On being British

I have been looking forward to today’s elections for a long, long time. After all, it is the first time I am eligible to vote in this country that I call home. But as I read the newspaper this morning, I was immediately faced by the news that net migration rose by 177,000 from the previous year. You could feel  politicians preparing to be outraged. Nigel Farage did not disappoint, and commented on the immigration figures as he voted this morning:

“is just impossible, We cannot go on with numbers like that”

But the problem is not Nigel Farage. All the leading parties are essentially the same when it comes to immigration.

As I walked to the polling station, I reflected on the fact that I am both British and an Immigrant.

For years I was subjected not only to the painful whims of the immigration system, but to the toxic rhetoric against immigrants coming from both the media and the government. All I could think of during the naturalisation ceremony was that this was all over. I was no longer an immigrant. I was now a British citizen.

But I have learned that you do not stop being an immigrant when you have a British passport. It is hard to shake it away when your family is still subject to immigration control, when the rhetoric continues, when new denationalisation proposals will target people like me. It is so hard to feel like you belong when at every step of the way you are reminded that just a few months ago, you didn’t.

But I don’t want to shake it away, and I don’t have to. 

I can be both.

Immigration has always been part of Britain. As Robert Winder shows in his brilliant book, Bloody Foreigners, immigration has been happening since Caesar first landed in 53 BC. Diversity is not new either. Archaeological work in York has uncovered evidence of a Roman city with a population mix much similar to contemporary Britain. I have much to thank to Medieval People of Colour, a blog that works tirelessly to counter the falsehood that historically, Europe was ethnically homogenous. Phillippa of Hainult, mother of King Edward III, was described as being ‘brown of skin all over’. The ethnicity of Queen Charlotte is a hot topic in art history, with some scholars claiming that she was a descendant of the black branch of the Portuguese royal house. One of the knights of the Round Table, Sir Morien, was black. King James IV of Scotland, Henry VII and Henry VII of England employed several African drummers and choreographers. Black people were part of everyday life in Elizabethan times . In fact, they were so prominent that Elizabeth I tried – and failed – to have them all deported. Further, Voltaire exclaimed in the 1700s:

Take a view of the Royal Exchange in London, a place more venerable than many courts of justice, where the representatives of all nations meet for the benefit of mankind. There the Jew, the Mahometan, and the Christian transact together

Immigration and diversity are part of these islanders and we should not pretend otherwise. This is not what the current political climate wants us to believe, I am both an immigrant and a British citizen. This is not an oxymoron. Historically, there have been others like me. We are and have always been part of this country and part of its history.

Turnout is expected to be low and there is widespread apathy in the political process. But it means something to me.

This morning, I cast my vote with a sense of rebellion. I did it as a British and an immigrant, in the name of all before me who have felt unwanted and rejected by our country of choice.

And in the belief that things must change.

Yes, I know it is likely that they will get worse. I know to expect low turnout, I know about the general apathy.

Mine was a small, prosaic act of defiance and belief in the political process, but we all have to start somewhere.

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