What Makes You British?

Back in January I blogged about having a mixed and somewhat confused cultural identity. I got quite a lot of feedback about it, online and offline, and it certainly seemed to resonate with people.

Being British but not ‘looking’ British is something that’s been explored a fair bit in Channel 4′s Make Bradford British. So far I’ve found the whole thing fascinating, but watching it back today on 4oD, there was one thing that really stuck out for me.

Sabbiyah (22), a Muslim woman, spends some time living with with Audrey (48), a mixed-race landlady. When serving at the pub, Sabbiyah gets questioned by some of the patrons about why she doesn’t dress ‘like them’. She chooses to cover her hair, but they want to know why she won’t don a mini skirt and show some cleavage instead, that is, if she truly wants to integrate into this country.

This got me thinking about what we really should be aiming for here, assimilation or integration? Here’s what the OED has to say:

Integrate verb
Bring (people or groups with particular characteristics or needs) into equal participation in or membership of a social group or institution.

Assimilate verb
Take in and understand fully (information or ideas). Absorb and integrate (people, ideas, or culture) into a wider society or culture.

Why shouldn’t Sabbiyah be able to wear whatever she chooses? Just because some Muslim countries dictate what people (including foreign visitors) can and cannot wear, does not make it right. So from my point of view, integration is a nice goal to have. Assimilation just seems naive.

So what does it mean to be British? I don’t really know what the answer is, but I found Sabbiyah’s and Audrey’s responses the most telling:

For me, it’s being able to be myself, being tolerant and fair, being respectful to others, valuing diversity, being able to practise my religion, having my civil rights, being able to walk down the street with a scarf on my head if I choose to wear one and not expect to be called a Paki. That’s what being British is, having those values. Being British is just me; it’s something that I am. I can’t really define it – Sabbiyah

The fact that I’ve got a British passport tells me I’m British, but the colour of my skin tells everybody else that I’m not. I’ve got my passport, I’m born here, I’m British. But I still get people asking me where I’m from – Audrey

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