is changing. Where once being white was your one way ticket to feeling superior to everyone else, it is now, at best, a way to receive unearned privilege. Here’s an idea though: instead of losing your head because suddenly not everyone looks like you or talks like you or does ‘Englishness’ like you, why not embrace difference? Why not accept the fact that cultural identities are constantly shifting and changing, and that to cling to one specific idea of your culture is to stand still while everyone else around you moves forward. We should not let culture shape our idea of who people should be, we should allow culture to change according to the people who call it home. Change doesn’t have to be scary; being ‘English’ doesn’t mean what it did 100 years ago (imperialist, coloniser, racist), and that’s a good thing. Maybe, rather than there being no ‘English’ people left, there will just be lots of new ‘English’ people. Maybe, by letting people from other places come in and change our ‘Englishness’, we might continue to improve and grow less biased, less bigoted, instead of staying the same.