A couple of weeks ago, as part of the run up to the TV programme ‘Make Bradford British’, I was asked to consider the following question:
‘The Prime Minister says that state multiculturalism has failed. Can Britain thrive as a multicultural society, or has diversity created a Britain that no longer has an identity – what is Britain’s current national identity and what makes us British?’
Blimey. I wasn’t sure where to begin. It’s a bit different from talking about personalised notebooks and dating dilemmas isn’t it? Still, I like a challenge, so I gave it a go. Do you think Britain can thrive as a multicultural society? What does being British mean to you? Do let me know…
I think I have a rather naïve view of the realities of a multicultural and multi-faith Britain.
Growing up in a small West Country town, that was about as homogenous as they come, I was never exposed to any of the issues surrounding multiculturalism, and never felt the need to question the identity of my country, or how it might be affected by increasing diversity.
I don’t doubt that this sheltered upbringing has resulted in a great deal of ignorance on my part, but at the same time, part of me wants to cling to this innocence. Unrealistic it may be, but I can’t help but be drawn to the ‘can’t we all just be nice to each other?’ school of thought. Yes we may believe in different things, have different customs and traditions, but what ever happened to respecting difference? I don’t always agree with my friends and family, often about pretty fundamental things, but this doesn’t mean we can’t get along.
When I really think about it, national identity just isn’t really a concept I can identify with. Yes there are perhaps some superficial things that make us ‘British’ – a poor sense of style that makes us instantly recognisable to European shopkeepers being one of them – but ultimately the characteristics and behaviours that are important to me, and which I do my best to instil in my children, are not about being British, they are just about being human. Tolerance, acceptance, patience and open-mindedness are all qualities I believe are vital in a diverse society, but they aren’t linked to my national identity, they’re just about me as a person, wanting to have respect for other human beings.
I’m well aware that there will be people reading this and laughing sarcastically – ‘ha!’ they’ll say, ‘this woman knows nothing of the real issues, of the persecution endured my minority groups, look at her in her little bubble’ and yes, maybe they are right, maybe I do live with a rose-tinted vision of how a multicultural society can be, but then what if everyone took my simplistic view of life? What if we were all just a bit nicer? Wouldn’t the world be a much easier place to live?
There’s plenty of room for everyone in my bubble, and just maybe it would be a nicer place to be.
Yes there is persecution of the minorties…. but we as white are persecuted too, as are women, fat people, short people, tall people, ignorant people, clever people…… the list is endless. I get very upset when people talk about wide spread racism because unless someone is calling for the wholesale execution/deportation of a race then I really don’t see why words exchanged in the heat of the moment or in witty repartee between two people or a small group should mean we have committed a criminal act. Multiculturalism is separate groups working together, you only have to look at America, which is no longer a country but a multicultural experiment, to see that whilst they all work together and tolerate each other, they all keep their individual roots alive in Little Italy, China Town, Cuban Bars, Mosques etc. We have to press to keep OUR rights to have turkey that is not Halal in schools, Pagan festivals at Halloween, blacking up for Morris Dances etc. because they are all a bit of fun than forms part of our traditions and nowadays have nothing whatsoever to do with picking on Muslims, Christians or Africans – and anyone who believes they are should be picked on! And being British, above all else, is having the ability not only to make a joke of anything and anyone, but also having the abiity to laugh at ourselves, and God forbid anyone who threatens to take that away!
I think that’s a really important point about humour, as I do think that is a really valuable trait, being able to laugh at yourself and at your situation. I think there are a lot of people who take life, and themselves, far too seriously.
I suppose I had the opposite ubringing to you but lived in the same sort of bubble. I lived in London and had many mixed race friends, and friends from many faiths and ethnicities and never really thought anything of it. And then later someone said something derogatory about a jew and it hadn’t occured to me that anyone might not like jews. I guess some people are against some people who are different from them but I have also never really understood that attitude. As to what makes Britain British I don’t really know?
That’s really interesting – so you had the opposite situation to me, but ultimately it resulted in the same thing – neither of us having experienced any clash of cultures, and just assuming that everyone got along! How did you feel when your bubble was burst? Was it a real shock?
Well I think London is an unusual place in that in some areas the races -for want of a better word- rub along quite nicely. I did not live in an area where they had race riots and I was a naive touchy feely hippy type so although asian friends might tell me they were being harassed I never saw it first hand. I think the bubble really burst when I moved to Baltimore USA where black and white are strongly segregated (if not officially) and there is somehow more antagonism between black and white and ‘Americans’ and non-Americans. It’s just very out there and in your face whereas in England racism is well hidden most of the time.
With globalisation, does the race card really have a place in defining a multicultural nation’s identity any more. I might be Canadian, but we have had multiculturalism as a national policy since 71, and became a federal act in the 80’s, it is just about respecting differences in religion and cultures while keeping the same orders and laws. I love your statement about just being a good human being.
It did feel a bit simple when I wrote it, as though I was being childish, or missing some massive point, but that IS what it comes down to isn’t it – just being a good person?
Having left Britain a couple of years ago (and fully intending to come back in the next few years), perhaps I too have rose-coloured spectacles on with regards to what it means to be British. But I think the very fact that as a general rule people are secure enough in their personal identity not to NEED a national one is actually part of what it means to be British. Had an interesting conversation with a US friend recently where we talking politics and she stated that as a republican she could never have a close friend who was a democrat and that that was her experience of many of her US -based friends and family. My response was that politics is important to many people in the UK but that as a rule we don’t let it define us. So it is with ‘Britishness’, I think….
That’s a really interesting point about personal identity versus national identity. We do have a culture in this country I think of striving for self-acceptance, and that then extends to accepting differences in others. I find it quite shocking what your US friend says. I have close friends with different political and religious views, but there are plenty of other things I value about them!
I don’t think anyone should be pointing or laughing at what you have to say here – it’s pretty much bang on the money for me.
I don’t have a patriotic bone in my body I’m afraid and have never understood why people feel so passionately sentimental for the piece of land they happen to have been born on. I couldn’t give a hoot where anyone’s from, as long as they’re decent, I really couldn’t.
Exactly. What does it matter where you happen to have been born? It’s pure chance isn’t it? Just as it’s pure chance whether you’re born into a rich family or into poverty. We all just need to be a bit NICER. (I really should be Prime Minister).
I grew up in London, so I was exposed to multi-culturalism. I am mixed-race and not Christian. However, I would also class myself as English and British. I think it is important to adopt take on some of the values of the society your are living in. For example, I believe speaking English is essential as is adopting core British values such as equality and tolerance. Multi-culturalism allows people from other cultures to not accept equality and tolerance, which are important British values.
I agree with you Faye – I think it’s important, and a sign of respect and open-mindedness, to at least make an effort to embrace some of the values of the culture you’re living in. We’d do that if we were living in another country wouldn’t we? I like to think I would.
I directed and produced a documentary (based on my idea) a few years back called Brit Camp which is very similar to Ch 4’s doc where we took kids including segregated children from Bradford away to the Lakes so they could discover what it meant to be British. It was shown in schools across the UK as well as on TV etc and Krishan Guru Murphy debated the programme with the children and others involved for SKY after we filmed it. Enjoy: http://archive.teachfind.com/ttv/www.teachers.tv/videos/the-whole-story-1.html
I agree wholeheartedly Jo. I am not at all patriotic, as I believe it is easily confused with ‘nationalism’, and when I see how English football fans behave abroad I feel ashamed to be associated with them. But I also find it hard to call myself ‘British’ as for me ‘Britain’ was not born on a foundation of equality and tolerance but on imperialism and conquest. I also wonder whether there is but a veneer of tolerance in British society. You don’t have to scratch too deep to find less than harmonious attitudes.
Oh dear gone all heavy when really all I want to do is join you in your bubble….
I have read the comments with interest. Everyone comments about multi culturalism & how they grew up with friends from different cultures etc. This is not the point of the programme! The programme was can we make Bradford British? The answer is NO, why? because being British is not something you learn its in your blood! How do I know cause I’m British & have been an ex-pat trying to fit into a different culture & you can’t. Belonging to a culture is about a shared history, a national pride, public holidays, great national oldies songs & celebrations. You just can’t learn to have a passion for these things. My children are british but my husband is not, my kids didn’t learn my husbands heritage. Whilst we were in ‘his country’ my kids & I tried but we couldn’t fit in even after 10years & being fluent in the language & using main stream schools. People would say whats the matter you’re Italian my kids would answer no we’re British! eventhough their father is Italian they didn’t feel Italian they felt British however hard they tried it wasn’t in there nature to behave as an Italian. So just imagine how hard it must be for a middle eastern person with not just the language probs but also the religious constraints!