Author: Zainab Houghton
I wrote a little article a while ago, celebrating my religion and culture in Cumbria. It was very much an informative piece, which, to my surprise reached a large number of people on social media. Many of the comments and responses back were positive and supportive, but as you can imagine, topics that deal with race, religion and culture tend to dredge up a lot of opinions, so much so, that when it was shared on the Cumbria Police social platforms, the comments had to be disabled because of the racist remarks.
When I wrote that piece, I felt very excited, scared and actually vulnerable because it was a lot more personal that I intended it to be, so I felt very exposed. I was however quite excited that people were actually willing to read something that I wrote.
After reading the many negative comments, it got me thinking a lot about, how, where and when do we, as people of colour actually fit in or belong in the UK. Will we ever be considered as belonging? There are so many stories, personal and from people I have spoken to about what we actually call “home”. Now granted, I am a first generation immigrant (that means I was not born here) and for a lot of us first generationers we will refer to home as the place we were born as well as where we live now. But surely it is ok to have more than one home? I would definitely count Cumbria as my home, I live here, work here, have a family here and don’t intend on settling anywhere else for the foreseeable.
If you ask a White person in the UK are you British or even whether they are English, Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish, the answer is pretty straight forward. Over the years I have watched and read many interviews of Black and Brown people who are asked the very same question, and almost always, there is hesitation and then an explanation of either where grandparents, parents or in some cases an individual was born. It is always, “I’m Black British but Jamaican or African, British Pakistani, or British Asian etc… no one ever seems comfortable enough to say simply, “I’m British.”
So why is that? I think there are so many elements attached to what feels like an identity crisis for many people. The truth is, the answer ‘I’m British’ or ‘I’m from Manchester/Carlisle/wherever’ simply isn’t deemed a good enough answer. There’s always the extra questions.
As a brown woman living in Cumbria, I am always asked “so where are you from?” I used to think, they must have detected my South African accent, so I reply, I’m from South Africa. You would think that is a sufficient answer, but it is always followed up by
‘But where are you really from?’
I am tempted to perform the same level of scrutiny by reply. Where are you from? No where are you really from? But I don’t. It’s frustrating as a first generation immigrant but for people who are born in Britain, being asked this question is exhausting and confusing. Just recently a Black woman was asked whether she identifies as British, and her answer was no as she is not seen as being British though she was born here. And in Uganda, where her parents are from, she isn’t seen as a Ugandan, so she asked, where am I from? There are so many examples like this.
People of colour are encouraged to be proud to be British and they are, but we are stuck between a rock and a hard place, if I celebrate my heritage I am made to feel that I am betraying my present life, if I celebrate only my present life I am still questioned and interrogated, I am still ‘other.’
I have two sons who are of dual heritage, their Dad is Cumbrian and yet I know for a fact that as they grow up, they will be asked to justify where they are “from”. They are 100% born and brought up in Britain, so how do they answer this, and why do they even need to justify it. In a society that is becoming more and more diverse, being in interracial and multi faith relationships are much more common and often the products of those relationships are beautiful British babies!
For us to truly feel like we belong, there needs to be an acceptance of diversity. We need to celebrate the differences that make up this country. We need to be aware of our unconscious bias when asking people questions about their heritage and we also need to accept that if someone says I’m British, then they are.
Britain is an island. Who can say their ancestry dates to the stone age when we were still physically attached to France? Very very few I guess. Who can truly call themselves the indigenous population? Because everyone, yes everyone since that point has immigration as the starting point to their story in Britain. So what is “British” meant to look like? Because from where I am sitting, Britain is a very colourful nation filled with so much culture and history that we have all contributed to, as immigrants and as people born from immigrants.