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The University of Southampton
Centre for English Identity and Politics

Don John

“Stories of England”

28 March 2018

University of Winchester

Don John, Race & Diversity Consultant


This is a corrected transcript of talks given at the ‘Stories of England’ seminar held at the University of Winchester on 28 March 2018.  Please do not quote without seeking permission from the speaker. 

OK, good morning, good morning, everyone.  John has introduced me.  And I just want to say a few things about my experience of Englishness. When John raised this issue with me some time ago, I was a little bit uncertain as to, you know, how I feel about that notion of Englishness.  But I'm just going to give you some idea about my personal relationship with that terminology. 

I guess when people first see me, the first thing that they see is a Black man, and trust me I would not have it any other way. Forget this nonsense about “I don’t see colour” and the hypocrisy of not really noticing that is unfortunately a deceit to make us think that our race does not significantly affect our lives. IT DOES. In fact, I would be offended if they did not notice. And the truth is no matter what people think, they cannot avoid consuming the baggage attached to being a black person in the UK by what they are told and what they are not told. 

I was born of Sierra Leonean parentage in North-West London and despite the fact that we had British passports, the notion of “Britishness” was not something we owned but something that owned us and placed upon us certain obligations about how we were expected to behave to be worthy of this inclusion. Some of you may be aware that the BBC produced films in the 50s/60s for Black people telling them how to behave when they came to the UK, one such example, some of you may have seen that, was warning Black people not assemble in large groups on the street as this may offend… and not to speak in their own language too loudly as this may cause fear!

My family clutched on to their African heritage for some time but over a period of time felt that they had to surrender some of that in order to more closely embrace the British identity; but notions of Englishness were not even on the landscape. My teenage years ,where many of my cultural influences were developed, was spent mostly in the NW London Jewish community which resonated more strongly with me than any thoughts of “Englishness”  and this community also made clear distinctions between being “English” and being Jewish…and I must confess I identified with some of that…and to this day they are my closest friends. 

When I went to work in Her Majesty's Treasury as the only black person there at one time, one would have thought that I would have a clearer understanding of what it meant to be English, and it did, However, it provided further evidence of why I certainly was not seen to be English…and it certainly accentuated my difference but strangely brought me closely to my identity as a Londoner which somehow was very different from being either British or English. 

English for me was too closely attached to Empire and colonialism and the social and scientific notions of racial superiority and this manifested itself in the language, the culture and behavioural systems. The fact is that the political far right movements from Oswald Moseley to Enoch Powell through to the BNP and the plethora of fascist organisations we have now, have used Englishness as a means of excluding Black people and the blacker you were the more you were excluded.. Furthermore, some of the residues of colonialism deluded some of our fairer brothers and sisters dangling the possibility of being included as British perhaps but never English. Now some of the more mature (age wise) may remember the Blue Mink song “Melting Pot" that quoted a land of “Coffee Coloured People By The Score”, is that the new future!! 

So, in my view, we have this dilemma of multiple identities and we have to choose how we prioritise these identities; with a clear realisation that political and social circumstances can and will affect who we are , who we choose to be and what we are and very often it will not be up to us. Obama, Brexit, The War on Terror, Racial Violence and Trump all play their part in that determination, but as a Black man born and bred in the UK, I think being English is fairly low down on that list.

Thank you.

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