Who is allowed to be British (abroad)?

Chantelle headshot
In this long read blogpost, Chantelle reflects talking Brexit with UK citizens of colour who have made their homes and lives in the EU27, building on her ambition to highlight
the diversity of this UK citizen population and revealing how these conversations prompt reflections on what it means to be British and how this intersects with processes of racialisation at home and abroad.


“For you, what does it mean to be British?”

This question is often met with surprise. Some people present a sense of pride when asked, while others react as though it is the first time they have been asked the question. To make sense of this, it is important to recognise that being British for some people of colour is something that has been achieved over time and not to be taken for granted. This is in stark contrast to the righteous indignation that Karen documents as prominent in her conversations with Britons living in Spain, and the experience of finding their Britishness questioned that Michaela has encountered in talking Brexit with Britons living in France. For UK citizens of colour, these discussions of Britishness are framed not as uncertainty wrought by the outcome of the EU referendum, but as separate, emblematic of an attained identity.

The symbolic value of Britishness

In my previous blog post, I discussed how Brexit was experienced as a continuation of racism for these people of colour. Here I reflect on an equally prominent theme emerging through my conversations: the symbolic value of Britishness. Despite discussions about racism still dominating the interviews, the sense of being attached to a British identity is evident.

I’m a British citizen and as much as I do love it here, I love the people, the culture and I’m still British, so it would feel a bit like you kind of lose a bit of your identity if you have and hold another passport, whether it’s for business reasons or not … I’ve always been proud of being from Britain and I know we’ve got our problems, everyone’s got their problems naturally speaking and I’m Nigerian and to be proud of that and that’s my blood line wherever I’m born, but I’m proud of where I’m from, I’m proud of Middlesborough being a northerner, being from the north-east, the accent I have, the way I am, the way I talk, friends I have from the place and everything’s British about it, and all the habits and mannerisms and whatever goes with it so, and especially when you go abroad, I know we have a bad name in a lot of places but you’ve still got to be proud of where you come from.  And that could be everything, the food, the music, the culture, whatever it is.  So yeah I think that’s why it’d be a bit of a shame for me, especially since my friends over here want me to lose the British side and try to call me Irish as much as they can.

— Brian (Dublin)

Brian’s contribution demonstrates the complex relationship some British people of colour have with their British identity. Despite sharing their thoughts on the underlying racism currently influencing British values, for some it is still important to share their sense of British pride. Regardless of historic and current anti-immigrant sentiment, some people of colour describe tolerance as embedded in their understanding of Britishness. On a few occasions, they have described Britain as increasingly ‘inward looking’ whilst also describing it as a traditionally ‘outward looking’ nation. Within the interviews the symbolic value of Britishness has meant regularly discussing lived experiences of racism alongside an irrefutable sense of pride to be British.

Although Britishness seems pertinent for some UK citizens of colour, there are still those who have described the Brexit result as something which questions their affiliation with a British identity. These instances reflect the ‘ordinary contributions’ to the overall research project. Similar to the white British people we have spoken with, some of UK citizens of colour living in the EU27 see Brexit as personal assault on who they are and how they choose to live; as a British citizen with the right to live abroad. Whilst describing how shocked her Italian peers were after the result, Margaret said

I think I said it at the time actually, it’s the first time I’ve ever, ever felt ashamed to be British. 

To feel affiliated with a British identity whilst dealing with the reactions to Brexit in the European countries where they permanently reside can be difficult for a lot of the UK citizens living abroad; regardless of skin colour.

Brexit is a reminder of the pervasive power of Britishness. What should be noted here is the paradox; some UK citizens of colour align the breakdown of Britishness with racism whilst still emphasising their attachment to it. Brexit is a continuation of everyday racism embedded in their own sense of Britishness but none of this stops them from feeling British.

Unavoidable Whiteness and being (recognised as) British abroad

Gilroy books

Brexit has resurfaced questions about what it means to be British and where the boundaries of that identity are and should be drawn. Speaking with British people of colour is a reminder that for some Britishness is experienced as a force of exclusion as they find themselves excluded by other forms of identification such as Englishness. In making sense of this, it is useful to return to Gilroy’s powerful argument in the evocatively entitled There ain’t no black in the Union Jack; as he makes clear Britishness may appear to be a tolerant and open identification, but it speaks to a more insidious process through which people of colour are excluded from Englishness and the White imagined community this represents. Exclusion is disguised as inclusion.

Where are the boundaries of inclusion when talking about the British abroad? A starting point might be to interrogate the representations of these populations. At the heart of popular stereotypes is the imagination of white populations – these typifications leave little space for UK citizens of colour to claim their experience also represents the experience of being ‘British’ abroad. They find themselves tasked with managing people’s confusion when they disclose their Britishness, called to explain, justify and even prove their identity.

I feel like no matter where I go if I say I’m British or from London there’s always another question that follows, and that’s not something to say oh that someone when they ask me that they’re always trying to be offensive, I don’t believe that is the case, but I do feel like there is very much a case of too foreign for here and too foreign for there, for that reason, like when I’m signing forms you have to put black British or white British, and it’s like actually is the term British a real thing, is it a real entity, because I don’t believe in it because I feel like British is a new term to differentiate more as opposed to being English, if I say I’m English people go like you’re not technically English are you, it feels more comfortable to say I’m British as opposed to I’m English, but I do feel very British, my mum was brought up in east London, my dad was brought up in Jamaica but he only, that was only when, he was born here but he was brought up in Jamaica and he came back so I think my dad is more British than Jamaican, and I grew up with eating British food and my mum doesn’t really cook Caribbean food that much and if anything I wasn’t even exposed to it.  I’ve been to Jamaica once, I feel more British than Caribbean definitely, but that’s not to say I’m not proud of my roots, it’s a very awkward identity crisis I would say.

— Robyn (Spain)

Poignantly, Robyn’s differentiation between Britishness and Englishness illustrates her perception of Englishness – she can’t claim this identity because she is black. For Robyn, being black and British living in Spain means constantly qualifying her identity. She denies being English because of external perceptions and because she feels ‘very British’.

The experience Robyn describes was something I touched upon in the first blog – because of skin colour, their experiences will regularly be distinguishable from our white-British participants living in the EU27. Before some people of colour can claim a British identity, they must first address their ‘race’. Once they have shared their Britishness, they are met with questions of disbelief because of their skin colour. People of colour are not English, but they can become British.

For some UK citizens of colour living in the EU27, proving Britishness was enhanced after Brexit because the British identity is being re-imagined as white. This is what makes Brexit for some so uncomfortable; it reaffirms the supremacy of Englishness or in other words: whiteness. Living in the EU27, not being white and needing to incessantly justify one’s British identity sadly highlights the myth that Britishness is inclusive of people of colour.

The conclusion that Britishness is in fact exclusionary is possibly absent within the interviews because of its power. Whilst conversations reveal how racism is intertwined within Brexit, it is interesting to hear how many were still adamant that Britain was the place they felt at home because of its tolerance and open mindedness. The depth in which individuals discussed their abhorrence to the anti-immigrant sentiment growing in Britain whilst still seeing the Britishness they know and love demonstrates the ideological function of the British identity by which the status quo—and ultimately, Englishness—is maintained.

Who is allowed to be British abroad?

These conversations with UK citizens of colour highlight the fluidity of Britishness. They also illustrate who feels they can use their identity to assert their feelings about the implications of the Brexit vote. It is worth noting that most of the UK citizens of colour living in the EU27 I have spoken with have not wanted to tell me urgently about their experiences. They have been happy to contribute to the research, but many have not associated their involvement in the project with their rights as a UK citizen.

My interpretation is that mainstream conversations like Brexit often fail to include individuals perceived as minorities, or those who are structurally marginalised. Why would people want to know about the experiences of UK citizens of colour when their rights are so frequently dismissed or ignored? UK citizens of colour might not be as inspired to tell me what they think about Brexit because Britain has consistently demonstrated ambivalence to their existence – why would what they think or experience matter now? Their outrage about the current uncertainty for UK citizens living in the EU27 might not be as intense as for their white compatriots because Brexit reaffirms their ordinary experience of Britain. Some were not surprised, and some were simply indifferent about Brexit– they saw it coming.

Nevertheless, recognising their own exclusion from being British is further complicated by their pride at being British. The connection between Britishness and patriotism makes the romanticism of the British identity hard to kill – even when the values one believes in have been rejected.

Returning to the colour line and the Brexit kaleidoscope

Perhaps with emerging political changes like Brexit, there needs to be a collective retrieval of the ‘colour line’ when seeking to understand how people of colour experience these deviations.  As their ‘racial difference’ still persists as an important acknowledgement, understanding how this shapes lived experiences is essential to understand what Britishness does and how it is experienced. Speaking with UK citizens of colour living in the EU27, precisely because they are positioned as a different version of Britishness, it becomes clear that their perception of Brexit is built on different themes to what we have seen elsewhere in the project.

The observation for some UK citizens of colour is that Brexit delineates who is in the club and who is out the club. Their journey towards becoming an acceptable British citizen is halted for some UK citizens of colour because Brexit has meant that the goalposts are shifting; as Britishness becomes ever whiter, who can be British? It is important to remember the uncertainly that UK citizens living in the EU27 are facing during the Brexit process but something we must reflect on is who is able to claim their affiliation to Britishness without query.



2 Responses

  1. May 11, 2018

    […] funded project Brexit Brits Abroad. Brexit as a process brings into sharp relief the question of who is allowed to be British (abroad) and the lack of representation of UK citizens abroad who are not […]

  2. May 19, 2018

    […] funded project Brexit Brits Abroad. Brexit as a process brings into sharp relief the question of who is allowed to be British (abroad) and the lack of representation of UK citizens abroad who are not […]

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