It would happen every now and again during NSOP. I would introduce myself as an international student from London, and the other person would say, with good intentions, “Oh, you’re English!” I’d clench my teeth as I hesitated to smile—because they didn’t know. I am from London, England, born and raised. But I am not English—because I am black. I am British. How do I explain the complexities of my national identity, which in actuality doesn’t make much sense, to a person I just met during first-year orientation?
Well, I didn’t. But now I will begin to explain the interesting and paradoxical nuances of black British identity. First, let’s define some key terms. Britain is the island containing England, Scotland, and Wales. Therefore, to be British is to live in England, Scotland, or Wales. However, England, Scotland, and Wales are distinct countries in and of themselves with their own individual cultures and histories. To be English/Scottish/Welsh is to be born in those countries specifically. You could compare it to an American having a simultaneous national and state identity.
Now, things get complicated when you’re a first- or second-generation immigrant and a person of color. I should feel English because I was born in England, but Englishness is associated with whiteness—thus excluding me. Instead, I love London specifically because it is where I grew up, and my Jamaican heritage is a crucial part of my identity. Therefore, I describe myself as Jamaican-British or British-Caribbean. “British” is viewed as more inclusive than English because it is considered a “civic” identity—which is dependent on nationality and citizenship—rather than an “ethnic” one—which is dependent on ancestry.
It is an unsaid—but nationally recognized—rule that the English identity is white: For instance, in the ethnicity section on any official form, there is only the option of “Black/African/Caribbean British” for those of us who were born in England. While “Black/African/Caribbean Scottish” is sometimes an option, “Black English” is out of the question.
Although, I don’t know if I’d want to call myself English. I remember a friend born in Belgium telling me that she considers herself Belgian alongside being Congolese, which I think is awesome. I replied that I’ve never felt English.
“That’s what they want you to think,” my friend pointed out, referring to the English in general. “They want to exclude you.”
I mean, that’s valid—and it’s working pretty well—but I’m not rushing to claim Englishness. Why would I, when the country, much like the United States, is institutionally racist? Why would I, when black people are underrepresented in parliament, the judiciary, faculty in higher education—the list goes on. Why would I, when police brutality in England is shrouded in willful ignorance like the bodies of black men who mysteriously die in police custody? England ain’t particularly claiming me; why would I claim it? The exclusion is deeply entrenched, systematic, and difficult to fight—think of the lack of diversity in the Core, for example. Hence, I will happily circle “British Caribbean” on the ethnicity section of a form.
That being said, I seldom feel British. The only time I have ever felt British was during the 2012 London Olympics, specifically the opening ceremony. When I saw the re-enactment of the docking of the Windrush—the ship that brought the first wave of Jamaican immigrants to London in the 1960s—I saw my grandparents as if they were my age now, creating an entire diaspora by setting foot on a country they’d never been to before. And then, at the end of the ceremony, I saw myself, my classmates, the people I walk the streets with, in the varied faces of the performers and Team GB. I saw the vibrancy of my London reflected on my TV screen: loud and raucous and quick in its speed and wit.
I felt the opposite after Brexit, four years later. Not that I was surprised at the racism and xenophobia of the Brexit campaigns and their aftermath. Rather, I was surprised at myself—I discovered that I felt very removed from Britishness. I really would catch myself laughing dryly at a dire headline and thinking, “That’s what you get!” as if I wasn’t going to lose my burgundy EU passport like everybody else. Clearly, Britishness is not an intrinsic part of my being: It is a passport, a birth certificate, perhaps a fleeting feeling of belonging—if someone decides to include me. I am Jamaican by blood, Londoner at heart, and British only by birth.
I get the sense that some of my friends at Columbia who are American-born and black (and perhaps other people of color) have a similar relationship to the US. There is a recognition that, yes, you are American and that is a part of you, but because of racism (and not to mention the massive factor of history, which I haven’t even had the time to address in this article), you may not feel American.
A fellow columnist complained that on campus there is a “default position” of a “reflexive anti-Americanism.” While this is evident, do not read my column as “fashionable, liberal distaste” for the West: This is simply my experience. My identity as a person of color—born in a Western country with an imperial legacy under which my ancestors suffered—is complicated. I cannot deny my Britishness because it will always shape my worldview. I’m grateful for the benefits of British citizenship—the NHS, for example. My relationship with Britishness is not a clear-cut loathing, but rather a detachment that breeds indifference and sometimes resentment. I cannot deny my country but, unfortunately, my country can deny me.
Liberty Martin is a Columbia College first-year from Thornton Heath, South London, who is currently looking to major in creative writing. You can follow her on Twitter at @libertytaking. Views from the Seven runs alternate Fridays.
To respond to this column, or to submit an op-ed, contact email@example.com.