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This Is England.
Last weekend I had the pleasure of being invited to sit on the panel at the Film Hub screening of Shane Meadows’ film This Is England. The film is set in the North of England in 1983 and explores skinhead subculture; it’s racist foundations, nationalist aspirations and contradictions. One of these contradictions is the influence of West Indian culture on the skinhead movement in the form of Reggae music. This is embodied in the soundtrack of the film, but most powerfully in the presence of “Milky” – the Black member of the gang. Milky’s presence exemplifies the irrational nature of racism, because if you take away the flawed logic of White supremacy all of the characters in the film have the shared experience of social exclusion. Watching the film it was very apparent to me that the skinheads experienced similar social exclusion from wider British society to immigrants and their children. However, having gluttonously devoured the hateful rhetoric of the National Front the social isolation of the skinheads manifests itself in violent hate crimes.During the panel discussion the moment in the film when “Combo” – leader of the skinheads – asks Milky if he is “English or Jamaican” was described as a “seminal moment”. Indeed, this moment is key in exploring the themes of identity, belonging and the complex and racialised nature of English identity. In that moment Combo rejects the idea of duality in national identity and with a heavy heart Milky sacrifices his Jamaican heritage for belonging and survival in England. In that moment I wished that Milky was able to assert his identity as a British Jamaican. However, understanding the context even I can see what led him to choose assimilation over cultural resistance. What was heartbreaking was that even though Milky chooses to belong to survive, as a Black man he is still a target and this is why Combo turns on him and beats him up within inches of his life. For me this showed very clearly that in a racist society choosing assimilation over cultural resistance and self-identification is not adequate compensation for melanin.I was prompted to write this blog post because of a question that was directed to me when I explained that I was raised to be proud of my African heritage and I identify as a Ugandan. Yes, I am British – which as a Londoner is a more cosmopolitan, inclusive, a-racial identity. However, in the context of the film if I was in Milky’s shoes and asked if I am “English or Ugandan”, I choose Ugandan. The audience was surprised and in some cases angry with my choice of self-identification which I found strange. To my shock a brother asked me (seriously, not sarcastically) “What is the difference between you and Jane Smith if Jane Smith grew up on your street?” I then explained that I was raised in an African house, by African parents and it is their value system that got me through State school education system in this country. I.e. It is the value system of my family (not the subjugation of wider British society) that enabled me to grow up with my self esteem in tact and have options in this society. My shock at this brother’s insinuation that Jane Smith and I are equals in this country prevented me from launching into an explanation of the damning social impact of White privilege. I am taking this blog post as an opportunity to elaborate on my response.Of course, genetically there is no difference between me and Jane Smith. However, you only have to look at the social metrics to see the difference between me and Jane Smith. Institutional racism is the reason why Black students struggle more than their white counterparts to find jobs after graduation. Institutional racism is the reason why Black people are 26 times more likely to be stopped and searched than White people and why banks discriminate against lending money to Black owned buisnesses. Racial discrimination exists at all social levels. There is no doubt that inequality based on race in this country is a reality and I would be naïve to think that Jane Smith and I are under the same social pressures. As British citizens we should be equal, but you only have to look at the numbers to know we are not. I cannot be patriotic to this system.Being asked by a Black man what is the difference between me and Jane Smith sent me into a thinking frenzy. I wondered if he thought society feels there is no difference between himself and John Smith. If I had the chance what I would ask that brother to explain to me is why the English families in Kenya who have been in Africa for generations rarely identify as Africans. They are proud Englishmen living enjoying the swirls of expat life and exporting their culture at every opportunity. In a country like South Africa where the White population are likely to identify as South African their ancestors enforced Apartheid as an aggressive means of subjugating, demoralizing and terrorizing the indigenous population in order to reinforce their colonial ownership of the country and dominate all spheres of power and influence. My point being that even when they are the minority the luxury of cultural capital enables White people to form a relationship with the land and the people around them on their own terms. However, as an African I should be in a reactionary state of mind, allowing others to define who and what I am. The undermining of African cultural capital is the reason why people are shocked that I’m not bleaching away my blackness, reproducing away my blackness or disassociating myself from my African roots.I would like to finish by saying that identity is a personal affair, a relationship with Self. I would never impose my relationship with myself on anyone else. I therefore expect the same courtesy. As a British Ugandan I have a dual national and cultural identity and affirming my African heritage is my right. It is just a pity that this makes people uncomfortable. I was even told that I risk coming across as an African supremacist. Which also shocked me as I am sure none of my patriotic French friends have been called French supremacists. This led me to joke on Twitter that I am going to have to get my non-African friends to write testimonials about how culturally inclusive I am. In regards to Black people who are uncomfortable when I say I am African I think it really boils down to feeling implicitly judged by my choice to be proud of my heritage. As if I am suggesting I am superior because I have no desire to compound my colonial identity further by pursuing an emotional relationship with the British state. I am not superior. Identity is fluid and I am on a journey just like everyone else.
This, is, England, Skinhead, england, jane, smith, film, black, people, social, their, indigenous, country, heritage, system