Black "Britons" And Identity

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[Column: London Calling]


Do Black people here in London, including citizens, feel British? Can one be Black and "British"?

These are the questions I explore when I interview scores of young people on the streets, in different neighborhoods. In the process, I learn much about what it means to be Black, African, Caribbean, or British here.

"I do not feel British I feel Nigerian,” Abigail Adebe, 16, who was born here tells me. “That's where my roots are. I class myself as a citizen of Britain but not British."

Why doesn’t Adebe feel British? "Because 'British' people are, you know, white, European, European hair, light-skinned with Blue eyes; stuff like that. Whereas I'm Black, brown eyes, brown hair-just completely the opposite. My parents aren't from here."

Then I encounter an opposing view point.

"The people who are born in Britain but claim they're not British, funnily enough, are the same people who don't know anything about where they claim to actually be from,” says Krystal Pierre, 18, who is in her last year at college.


“When they go 'back home' they're viewed as tourists because like it or not, that's exactly what they are. They'll do anything but accept the fact that they're British. I think they need to get over it ‘cause as much as they'd like to believe that they come from some place that's beautiful, exotic and hot, the truth is, not everyone can have their cake and eat it too.”


“You can't expect to have the benefit of living in a place like England where there are so many advantages that apply to you in many ways, but then all of a sudden you decide to abandon that privilege and take it for granted,” she insists. “You deny being British and claim you're from somewhere else in the world. People would die to have what we have; go Britain!”


I search for others who may share Pierre’s view; but it wasn’t Doreen, 18.


"I wouldn't and couldn't class myself as just British because I'd be fooling myself,” she says. “I'm here to use what this country provides and to pursue my dreams. It has never done anything for my people back home-where I believe I truly originate from. No Black person in their right mind would seriously claim to just be a 'black British' unless they were adopted or fostered and have no clue about themselves apart from the color of their skin. Or unless they were ashamed of where they came from."


Asked why she thinks culture is such a big issue for Black people in Britain and not so much so in the United States, Doreen says: “It doesn't happen amongst Black people in America because most of them don't know where they came from: But at least they acknowledge that they are African Americans and not just Americans."


She adds: "When it comes to Britain with all the culture division amongst Blacks, I think that it all started with the Jamaicans, because when they came to London, they were so proud of being Jamaican that they boasted about their culture as if everyone was somehow obligated to bow down and worship them or something. I'm thinking- be real. When people started noticing this, they decided to represent their culture and background a lot more and praise their true identity.

She continues: "If someone in Britain asks a Black person where they're from- which they usually do, they don't really expect them to say 'Britain' because that much is obvious. Instead they want to know what your heritage is. London is such a diverse area and many people acknowledge this."

Shereena, who insists on being referred to as African, says that diversity also comes with its problems because "you have a lot of people stereo-typing other cultures just like Doreen did a minute ago about some Jamaicans. But the worst part about it- is that most of it is all due to ignorance and lack of knowledge and understanding. Instead of there being racism between Whites and Blacks, you have it between Africa and Jamaica, then you have Jamaica trying to isolate themselves from the rest of the Caribbean as if they are their own continent. Not to mention you have East Africa against West Africa and North against the whole of Africa- all of it is Black on Black attack!"

“The majority of Caribbean's- particularly all the typical Jamaicans, won't accept the fact that they originated from Africa, the mother land,” she continues. “Instead of respecting Africa, they want to throw ignorant cusses to try and put us down; but we overcome all that bull. It ain’t our fault we know where we come from.”

When asked whether it was fair of her to make such a blanket judgment, she insists she‘s only speaking the truth. “But there are some Caribbeans who really surprise me; they're aware that they are descendents of Africa,” she adds. “They respect the motherland and in return, we show them respect back.”

"I want to pick up on what Shereena said a minute ago about this whole Black on Black attack,” Doreen now interjects. “I don't think it occurs as much with the slightly older generation, because they appear to be more educated. But the joke about it is, white people stand there from a distance smiling and watching us ignorant Black people kill each other on the street everyday. You never find white people arguing with one another about who has a better tan or who's from the better part of Wales or Scotland. We need to grow the hell up.”

Mia Campbell, who is 15 years old and in a London High School believes that part of the problem with Blacks identifying with Britain is that it has no identity. "A lot of people don't like to claim that they're British simply because this country doesn't have a traditional culture apart form fish and chips,” she explains. “Their so-called culture is made up of other traditional foods, music, dances from all around the world. They don't have a basic structure. When people go abroad to other places, that's when they decide to claim they're British because they know they'll be acknowledged and people would be like 'wow you’re British.’ Whereas in London, no one wants to claim they're British."

Kyla Ray, 18, says she doesn’t like the fact that some Black people denounce her as a sellout because she is “so enthusiastic about learning in class.” She adds: “They expected me to be laid back and swear in every sentence that I said; to be rude to teachers; to walk with my trousers halfway down my backside and to give Blacks a bad name for ourselves. I've never thought that I was too insignificant to make a difference. I may not be another Martin Luther King, but I'm happy with knowing the fact that I'm not an average statistic."

“I remember one time I was on my way to school and many students from my class were at the back of the bus making the biggest racket,” she continues. “They were banging on the windows trying to show fear to other passengers, but instead I earned the respect! I didn't participate in the noise whatsoever, I just stayed to myself reading a magazine peacefully. Then a woman who was sitting behind me tapped me on the shoulder and she said 'thank you for being different' and I looked at her and smiled. It really did touch me that a complete stranger respected me enough to tell me so."

Others say once African, always African.

"I'm British on paper, Eritrean by nature,” says Rahell Johannes, 19. “I see myself as an Eritrean who's living in London. Just because I happened to be born here doesn't mean I should abandon my colorful roots, background and tradition and settle for just being 'British'.”

Rochelle Paige, a 16 year old student has a different take. "To a certain extent I feel British because I speak English and I occasionally eat the food,” Paige says. “But then again I don't feel British because I know I don't come from here. I know I was born here but it's not the same thing. If I was to go on holiday abroad where people spoke English- and they asked me where I was from, I would say I was from Barbados and St. Lucia. But if I was to go to a place were the people didn't speak English, and then I'd say I was from England."

"I'm proud to say I'm British because it's provided me with many opportunities. I'm not embarrassed to say I was born here,” says Cynthia Buzwa, 17. “I've grown up here and my home is here- everything I know it all here. When I go back home to St. Lucia, I'm proud to say that I'm a St. Lucian who was born and raised in Britain because I know that London offers better chances for me."

Yet, Jade Lamontine, 17, a student of art and design, challenges her friend, Cynthia.

"Before you went to Cameroon, you never used to talk about it. When someone asked you where you were from you were happy to say you were British. But ever since you went to Cameroon, all of a sudden you've developed this hatred for this country and you deny being from here.”

"Because I realized that there is more to this world than just London, I actually have a heritage to be proud of back in Africa," she responds.

"Ok, but you don't have to hate England for that, over here you have your Sky TV, access to your internet, designer clothes and even pocket money," Jade retorts.

"Exactly, and in Cameroon most people don't have that,” Cynthia fires back. “They're dying every day because they're living in poverty all because of the Western world like America and London itself. So as you can see, I have a decent reason to hate this country. It's not as if the government is breaking their backs to help me out a little. My Sky TV and internet access that I have are provided for me through my parents hard earned cash. The Western world has plenty of money to go around the whole world if they really wanted to.”

Allimadi writes for The Black Star News from London


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