20 March 2021 is UN Anti-Racism Day. The growth of the Black Lives Matter movement has shone a fresh spotlight on the horrific levels of racism around the world. With the Coronavirus crisis intensifying, structural racism & health inequalities mean the epidemic is continuing to disproportionately impact Black communities.
Watching Meghan Markle talk about the British press and British society stirred up a lot of feelings for me and many people of colour. The fragility of your legitimacy in being British if you are not white is always there. It might not be invasive and on the surface all the time, but it is always there, in the background, and you don’t know when it’s going to come to the fore.
The frequency of taunts such as “Go back to where you came from” or “Go back to your country” are the more aggressive forms of this invasion into people’s lives. More insidious versions are “Where are you from? No, where are you from really?” or “Where are you from originally?” Or you endure people laughing at your strange name, or your different ways of living life. These are the indicators of how British society doubts the legitimacy of your citizenship if you are a person of colour.
Whatever your mixed thoughts are about Shamima Begum, she was born in this country. She’s as British as me, yet her citizenship has been withdrawn. Just as we were always told growing up. You never know what might happen; when they might ask us to leave. In a recent webinar, BBC journalist Kavita Puri commented “How many generations do you have to be here before you belong?”
What is Britishness?
I am not the first person to write about this, and there will be many more as Britishness evolves. Afua Hirsch in her book Brit(ish) talks about ‘the question’ people are always asked: Where are we from? On a TV show when she talked about racism in this country, she was asked why she doesn’t leave then? Her Britishness and right to be here thrown immediately into question, because she is questioning things.
We are here because you were there. No one wants to hear that though. Sathnam Sanghera, in his book Empireland, expertly unpicks ‘Empire’ and how pervasive it is in British society. But you know what? Since he published that book, he has been harassed online repeatedly about it.
He says it’s just one of the many ways in which British identity is confused. “There’s very little knowledge of Empire.“ Which means Britain has not reconciled itself with the truth about Empire so that confuses British identity.
We talk of the glory of the 2012 Olympics and the celebration of Britishness, but it’s so fragile that we are a million miles away from that now. And if you look closely at those Olympics, they enforce the notion, articulated by Nikesh Shukla, that there are ‘good’ immigrants who win Olympic medals, become chancellor and home secretary. And there are immigrants who are harassed, judged and attacked by British society.
And we do not become true citizens for what seems like generations. It’s unclear when and if that happens. We are ‘second generation immigrants’; we are asked where we are from, where are we from really? We know the subtext is “Where did that skin colour come from?”
Within that, there are so many things to unpick. Lumping everyone together as black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) is a notion that came from white people. The truth is that there is no one word or term you can use to lump so many people and experiences together. If you’re Asian, we all know about anti-black racism in our families. And we know about the anti-Asian racism from other communities of colour towards us. We experience it frequently. If we dare to step into any discussions, where people have decided we do not belong, we are attacked
As well as the 2012 Olympics, we can pinpoint the 2016 Brexit referendum as another point in this debate. That brought xenophobia to the fore. A mass of people wanting to get rid of the immigrants. The spike in hate crime after that is a sad fact. And the taunts and chants directed at people like me, are very, very real.
The 2019 general election is another arc in that narrative. The very evening of that election result I was shouted at while waiting at the station at Clapham Junction to “Go back to my country”. Not sure where they meant, I headed back to Brighton.
And here, in 2021, we have lived through the Black Lives Matter protests of last year, with a significant threat of people screaming “All lives matter” and complaining to Ofcom when a TV programme featured a piece about the movement.
More from Mo Kanjilal:
- What can we learn from Sanna Marin, prime minister of Finland?
- Kamala Harris: representation, reputation and imperfect role models
Where does this leave British identity? We will have new census results soon showing the change in our demographics. By 2050 people from minority ethnic backgrounds will be a third of the population.
Will we reach a point where the notion of Britishness changes? Where we are ‘allowed’ to be here no matter how we came to be here, through marriage or birth? Is that the arc we are going through now, with the anger towards people? Is this the process we need? For Britain to face its past, understand why people are here. Listen, learn and reconsider Britishness and belonging.