If there is anything the last three years of political near-phantasmagoria has proven, it is that British society, whatever or wherever that is, is obsessed with identity. We establish who we are, and then work out who we want to be surrounded by, and who doesn’t make that cut.
Any series of questions on identity seem to end up with the core triad of ideas: nation, culture and race. The European debate, and then the following referendum, seemed to relocate these ideas in relation to the topographic continent, and specifically its interconnective political glue: the European Union. Both sides of the binary ‘In or Out’ decision tried to prove their own definition of the nation and ‘britishness’ in particular. What defines us as a nation? Who is Britain?
A trend of negative definition of identity has existed long in the memory of world histories. From Nazi antisemitism, the murder of black families by the Klu Klux Klan’s, the segregation of Japanese-Americans and Japanese-Canadians during the Second World War, the attempted ‘ethnic cleansing’ of Tutsi communities in Rwanda, and hate crimes against Indians in Australia. These examples barely scratch the surface of the identity-based crimes and grave atrocities that occur when members of a nation seek to define their own nationhood by opposition: identifying what does not adhere to their image of their identity, rather than what does.
There is a section of society in limbo in this debate: people with a ‘hyphenated identity’. Defined as a person or community of mixed national origin, often being first or particularly second-generation immigrants, it refers literally to the hyphen often deployed between nations in a title, like British-Indian or British-Nigerian or British-Romanian.
Most style guides today suggest dropping the hyphen, but I think the visual presence of the hyphen is powerful in what it can represent. It typographically appears as if there is something connecting the two nations or ‘identities’, a bridge, a road, or a rope. It is a way of coming to terms with one’s dual-identity that often crosses borders, cultures and races. It is also, though, often matched with a feeling of exclusion or anxiety in both places. For me as a British-German I have often felt I was not German enough to feel entirely home in Germany, but enough to feel slightly differently in Britain.
Who is Britain?
Too often, though, the terminology of hyphenated identities is deployed in the case or race, rather than nationality. British Asian or Black British are terms that appear in the Census but do almost nothing to represent the person’s heritage other than their skin colour. We need to address hyphenated identity in its specifics, and for all races, cultures and nations.
Taking my personal experience as an example, we can see how the cultural and political environment we exist in has in the past made it, and seems to be increasingly making it, harder for dual-nationals to feel truly ‘dual’. In this case, a case that takes race out of the equation, I have experienced deep-rooted anti-German sentiment in English culture. I am British-German but live and grew up in the UK. A certain portion of the country (often the sort you’ll find ordering a pint of Harvey’s Best and insisting on extra Cranberry Sauce with their roast) have crafted a national schematic vision of Germany as this super-charged, ultra-efficient, bulk we could never possibly better. ‘But we beat them!’ they’d shout. ‘Twice!’
Being born to an English mother and a German father, these jests and jibes will follow me to every job and house and (most often) pub, so long as I make sure not to hide it. If I scored a goal in the courtyard after school, some kids (somehow) would brandish out that classic straight-armed salute, complete with a ‘Heil’ if they felt like it – aware or not of its significance. If I talk about how my Grandfather fought, and survived, the Second World War, I’d be met with awkward silences until I reach the point where I explain how he was forced to fight. The Nazi’s fought the war, not ‘the Germans’. I may be making a mountain out of a molehill, but the traces of post-war, anti-German sentiment are not imaginary.
Hitler’s Nazism and that particular sense of opposition died a long time ago
Conservative MP Mark Francois found himself talking on BBC News in response to a letter from the chairman of Airbus explaining his decision to take work out of UK. This chairman, Tom Enders, is German. Francois then accused Enders of ‘Teutonic arrogance’ in trying to influence the Brexit debate, and stated, chest puffed out, that his father was a D-Day Veteran so he neither his son would be inclined to ‘submit’ to any German ‘bullying’. Aside from the extremely misplaced importance Francois must feel and the resulting vast irony of this statement, it does signal a biased opposition to German identity as being innately anti-British, and British as anti-German.
Where does this leave the vast group of ‘German British’ citizens in the UK? The Office for National Statistics state that it constitutes one of the largest minority groups at over 400,000 citizens. Where do they look when their politicians vilify their nationality and distort their identity in the context of their history? What do they feel when they feel the same sentiments in some of their encounters, or written in Daily Mail headlines?
The Home Office’s Hostile Environment policy – which arguably has been the most widely influential and consequential policy in recent memory – has not helped any of this. Despite being aimed at creating ‘a hostile environment for illegal immigrants’ as Theresa May said in 2012, its wider thematic message, as well as the specific policies that adhere to it, has stuck: Foreign = Other.
Hyphenated status, in its best form, is when an immigrant or second-generation immigrant can ask, how can I acknowledge who I am whilst simultaneously recognising the reality of a country whose community I would like to be a part of? It is harder when the country you’re living in makes it clear you’re not welcome.
Part of the purpose of the EU was to remove the need for these distinctions within its countries, but in its dissolution as a part of our political landscape this is disappearing with it.
Political policy tells us to fear the foreign, and question its validity, while politicians like Mr Francois remind us of historical conflict and to remember their opposition, rather than their resolution.
To be clear, any Brit who still believes themselves to be in an ideological war with Germany is beyond me. Despite the worrying rise of its damaging offspring, Hitler’s Nazism and that particular sense of opposition died a long time ago.
The core Brexiters’ false brand of pseudo Anglo-futurism as an isolated and combative island is toxic and regressive. The lessons taken from the war should never be how we fought, but how we resolved divisions together. Then why are we still residing in a culture that rejects the other too often before it welcomes it?
Hyphenated identity as a concept may seem like an unnecessary way of highlighting someone’s capacity for otherness. I believe, though, it can be the opposite. Identifying yourself as per your varying national, cultural and racial self is the true transition we can make away from the other and to the accepted. I am a product of here, and somewhere else, and I feel the better for it.