Define: Being British


This is a question that I thought there was an easy answer. I remember when I first started to explore identity back in Sixth Form College as part of my graphic design project; I had to do a survey of what people called themselves. I was hit by a variety of answers. The responses ranged from “black British,” “English,” “British Nigerian,” “Indian,” “white British,” “Anglo-British” to name a few. There wasn’t a unified answer. Even today, there is nothing to say “we were born here (in England) therefore we are X or we are born aboard but now living in Britain and so we are now Y.” We’ve all just assumed a name for ourselves.

Though brought up heavily influenced by my Jamaican heritage, I would say that I’m English simply because I was born in greater London, I was raised there, English is my native and I ashamedly I say my only language I know (well, currently anyway); I call England ‘home’ when I’m abroad, I’m called English when I’m abroad…I don’t know any culture properly like I know about the English.

I would guess that the red flag has risen as I called myself “English” – being black and all – clearly I’m politically incorrect. Black people in England must be called British right? If I identify myself just as an ‘English (wo)man’ that says that I am white. What I’d like to know is why?

I’ve had this discussion with my friends and family and some responses reflect similar ideas to my own. Others in the discussion won’t have any of it as they see it that if I call myself English, I am therefore denying my West Indian heritage… That’s where it gets complicated.

If I leave my identity up to society, they’ll have me tossing and turning like the wind. For example, in Jamaica, and you’ll probably get this in your “homeland” too, I would be associated as it “English girl,” however, here in England I’m referred to as British or Jamaican which are both used interchangeably.

Has British society purposely used labels as a way of differentiation?

Whenever I apply for jobs, or fill in an application form of some type, I always cringe at the end where it mentions “ethnic diversity” or along those lines. If I have to address my background, I must “correctly” identify myself as a Black British Caribbean woman.

But what does it mean to be British? Great Britain consists of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. All four countries (?) have slightly different histories, cultures and languages – though all unified by the British Pound Sterling and its similarity in laws, I’m only from one part of Britain and that’s England.

As I’m having trouble narrowing down a definition of ‘being British’ is all about since it’s such a fluid term and many people have their own perceptions of the term…I wonder though, who can rightly call themselves English then?

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