What makes us who we are and what defines the boundaries of who we are not?
It grates on me when a Transatlantic asks a Briton –You sound British, are you British? – because they have inadvertently encompassed three different countries in their presumption. I then have to reign in my disapproval and resist the urge to ‘tut’ like a Brit, because I remind myself that most Britons don’t actually know the difference between Great Britain and the United Kingdom.
Equally, to ask if a citizen of the United States is ‘American’ is to suggest they could be from Canada, Mexico or indeed Brazil, Uruguay or Guatemala. We can all be guilty, when it comes to identity, of jumping to conclusions, relying on stereotypes and being a little lazy with our efforts to use the correct terminology.
So is it national pride which causes an Austrian to take offence when mistaken for a German? Is it xenophobic to react negatively when your New Zealand dialect leads others to assume you’re Australian? What’s the difference between national pride and xenophobia? In theory, these two concepts are worlds apart, but in practice, one can veer dangerously close to the other.
The history of so many countries is one of a plethora of different cultures combining or assimilating to create a hybrid identity. It seems only reasonable, therefore, that societies in general feel inclined to protect their existing identities in order to prevent them from further mutation. Yet the majority of forward-thinkers today champion the idea of a melting pot society where we all live side-by-side and our cultures combine into one.
Should we be preserving the authenticity of a national identity, years of history, customs and language, or should we be welcoming the culture, beliefs and social behaviours of others? Is there a way to live peacefully in one community when our routines, moral codes and even our cuisines are so vastly conflicting?
I have found myself, in recent months, apologising for being British because of history both old and recent where the culture with which I identify has attempted to (and often successfully) dominated another.
What happened between my ancestors and those of other nations is through no influence of my own, of course, but I sometimes can’t shake that pang of guilt when visiting a country which I know has suffered in the past at the hands of the British.
Of course, there is an argument to suggest that colonialism, or empire-building, brought about several benefits for the nations in question, but the fact cannot be ignored that these potential benefits came at a price.
Perhaps I only feel this sensation of responsibility because we Brits are so painfully apologetic in all circumstances and it’s part of my genetic makeup. Or perhaps individuals from other countries with a questionable past such as Portugal, Germany and Holland feel the same as I do.
Despite this, I am still very proud to be English and to be British. There are a lot of problems with my country and it’s far from perfect but the fact remains it’s not a bad place to write down in the box which asks for your nationality.
I know a lot of people who feel the same as I do, whether their ancestry can be traced, undiluted, all the way back to the Anglo-Saxons, or they moved to the UK five years ago. Because your identity is not just your family tree or the town where you were born; identity is where you feel you belong, where your allegiances lie, where your uniqueness is shared by others.
I identify as English, British and European, but there are others from my home town who would identify themselves as only one or two of those three options. Identity isn’t limited to the country from which we hail. Identity refers to any characteristic or fact which makes us who, or what, we are.
We can superficially reject our identity because it is ours to reject –I’m so ashamed to be English/white/gay/working class/Jewish – delete as appropriate. But as soon as someone else attempts to slight us we immediately rush to the defence of exactly that characteristic which distinguishes us. Your little brother is yours to torment, for example, but if anyone else picks on him they can expect to limp home.
So, who are we to say that others should be ashamed of their identity? Or to tell them they are not allowed to consider themselves as one identity or another? It is important to consider what we value in life, and certainly for me, identity is something I value very highly.
Ask yourself this: who are you?