What does Britishness look like from the outside?

For those at the mercy of war, poverty, and global inequality, to be born in Britain is to be born powerful.

I was born in 1980s Britain and went to school in Kent. At school there were only one or two other brown faces. My dark skin bothered some people. They would - inexplicably as far as I was concerned - yell words like “nigger” and “Paki” as I played in the street. Such incidents left me baffled, certain that I did not quite fit in. At that stage, I do not think I would have called myself British. Yet I knew I wasn’t quite Nigerian like my granny, because I didn’t speak Yoruba and pronounced my uncle Gbenga’s name like an English person.

My confusion deepened when I moved to London and started secondary school. There in a colourful sea of faces and cultures, I was told I was not black enough. “You don’t talk like a black person,” my friend told me once. Black was a powerful identity at my school, and everybody, Muslim, white, Indian, wanted to be “black”. It was not political, it was not gang-related, it was just cool. If asked at that time if I was British, I probably would have said, “No, I’m black”.  

As I became more politically aware, my confusion over my identity hardened into irritation, and anger. Irritation, because public discussions about the supposed failure of multiculturalism often feel like an entire generation being told go home, except that I was born here. Anger, because it is difficult for a child of the Commonwealth to think about being British, and not think about the brutality of empire.

It is only now, having worked as a journalist interviewing undocumented migrants desperately trying to reach the UK, that I begin to understand what it means to be British. Faced with a wretched migrant who has risked death to find work, I feel less turmoil over my identity; which is unambiguously British. Why? Journalist Gary Younge puts it well in his brilliant book, Who are we - and should it matter in the 21st century:

The more power an identity carries, the less likely its carrier is to be aware of it as an identity at all. Those who have never been asked, "How do you balance childcare and work?" or "How can you prove that you will return home after this holiday?" are less likely to think that their masculinity or western citizenship and the privileges that come with them are anything but the normal state of affairs.

Because their identity is never interrogated, they are easily seduced by the idea that they do not have one. Strip them of their citizenship, recategorise their ethnicity or put them in a place where they become a minority, and see how quickly they will cling to attributes they have inherited.

I am one of those people. I never truly considered the privilege of my identity as someone born in the west, till faced with those without it. They leave all that is familiar to find work, to study, to escape war.  I wake up each day without these worries. At home in Britain, I am a minority and my navigation of identity is wrought with all that that entails; but away from home, in the minds of those at the mercy of war, poverty, and global inequality - to be born in Britain is to be born powerful. Or perhaps privileged is a better word.

Meeting migrants who undertake dangerous journeys to find a better life, and choose Britain as their destination, forced me to think about their notions of Britishness.

The UK’s global relevance and power is diminishing, but the idea of "Britishness" remains attractive to the undocumented migrants I met in Spain, France, Italy and Greece. Their views of the British are tied to their perception of Britain as a liberal, fair minded country committed to human rights. Take the Iraqi interpreter I met shivering in a muddy forest in Dunkirk, waiting to smuggle his way into Britain. While working for the British army in Iraq, he made friends with several British soldiers and developed a profound respect for the British. One solider had given him his mobile number, he told me proudly, and said to call if he was ever in the UK.

The glitz and glamour of the premier league is another indicator of Britishness for many. Outside a prison-like holding centre in a tiny border-village in northern Greece, I tried to communicate with some Afghan teenagers waiting for a bus to Athens. We had no common language, but when I said I was from England, their faces lit up. “Manchester United”, they said. I responded with, “I live in London. Arsenal,” I said. Enthusiastic nods and smiles. Chelsea, they said. Thumbs down.

In the novel Hinterland, journalist Caroline Brothers’ tells the story of two children seeking asylum in Europe who look forward to arriving in London because there they will go to school. Their dreams tally with the real life hopes of the teenagers I met, giddy with the excitement at the prospect of education. The power of this idea was strong enough to inspire many undocumented migrants to keep moving; through the mountains of Iran, forced to work like adults in Turkey and Greece, to live in destitution in Italy and France, till they reach London, and the dream school.

The migrants I met held semi-religious ideas about Britain and the British. As they experienced more and more hardship in other European countries, they developed a zealous faith in Britain, as a place apart from Europe, a place where “they care for the humans”. In Greece, an Afghan fearful for his family’s safety with increasing attacks on dark-skinned migrants by fascist gangs, said he would try to get to London, where finally they would be safe and he could work. Europe had quickly become as merciless as the continents they had left behind. But in their minds, Britain, with all its cultural associations, remained intact, a more liberal prospect than its European neighbours. Chatting to a group of migrants at a Calais soup kitchen, I expressed doubt about the streets of gold they dreamt of in London. A tired Eritrean man turned to me angrily and said, "of course this would not happen in the UK, we would not sleep on the street". The rest nod in agreement: the general consensus is that they can find work and sanctuary in Britain.  

The reality is darker than this, but still, strangely for the first time, I felt proud to be British, and proud of the society I live in. The migrants I met left their homes, and the countries they loved deeply, often risking their lives on the way, to access what I have because I am British. A society where there is universal education, a national health service, and a society where people are free to fight inequality and seek justice.

Rebecca Omonira-Oyekanmi is a freelance journalist. She writes mainly on social inequality. Her blog, covering the stories of undocumented migrants in Europe, was shortlisted for the Orwell Prize.
 

Refugees living in Britain celebrate the Queen's Diamond Jubilee at a street party in Brixton organised by the Refugee Council. Photograph: Getty Images

Rebecca Omonira-Oyekanmi reports and writes on immigration, women and economics, housing, legal aid, and mental health. Read her latest work here. Her blog rebeccaomonira.com was shortlisted for the 2012 Orwell Prize. She tweets @Rebecca_Omonira.

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For 19 minutes, I thought I had won the lottery

The agonising minutes spent figuring out my mistake paired beautifully with hard, low wisdom tooth throbs.

Nineteen minutes ago, I was a millionaire. In my head, I’d bought a house and grillz that say “I’m fine now thanks”, in diamonds. I’d had my wisdom tooth (which I’ve been waiting months for the NHS to pull the hell out of my skull) removed privately. Drunk on sudden wealth, I’d considered emailing everyone who’s ever wronged me a picture of my arse. There I was, a rich woman wondering how to take a butt selfie. Life was magnificent.

Now I’m lying face-down on my bed. I’m wearing a grease-stained t-shirt and my room smells of cheese. I hear a “grrrrk” as my cat jumps onto the bed. He walks around on my back for a bit, then settles down, reinstating my place in the food chain: sub-cat. My phone rings. I fumble around for it with all the zeal of a slug with ME. Limply, I hold it to my ear.

“Hi,” I say.

“You haven’t won anything, have you” says my dad. It isn’t a question.

“I have not.”

“Ah. Never mind then eh?”

I make a sound that’s just pained vowels. It isn’t a groan. A groan is too human. This is pure animal.

“What? Stop mumbling, I can’t hear you.”

“I’m lying on my face,” I mumble.

“Well sit up then.”

“Can’t. The cat’s on my back.”

In my defence, the National Lottery website is confusing. Plus, I play the lottery once a year max. The chain of events which led me to believe, for nineteen otherworldly minutes, that I’d won £1 million in the EuroMillions can only be described as a Kafkaesque loop of ineptitude. It is both difficult and boring to explain. I bought a EuroMillions ticket, online, on a whim. Yeah, I suffer from whims. While checking the results, I took a couple of wrong turns that led me to a page that said, “you have winning matches in one draw”. Apparently something called a “millionaire maker code” had just won me a million quid.

A

Million

Quid.

I stared at the words and numbers for a solid minute. The lingering odour of the cheese omelette I’d just eaten was, all of a sudden, so much less tragic. I once slammed a finger in a door, and the pain was so intense that I nearly passed out. This, right now, was a fun version of that finger-in-door light-headedness. It was like being punched by good. Sure, there was a level on which I knew I’d made a mistake; that this could not be. People don’t just win £1 million. Well they do, but I don’t. It’s the sort of thing that happens to people called Pauline, from Wrexham. I am not Pauline from Wrexham. God I wish I was Pauline from Wrexham.

Even so, I started spending money in my head. Suddenly, London property was affordable. It’s incredible how quickly you can shrug off everyone else’s housing crisis woe, when you think you have £1m. No wonder rich people vote Conservative. I was imaginary rich for nineteen minutes (I know it was nineteen minutes because the National Lottery website kindly times how much of your life you’ve wasted on it) and turned at least 40 per cent evil.

But, in need of a second opinion on whether or not I was – evil or not - rich, I phoned my dad.

“This is going to sound weird,” I said, “but I think I’ve won £1 million.”

“You haven’t won £1 million,” he said. There was a decided lack of anything resembling excitement in his voice. It was like speaking to an accountant tired of explaining pyramid schemes to financial Don Quixotes.

“No!” I said, “I entered the EuroMillions and I checked my results and this thing has come up saying I’ve won something but it’s really confusing and…”

Saying it out loud (and my how articulately) clinched it: my enemies were not going to be looking at butt selfies any time soon. The agonising minutes spent figuring out my mistake paired beautifully with hard, low wisdom tooth throbs.

“Call me back in a few minutes,” I told my dad, halfway though the world’s saddest equation.

Now here I am, below a cat, trying to explain my stupidity and failing, due to stupidity.  

 

“If it’s any consolation,” my dad says, “I thought about it, and I’m pretty sure winning the lottery would’ve ruined your life.”

“No,” I say, cheese omelette-scented breath warming my face, “it would’ve made my life insanely good.”

I feel the cat purr. I can relate. For nineteen minutes, I was happy too. 

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.