No matter how advanced we regard our society; no matter how ignorant we perceive our forebears; no matter how comfortably we enjoy our lives, one of the most devastatingly cliché human questions still haunts us, and becomes ever harder to answer: who are we?
Recent events have sparked discussions about race, policing, justice and history. The question of identity, despite being at the heart of it all, is nevertheless too often missed.
In the last few decades, Britain has seen the development of new identities; Black British, British Asian, British Muslim, to name but a few. And though attempts are made to celebrate these hybrid identities, the painful truth is they do not feel wholly satisfactory. The question persists: who are you?
Often it is the children of migrants who wrestle with it most. And can they be blamed? For after all, when your friends, teachers, and heroes all look different to you, and when the ways your parents speak, eat and interact are achingly foreign, why wouldn’t you be insecure? Heed not the condescension of those who mock this discomfort, chalking it up to modern decadence: struggles of identity and belonging are as old as civilisation itself.
If you are a fellow British ethnic minority, I ask you to reflect on the following. It might be deeply troubling, but I hope you will ponder it seriously and honestly.
You will have met people who are unambiguously English. One hundred percent white; both sides of their family are English since time immemorial. No one has ever questioned their Englishness and, perhaps paradoxically, they carry their national identity with intolerable lightness, almost unaware of it. When asked where they are from, they respond not with muted anxiety but with confidence and glee.
Do you envy them? Does it bother you how questions of identity leave them glaringly undisturbed? Do you wish you were just as “whole”? Unequivocally and unhesitatingly from Somewhere?
Was British identity once yours too, before it was muddied or robbed by others who suggest you are not actually British?
In response, recent decades have seen the expansion of “British” to include any culture, reducing it to nothing but the cover of your passport. But do you feel this helps? Does this engineered, watered-down, meaningless definition of Britishness make you feel included? How does it compare to the spontaneous tinkering of culture over vast centuries on these tiny islands; songs and poems, stories and dreams, passed through the generations; defined organically from below, not conceived from above?
Certain political movements seek to undermine the history and identity of Britain, to unsettle the effortless Britishness that the majority have enjoyed until recently. And perhaps you are tempted to take part: after all, if you have suffered a life-long crisis in identity, why should this not be shared by white Brits, who have never even understood, let alone shouldered any of this burden?
But is it really a zero-sum game? Is the white British ease of belonging at the expense of yours? Could it be that your confused identity is neither your fault nor theirs, but rather an unfortunate accident in the cruelty of life? Could it be that a dilution of what is theirs will not lead to a concentration of what is yours?
The reality is that even when large portions of British history and culture are expunged from our institutions, your identity crisis will remain unresolved. When you are feeling unwell, the remedy is not found in inducing sickness in others.
Instead, the solution is a harder, imperfect one. One that rests solely on you, and nobody else. Rather than participating in the destruction of a culture to which you yearn to belong, try re-identifying with it.
There may be difficult questions: are you really British? Can you actually celebrate a culture which is not shared by your ancestors? How can you possibly identify with historical figures who did not look like you? These questions may come from others, or they may come from yourself.
But it is possible to endure these obstacles and continue along the path. One day you might discover a belonging which is genuine and proud, become a contributor to the next chapter in the long and beautiful British story; forward looking but unashamed of its past; an uninterrupted chain of generations at home in this unusual country, each building upon the previous; an unmatched discoverer of scientific, political, and moral truths. You can be a real part of it, the whole story, its glory, shortcomings and peculiarities. The entire unembellished history and culture is available to you; you need only grasp it.
Ask yourself honestly: is it Britain you hate, or Britain you love? When a thing you love is confiscated from you, do not confuse longing for hatred. Remind yourself of your love, and work towards reclaiming it.
Yes, you must work for something that others are unconsciously gifted. But your love need not therefore be insincere: some of the most enduring and meaningful loves are not spontaneous but achieved through labour and habit.
It is not easy, but you can make it. And make it you must, for your sake, and for the sake of us all. The decision is yours.