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Britishness, Race And Identity: Let’s Talk

Updated: Nov 17, 2019

This is the face of a third-generation British Indian. This is MY face.

My full name is Ciona Bhachu Nankervis. My forename was picked out of a magazine by my aunt in 1989, the origin of which still mystifies me, my now middle name is my maiden name, the only nominal indicator of my Punjabi heritage and, my surname is also my husband's, the name of one of the families to which I belong, which has its roots in Cornwall. Each one of these names provides a minute glimpse into my life and person, but my identity (all that entails) and the way that I define myself both includes and exceeds all of them.

I was born into a family whose genealogy and racial heritage is embedded in the North of India, specifically Punjab. However, the cultural identity of every single person within it has been moulded and influenced by a multitude of circumstances- I would go as far as to say that the factors that have shaped each personality within my family outweigh genetic racial assignment. When I say "family", in this instance, I am referring to blood relatives; the wider and more real definition of the word, to me, goes beyond blood relation.

All four of my grandparents, grandmothers and grandfathers from both sides, came to England in the 1960s as the result of various reasons. My paternal grandparents came from India by way of Kenya and settled in Birmingham, which is where I, my parents, immediate family members and relatives were born, and many of us have not strayed far from the city to date. The same is true of my maternal grandparents, however, the part of Punjab in which they were born, Lahore, now rests as part of Pakistan due to Partition. Already, there is a lot of movement and indicators of varied cultural and life experience, which have undoubtedly influenced all of their viewpoints. The motivation behind this piece is inherently to challenge the idea that people's identities consist only of their racial background or country in which they were born- in this statement alone, there are two widely extensive topics that are both malleable and changeable; neither are static or fixed.

If you consider the factors surrounding where someone is born, the location that a person comes to be hinges entirely upon the personal circumstances of the parent or parents- the individual that has absolutely no say at all in this occurrence is the child. The question of identity, therefore, is innately complex, as the place of someone's birth is but one in an ocean of variables that could affect how a person grows to view and define themselves.

Sometimes, people don't identify with the place they were born at all, for a variety of reasons; sometimes, people don't have a choice about where they go to live as they are forced out of their homes as a consequence of war, political distress, natural disaster or abuse, to name but a few. Whatever the reasons, my opinion is that everybody has the right to find the place where they do feel at home and where they feel like they belong and, to try as best as they can to put down their roots.

Whether it is within the same town, city, country or outside of any of these places, where people set up their home should be their choice. What stand in the way of this freedom are attitudes, grown in and perpetuated by other people, intended to box-in, trivialise and devalue the existence of those they don't believe should have the choice to define their own lives and, how they enforce this mindset is through discrimination, aggressively emphasising the differences between themselves and 'others', in order to forward and tend to their own interests.

As much as certain individuals and narratives would have you believe that this mentality of exclusion exists only in communities outside of ‘their own’- in this case, the British South Asian realm- dishearteningly, and disgustingly, it manifests very prominently within this sphere, and it is something I have never supported, and with which I have never identified. Without going into too much detail in this particular piece, within the South Asian community in Britain, I have found, both through personal experience and wider observation, that too many people wilfully separate and derogate others through reasons of religion, ‘caste’, skin tone, accent, sexuality and gender-identity, occupation, family dynamics (relationships and the level of traditional views and behaviours within), to name a number of factors within an extended pool. The idea of how people of this heritage are supposed to be, I believe, entrenches us in stereotypes both within and outside of the community- qualifying people based upon these facets is exclusionist and counter-intuitive to the progress and attainment of diversity.

There is no one representation of being South Asian, or anything, that is truer than another- as I said, I will explore this in another piece. In my view, where prejudice already exists, people will pick on anything in order to discriminate and seek out information that seemingly corroborates their insular points of view, race and perceived culture are not the only collateral.

In my case, being born in Birmingham is the best thing that could have ever happened to me. That being said, I have never been under the illusion that my experience of growing up here is also that of other people, on any scale: I know it is not for a multitude of reasons. Weighing-in the potentials and possibilities, I could have been born anywhere in the country or in the World, but, knowing who I am and the experiences that have shaped me, I would not be myself, the person I am, had the circumstances been different at any juncture leading up to my birth. In my eyes, I am exactly where I was supposed to be and, at this point in my life, where I want to be. The richness, diversity of culture and insight into the world that I have gained from being born in the Midlands is invaluable and I have embraced it with open heart and senses- also coming from an Indian background, I feel that I am gifted with a unique perspective, of being able to see things from within the Asian community and, on a wider scale as a British citizen.

This way of life has been made possible, for myself and numerous others, because of the work put into building relationships through understanding and communication between people by those before me, humans seeing others beyond superficial indicators of 'difference'. I am incredibly fortunate to have grown up in a place where inclusion is, more or less, a reality and I am proud to be a part of it. It is not completely where it should be, but I am a champion for progress and all we can do is continue heading in a positive direction that keeps lines open for all. There is something fundamentally poetic to me about the expanse of customs and culture available here being cemented in the heartland of the country; they form an integral part of both the city and the country's landscape and cannot be detached from either of their history- the idea that there are people who want to ignore and erase this fact sickens me.

The notions that birthplace and race are, to some, the only things that create the solid basis of an individual and, are the key points upon which a person should be quantified and judged are abhorrent to me. As I keep repeating, there are numerable factors that shape an individual's identity and self, which brings me forward to the topic of Britishness and national identity.

When the word 'British' is thrown around, the ideas and images that are still evoked, in my experience, are those pertaining to the monarchy, cake-and-tea parties and cucumber sandwiches. This may sound like a grossly marginalised version of British society- to a large extent, it undoubtedly is- but the view of Britain in 2017 (when this piece was originally written), and now in 2019, both at home and worldwide, is disconcertingly still one rooted in Empire and Austen and whimsical reminiscences of 'the olden days' and “sovereignty”, which is exactly the mindset that I want to dispute. Of course, in order to get a personal idea of the attitudes towards Britain from abroad, particularly those of people living in former colonies, we would have to select from a much wider sample and, even then, not everyone would have the same view of how they identify.

The British identity is a patchwork of varying race and culture, it has been for hundreds of years and so, to cling to an image that hangs on the idealisation of Britishness is not only a deliberate defiance of fact, but dangerous in the projection of this seemingly utopian view- multiracial and multicultural Britain, to me, is, by no means, a dystopia. In my observation, those, of all ages, that do cling to this archaic image do so because of an inability- through unwillingness- to separate prejudices and stereotypes from reality and/or the desire to uphold the idea of a Britain that was alive during their childhoods, parents' upbringings and grandparents' and ancestors' lifetimes, the notions of which are often flagrant fabrication, l’histoire en rose (a rose-tinted view of history), or a perception of 'tradition', for which many, particularly younger people, have no truthful or first-hand point of reference.

One thing, for certain, is that all of these reasons for giving life-support to any backwards and counter-contemporary view of Britain are embedded wholly in fear, the fear of things changing, even though so much has already changed around and always will. In order for society to progress, to ensure the best chance of survival and most embracing experience of life for all humanity, you have to move forward. You have to evolve, which includes evolving your viewpoint and releasing yourself, and everybody else, from a frozen view of life and the World.

I was told by an obstinately bitter person that I am "naive" to believe in unity of the above descriptions and that "this 'citizen of the world BS'" is "ruining the West", and that I shouldn't expect it to change. A response to something as senseless as that may be hard to come by, but mine was in the form that ill-informed and impervious viewpoints do more damage than any physical borders ever could and that I am not naive for having an inclusive world-view. True, that the former is the viewpoint of one person, in this example, but it does represent the stance of numerous others. Why some people always want to make a problem out of something evades me, I don't understand why some people want to so vehemently stick to such destructive attitudes and entrench themselves in desperate misery, forever stewing in the cess-pool of their thoughts and spreading this defecation onto others. The idea that Britain was 'better' before multiculturalism and, is in decline only because of immigration is a repugnant one- the only thing that needs to be cleansed is this attitude.

I am not the kind of person to try and force anyone into my way of thinking, or to expect people to live their lives in accordance with mine. People should be able to live in whatever way they want to- to try and enforce uniformity and cultural anonymity among people, aside from the one you want to prevail, wherever you are from, however, is morally vacant: you cannot culture-wash people in order to fit within your ideals. For unification to work, there has to be understanding on all sides, an embracing of customs and viewpoints in aid of something higher, something much bigger. The word 'integration', in essence, means 'to make whole'. If we all considered ourselves as part of the same race, the human race, living in this self-contained environment called Earth and celebrated the wealth of diversity life has to offer, rather than calling upon differences to divide and elevate us competitively by ego, the inane nature of all this conflict would be exposed for the waste of time, waste of energy, waste of life that it is. I am not saying that people must blindly accept the negatives, but you have to hold in mind that scumbags, of all descriptions, exist all over the World: there is no one culture, race or reason that pre-disposes an evil majority and it is an incredibly lazy and misinformed stance to believe so, to think that you are superior to certain people based on your preconceptions of identity.

So, to where do we, to where should people place their allegiance? Wherever the hell they want to, in my opinion, without condescending to any other way of life or point of view. The things that give dimensions to our personalities, those that we hold closely as unique identifiers of ourselves- music, fashion, language, food, home-soil etc- are so fluid and changeable and have been influenced by so much that it is almost impossible to draw a line to their origins, to the things that 'existed first'. Even if you can trace the origins, you have to see and accept them in their place, as pieces of information that add depth to our identities, rather than the only things that are authentic and relevant in defining us. The assertion of 'we were here first' is pathetic, juvenile at best. My experience has shown that the definition of 'first' is moulded to whatever people want it to be, manufactured to fit around their opinion in a manner that, for them, substantiates their viewpoint: it is rooted neither in fact nor a basic comprehension of history. Humans have been intermingling for millennia, it is part of our story and our relationships with each other are what have crafted our World- to attempt to rewrite history in order to reinforce exclusion, to me, is inherent undoing and regression and I am not in favour of going backwards.


Guest blog by:

Ciona Bhachu Nankervis

Ciona is a multilingual writer from Birmingham.

Her work spans a variety of subjects and is written in forms that she feels best express the content, including poetry, prose-poetry and essays. @c89write_


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