On (my) Englishness

Posted by – October 5, 2016

(This is a Facebook post from when the Brexit vote happened.)

Now that Britain has voted to leave the European Union, with England in particular being the decider, I am reconsidering yet again whether or not there is such a thing as Englishness that I have some claim to.

When I was younger, I had a somewhat idealistic view of England. I saw it as an ancient, civilized and prestigious land, and thought seriously that I might study or live there at some point. My father is English, raised me to speak English, and we spent substantial time there every year. I considered myself unambiguously half-English (as opposed to some lower fraction). I was happy to be so; it was an unusual and special thing.

With time and increased understanding, my high opinion of England diminished somewhat. I still thought of myself as half-English, but not in a prideful way. Which is, of course, a correct adjustment. I also became more aware that there are many other people without my background who have made England their home, and who have a far better understanding of contemporary English language, customs and attitudes. My Englishness was of a somewhat symbolic, nostalgic flavour. Was it more or less authentic than that of a “true outsider”? This question cast the whole thing in an ambivalent light. My enthusiasm dampened.

Later yet, I began to sense a new reality. At the time, questions about national identity were becoming prominent everywhere, but in the UK the dominant discourse was clear: Englishness (or Britishness) was, in principle, open to all. In particular, people were very protective about the Englishness of immigrants from the old colonies, eg. people of Indian, Pakistani and Afro-Caribbean descent (probably because there was still a significant racial animus against them). They were important, appreciated participants – they not only were English, but changed Englishness, in many people’s opinion for the better.

What, then, was I? India, Pakistan and Jamaica are, after all, culturally and genetically rather distant from England. In those terms I was nearer, but I didn’t live there – and that’s all that really mattered. I came an unpleasant conclusion: that my idea since childhood of having a special claim to Englishness due to my ancestry, English accent and cultural affinity was, in fact, racist.

This really bothered me. Let me just say that again: the idea that I was any more English than a recent immigrant to England was racist. Probably even the idea that I was equally English was racist. I don’t mean that in a hyperbolic sense, I’m being serious. It’s what I really believe. It’s the logical conclusion of how people talk about it, even if they would never say such a thing directly to me. And therefore it was time to give up the idea that I was more English than any other Finn who might contemplate moving to England and becoming English in the actual sense of living there.

This was, for a while, the end of my sentimental Englishness. There was no England for *me* to be a part of, it was there for everyone. How strange, since on the other hand Englishness is such an identifiable cultural concept! But I am allergic to fakery, and rather than pursue a fake Englishness I resolved to accept that I am simply a Finn. In that, after all, there can be no dispute. I do have a special claim to Finnishness, and would do even if I had lived in England all my life.

As I internalised this view, I began to talk about it to others, especially to new English people I met. I was fascinated by two things in their reactions: first, that they didn’t find my thinking completely outlandish. It often happens to me that when I try to think things through to their logical conclusion, my conclusion is “outlandish”. And second, that they said that I was right about some groups – Londoners, Guardian readers, politicians – but wrong about much of the rest of England. That I *did* have a special English status, at least among some English people.

Well, by now it is clear that we are living in a new moment in which identities are rising in importance. It is probably just those “ignorant” and “bigoted” “little Englanders” who voted for Brexit who would tend to accept my claim to Englishness. And as much as I know I’m not supposed to have affinity with such people, I must admit to a feeling of warmth at the idea that there is an England, and I am not necessarily a blank to it. Of course, whether or not there is an ethnocultural “England” doesn’t depend on the result of the EU referendum, but the result does suggest that people feel strongly about the concept – strongly enough to probably give themselves a lot of trouble.

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