Growing up in the UK, and living in an “ethnic minority” community – whatever that means, I too came to the realisation that I didn’t really ‘belong’ ‘anywhere’. Many people from my background would have a sense of this ‘absence’. They might not be familiar with the terminology or how to describe the ‘absence’ but they know the feelings and emotions that I’m speaking of. Much has been written on the phenomenon of belonging and its sense of absence which can create profound turmoil in individuals and larger collectives. We know that belonging is intimately tied with a sense of well-being, and its absence can create a dysfunctional person who has no sense of responsibility to his peers or environment.
Or at least that’s the theory we’re told whenever we try to understand the behaviour of crazed ‘lunatics’ motivated by violent ideologies. It’s almost a given that they are presented as ‘belonging‘ to a ‘dispossessed fringe‘ of a ‘minority culture‘ at odds with the dominant ‘mainstream‘. These are the buzz words that are used.
But, it’s one thing to say you’re ‘English’, ‘Pakistani’, ‘South Asian, ‘Muslim’, ‘Catholic’ – the list can be exhaustive – and it’s another thing to feel ‘it’. And if you have people who always want to remind you, for instance, that you’re not really what you claim to be, it’s pointless to emotionally invest in the ‘identity’ even if you identify with the corresponding ‘label’.
I’m speaking of group-identities.
In our modern age of reason, individuals are not doormats, to be given the privilege of belonging, so that some of their peers feel more empowered whilst others feel fortunate to be connected to them. In this power-relationship, the one claims an authenticity of identity – and it’s simply taken for granted – whilst the other’s ‘claim’ is seen as almost ‘counterfeit’ entirely conditional on the acknowledgement of the former.
What kind of ‘identity’ is that?
Why would anyone in their right mind want to belong to such a trade-off?
What you should know is that the idea of ‘identities’ isn’t cracked up to be what most people think it is. You’ll hear people say, “don’t attack my identity”, taking deep umbrage at what others say about their ‘group’ as if ‘they’ – the individuals – are being personally attacked. And yet if you asked them to tell you something about their ‘identities’, something substantive, historical, anthropological, other than the obvious things we take for granted, they probably couldn’t tell you anything. And yet they confuse their ‘imagined’ identity, their modern-day mask if you like, with some collective ‘past’, personal memories and projected ancestral roots. Expectedly, they wouldn’t have an inkling about the history and actual ‘ideas’ behind concepts of identity.
FACT NO 1: Identities are ambiguous.
Writers and experts, who daily walk the terrain of ‘identities’ are not sure about what exactly constitutes an identity, and even those who are pioneers in the field ritually confess their inability to offer definitive answers. The introductions to their books are filled with caveats. But, they still try to give definitions of ‘identity’. At its most basic core, or root, is the idea that identities are about ‘identification’; the subtle distinction is by no means slight. Identities are about ‘identifying’ with something, and that ‘thing’ says something about you. It doesn’t mean that the thing in question is ‘real’, or, in the manner you ‘imagine’ it, but that you feel it, as do others, and you get something from it, you can call this ‘well-being’ if you like.
How any of us, would expand on this insight, is again open to incredible debate and discussion and is fraught with all sorts of conceptual and analytical difficulties.
Without trying to make too big a leap from issues of identity to historical power-dynamics, our past can however reveal a lot about our modern-day anxieties. In the olden days, one kind of relationship made sense, from which we extract the seeds of our modern ‘nation-state’ identities, and that was the patronage networks.
In western Europe – and there are parallels elsewhere – the feudal lord, owed his graces and noble airs because of the wealth he acquired through his connection with the King – the ‘top dog’ from a power-dynamic perspective. The king was the personal embodiment of the power structure, and the territory he ruled was ‘imagined’ and ‘described’ through the accoutrements of symbols associated with his person and family traditions. A lot of the flags of many European and non-European countries take us back to this past. To say that you ‘belonged’ to this network, made sense, because you had the proof of connection. Wealth, wasn’t merely handed out, titles of rank and ‘pedigree’ connecting you with the power-structure was an essential ingredient to the ‘identity’ on show.
There was also reciprocation, a very interesting concept when it comes to issues of ‘well-being’ and ‘belonging’.
You fought on behalf of the King because you got something back in return. The King ennobled you with land and titles because you had his back. In other words, you were identifying with a political order in which you had your stake and ‘status’. Astute and shrewd Kings knew that ‘power’ could never be absolute and they would tread carefully. The more power-hungry Kings, usually narcissistic ones, frequently lost their heads and jeopardised the succession of their rule. But, the trade-off for both parties was worth it. Even when a feudatory felt humiliated or slighted by his ‘Superior’, he got over it and moved on.
Today, as political territories have given way to nation states built on the flimsy idea of ‘nationhood’, the older sense of belonging as given way to all manner of perverse ideas. Even those who feel they ‘belong’, have nothing to show for it, their ‘well-being’ is merely illusory.
I would put it like this to use an illustration readily familiar to us because of our experiences in the UK as ‘immigrant communities’. I’m sure you’ve heard the racial slur – ‘coconut’?
You have someone who says he’s ‘English’ because he was born in England. Now, on account of being born in England, he thinks he has a clear stake in his ‘identity’ not least because he lives and breathes that identity whatever its related ambiguities. He visibly partakes in the culture. He may even become a parody of himself, behaving unnaturally, perhaps over-compensating to ‘belong’, to demonstrate to his ‘peers’ that he really ‘is’ one of ‘them’. But another of his contemporaries retorts, flippantly, “but you’re not really English – used interchangeably with British – because your parents weren’t from Britain!”
FACT 2; ‘Belonging’ is based on the acceptance of the group. On this occasion, it is expressed by someone totally invested in his own credentials as a true Brit. An impressionable person would think it’s really about deep ancestry, ‘blood and bones’, ‘sons of the soil’ sort of thing – these are claims made by individuals who don’t understand the illusory nature of their claims.
Think of it like this.
If the German-descended British Royal Family are not ‘English’, symbolically intertwined with the image of Britain, – “God save the Queen”, “fight for your King, fight for your country” and all that, then no one in England is English. This would hold true for entire swathes of England, from Irish-descended Englishman, possibly just under half the current English population believe it or not, to French-fleeing Huguenots and a host of other french-speaking ‘Normans’ or Viking-descendant communities.
Some of the most celebrated Englishman have traceable roots outside these Isles.
But there is another point here.
If the person claiming this sort of authenticity of identity has nothing to show for his genuine British-credentials, you would be forced to ask, what exactly is he ‘proud of’? What kind of identity is he ‘defending’ or ‘protecting’? The accomplishments, achievements and ‘well-being’ of his native peers who live separately from him? These are ‘people’ who wouldn’t even spare a thought for him – ‘class’ is a still a big problem in many parts of the world, and not just the UK. In Britain today, there are social-commentators writing about the experiences of an English ‘underclass’, pejorative terms from around the Anglosphere to describe such people, would include ‘Chavs’, ‘White-trash’, ‘Inbreds’, ‘Red-necks’, ‘Hill-billies’ etc.
There is a history here I wont bore you with, but it’s about how the poorer classes were identified by their richer peers, many of whom, were social-climbers, usually having come from the poorer-classes. People everywhere over-compensate to be ‘accepted’ by their new-peers denying their former lives, and distancing themselves from their older-peers. Aristocrats on the other hand, or those historically connected with the patronage-network I mentioned earlier, are pretty secure about themselves. They rarely ‘notice’ those beneath them, because there’s no corresponding social value to speak ill of their inferiors; they don’t need to demonstrate who they are.
Everyone else knows it. I’m not saying they are ‘virtuous’ when it comes to issues of race.
I’m speaking about social anxieties.
These sorts of anxieties have nothing to do with the actual identities of ethnic groups, but about a social pecking order. This is about internal fault-lines; people extricating themselves from their former lives, usually go on to hate others who remind them of where they came from, usually less-threatening people, as a demonstration of what they’re no longer. For those at the bottom of this social pecking order, they start to hate ‘immigrants’, the new-comers, simply because they can; immigrants are convenient targets because they don’t have powerful groups protecting them from the existing groups, until some sections, enter the new governing-class.
And so in the case, of our authentic Briton in the above scenario, ‘British by blood and soil’, in my mind, he is a deluded person, who merely makes a claim stripped of any corresponding social reality.
Now, just imagine, the person claiming this ‘racial authenticity’ – “I am a true Englishman, you are not” – offers nothing to the group that embodies such a collective ‘identity’?
Yes, people imagine identities through the obvious – the outward symbols – and we mere mortals impact how others see and imagine us, even unsuspectingly.
Identities are ‘us’.
‘We’ are the identities. Or at least that’s how group identities are first confronted, and then ‘imagined’.
So this ‘Englishman’ – the true ‘Briton’ – offers literally nothing to his ‘race’, his group, his ‘nation’, ‘ethnicity’ – all buzz words for some deep ancestral authenticity albeit imagined. He lives off the ‘State’ – i.e., ‘taxpayers’ (‘note’ how we abstract people when it suits us), many of whom are foreign-born; doesn’t contribute anything to his native-born peers or foreign-born counterparts. In the extreme case, he’s a lout, and an inconsiderate one too, dropping litter everywhere he goes to use negative stereotypes recycled by the mainstream media, mindful of the anxieties I’ve already mentioned. Gutter journalism is not merely a problem for immigrants, but for all people who are weak and vulnerable, it is an outlet for deep-seated anxieties that sell papers.
And let’s say the other ‘Englishman’ – the ‘lessor-Briton’ if you like – the one being accused of ‘fakery’ is, say, a surgeon, performing life-saving operations daily, paying considerable taxes and actually contributing to our understanding of say, diseases and their cures. But yet s/he is not English or British ‘enough’ because he or she is ‘brown’ or ‘black’ or ‘eastern European’ – to use a frame of reference we instantly recognise.
What kind of ‘identity’ is that?
And if this person is merely tolerated by virtue of all the social good he or she does, or expected to do, why would anyone want to ‘belong’ to such an ‘identity’? Why when there is an infraction, does he become a ‘smelly immigrant’?
This trade-off would be an unfair one,… except we can recognise certain benefits.
So it’s no longer that simple any more.
Choosing ‘sides’ with whichever ‘group’ accepts you; group here is code for an imaginary identity, isn’t a sufficiently good answer when they don’t do anything for you; their ‘authentic’ members concerned more about themselves and their own myths of origin.
Group identities are a lot more complex than simply feeling the need to belong to a ‘group’, ‘nation’ or ‘territory’.
Let’s look at our own experiences as ‘immigrant communities’, 3 and 4 generations removed from the original ‘immigrants’. Most of us still feel ‘British’, perhaps more British than feeling like we belong somewhere else. In the ‘British’ ‘South-Asian’ community – (note, we need to be careful with these terms) – we tend never to use the term ‘English’ but ‘British’ despite overwhelmingly having been born in England whilst having little or no ties with the other constituent countries of the UK. There are certain racial undertones to the idea of being English that don’t necessarily correspond with the British equivalence which I need not get into here. But the point nonetheless remains.
So why do we still feel ‘British’ if we don’t say we’re ‘English?
Because we get something in return from the society we live in.
Generally-speaking, and for the most part, Britain is a wonderful place to live whatever the presence of noticeable racists and those pandering to them as a means of mobilising votes or getting ‘noticed’. If I’m permitted to say, ‘shitty’ people live everywhere; my apologies to the word-police. Some of them use incendiary and inflammatory language to express their hatred of the ‘imposters’ and the ‘newcomers’; polite society looks away, disgusted but perhaps not necessarily that offended.
Then there are those ‘racists’ who present more positively, coming across more reasonable, the sophisticated social commentators, or experts, that fret about impending doom. They get airtime and column spaces because they look respectable and they speak politely. A lot of what they say is based on subtle prejudice and bias, and they may not be even aware of their own anxieties – it’s usually people who are insecure in their ‘cherished’ identities that want to challenge others that pose as the ‘new danger’ to ‘their’ country’s national identity and heritage.
This happens everywhere.
But there seems to be a lot less of these ‘characters’ in the UK than elsewhere. Let me put it this way. Think of eastern Europeans complaining about Britain becoming less-welcoming of them – the new ‘European’ foreigners if you like; my apologies for lumping them all in one ‘group’. If you were a ‘brown’ guy from the UK, do you think people would treat you better in, say, ’EU’ Hungary with all its fanfare about keeping ‘Europe’ ‘Christian’, and protecting the EU’s borders?
We’ve seen how the Roma get treated in these countries.
How many of us can forget that image of the camerawoman tripping a helpless, defenceless, little Syrian refugee boy whose family were merely transiting through Hungary on their way to Germany!? Which Refugee in his right mind, having plucked up the courage to flee his native land, having sold all his prized possessions, or having fled with none, opt for a country like ‘Hungary’, when you see images of adults spiting the fortunes of little children because they belong to the wrong ‘identity’?
But some of these ‘European’ nationals think because their ‘white’, ‘European’ and ‘Christian’, they should have preferential treatment over us ‘lessor Britons’, even as some of our ambiguous-looking Britons want to tell them, “can you please go to the back of the line; we ‘British’ form excellent queues“! For some of these ‘newcomers’ ‘freedom of movement’ means ‘Europeans’ like them moving across borders, and they don’t necessarily include ‘us’ in that definition. Mr James White, from Bolton is welcome in Hungary, but I doubt Ranjeet Singh from Southall would get the same reception.
Of course, not all Hungarians are racist or xenophobic.
Most of them, in fact the majority of them, would probably feed you if you knocked on their door dying from the pangs of hunger and thirst. The overwhelming majority of people, wherever they are in the world, are good, it’s just the impressionable amongst us who get manipulated by those selling them ‘impeding doom’. However, positive vibes aside, there’s a lot more ‘visible’ racists in Hungary than there are in Britain not least because of Britain’s colonial heritage and global reach, and the ongoing struggle to deal with imaginary fault-lines.
You should now understand the wider point.
Feeling that you don’t ‘belong’ somewhere is not the same thing as not accruing ‘tangible opportunities’ – a mutual exchange for those offering the opportunities and those partaking in them. If you accrue real, tangible benefits like human and civic rights, and economic opportunities, you’re less likely to speak of your sense of ‘absence’ whatever the antagonisms of racists and insecure patriots that had triggered your anxieties in the first place.
I’ve also tried to show the delusions that come by way of thinking you’re part of something ‘great’ and worth ‘preserving’ whilst having nothing to show for it.