Friday, May 21, 2010

Learning from the British

There is much that is amiss with British culture, but there are times when things happen to make me deeply appreciate the things that are so very right with it.

I would like to relate a true incident to highlight this.

At a recent conference, a prominent American speaker had cause to summon a delegate onto the platform. In a largely white audience, this delegate was one of the few black people in attendance. The speaker explained that, in America, he would call this man African-American, but he didn't know what term to use in the UK. "What do I call you?" he asked the man. To resounding cheers from the by now very uncomfortable audience, the man answered, "I'm British."

I have always wondered how 'African American' is a less offensive term than 'black' because it amounts to pretty much the same thing. It is a term which serves to divide a society on the basis of skin colour. What's wrong with 'American'? Why does there have to be differentiation at all?

Oddly enough, the one person I can think of to whom the term can accurately be applied is President Obama, since he has one African parent, and one American parent.

But the 'African' bit is somewhat misleading, anyway. I play squash once a week with a friend. Let's say two people were watching us play and person A asked, "Who's winning?" If person B answered, "The African woman is behind by 6 points," person A would probably think I had opened a can of whup-ass on my friend. But under those circumstances, they would be dead wrong. You see, she's black-and-British, while I am white-and-African.

Some time back, I related how I had been hounded out of an online group for Africans on the basis of my skin colour. To add insult to injury, the ringleader of my virtual lynch party was an American woman who had never set foot on African soil.

It doesn't work.

In recent years, I have noticed increasingly racist tendencies on the part of friends and family back in South Africa, as the problems in the country fuel the racial tensions and give rise to all manner of blame-game tactics. I have heard the most pejorative terms coming from the mouths of people I love, people from whom I never expected to hear such talk.

And I want no part of it.

I far prefer a society in which a person of any skin colour whatsoever can say unequivocally, "I am British."

6 comments:

V Yonkers said...

This is a very complex issue in the US. Part of it is race related, but another part of it is culturally related. If I remember correctly, the term "African American" came from Jesse Jackson (or at least its use by the media was encouraged by him) as a means to recognize those whose origins were from slaves had origins in Africa.

In the US, "whites" had a history of identifying themselves with the subcultures based on immigrant populations. To this day, you will ask if someone is "Italian", or "Irish", or "Polish" as a way to identify their cultural background. In the 1980's, there was a move by former slaves to be referred to by their cultural antecedents rather than their race. Thus "African" was something to be proud of.

However, the media picked this up so that any person of color (including those with roots in India, Malaysia, the Caribbean, Brazil, etc...) was label "African American." In fact, I just discovered from one of my students recently, that those whose family comes from the Caribbean DO NOT like being called African Americans. So just what I took from that was all Americans are proud of their ethnic origins and should be asked "what they are, regardless of race.

This might mean a person of color might be British, Caribbean, African, Cape Verdean, Brazilian, Belizian, etc... Identifying with an ethnic group (and being able to be proud of it) is part of the make-up of American culture (which is why the new immigration law in Arizona hits a nerve as being "un-American among many.)

Karyn Romeis said...

@V_Yonkers This tradition of referring to yourself by means of the nationality of your distant forebears is quite puzzling to those of us outside of the US. Particularly the natives of the countries in question, as far as I can tell. Quite apart from anything else, all these years later, there can be few whose blood is undiluted by the rich cultural mix of people who have called the country home for (in some cases) centuries.

My husband's Swedish family certainly seem to find it rather amusing that there is this whole bunch of American citizens who know nothing about Sweden and do not speak the language, but call themselves Swedish nonetheless.

For a while after 9/11, it looked as if the day had finally dawned when Americans would be satisfied to see themselves as such, but that seems to have worn off.

To be honest, I find that sad, especially since, in the case of the so-called 'African Americans', there is no known country of heritage, so they have to be satisfied with the rather vague umbrella of the whole continent. Many of them seem to be of the view that Africa is a united, cohesive whole, and that, the moment they set foot there, they will feel that they have 'come home'.

Perhaps it is better that they never visit and find out just how wrong they are about that. Africa is continent of some 57 countries, many of which are torn apart by violence, deprivation and corrupt officials.

My heritage, five and more generations ago (depending on which branch of the family tree you follow) is European, primarily English and Dutch. I moved to England as an adult 11 years ago, and I still don't feel as if I have come home. In fact, I feel utterly homeless, because my ties to South Africa have stretched beyond of hope of recovery. My yearning is for a country I no longer recognise, and a version of myself that no longer exists.

I suspect all the Polish, Irish, Italian, Swedish and African Americans would find themselves in exactly the same boat, should they try to repatriate after all these generations.

I can't help feeling it would serve them better to say "I am American" and leave it at that.

V Yonkers said...

In fact, most Americans I know who live outside of the country do not identify themselves as "Irish" or "Swedish" Americans, but as Americans. And there are definitely parts of the US especially in the South, where they would agree with you (I'm American, not Greek or Italian). I also know from the cross-cultural training I have done in the past that this is one aspect that foreigners find strange and is very difficult for most Americans to explain because it is so embedded into our culture.

But to understand our culture, you have to look at the enclaves of immigrants that developed with each wave of immigration. Within these enclaves (sometimes out of necessity) a community with connections to others from the same country developed. They shared language, values, religion, and an economy. What is interesting is that someone might be only a small percentage of a nationality by blood, but it is the community that you identify yourself with. While I am only a quarter Irish from Great Grandparents who came from Ireland, I was raised with Irish Catholic values. I would never think that this is the same values as they have in Ireland today, but when I visited Ireland, I was surprised that I was raised with very similar core values.

My mother's family is WASP (White Anglo Saxon Protestant from New England whose family came in the 1600's). The values and lifestyle of a WASP is not how I was raised and seem almost "foreign". I guess it would be similar to being from a different social class or region within England. Each has their own way of communicating, values, and traditions within a core British culture shared as a country.

Garry Platt said...

It’s interesting this one Karyn, it got me thinking anyway. I prefer to call myself English rather than British, although being virtually borderless with Scotland, Cornwall, Wales and Northern/Southern Ireland and everywhere else for that matter my genetic pool is a rich quixotic mix. Never the less my experienced cultural heritage, tradition and personal self image is English. For me I recognise that my passport may say British, but my outlook, values and beliefs are coloured because of my heritage. I don’t call myself English British however, just English. And when I hear other people call themselves Cornish, or Scottish, I think I know where they’re coming from. So if someone wants to call themselves African American it might be to recognise both their ancestral and immediate cultural backgrounds - is that wrong?

V Yonkers said...

By the way, there are many South and Central Americans that call themselves "American". They really resent the use of those from the US calling themselves "American" and excluding those from outside the US from that term.

In Costa Rica, they refer to those from the US as "North Americans" which upsets the Canadians!

However, in many parts of Latin America, there are communities of immigrants who have kept their cultural identity (the Italians in Costa Rica and Argentina for example).

Karyn Romeis said...

@V_Yonkers Thank you so much for your level of engagement on this subject. I am not saying that I have all the answers (even I'm not *that* arrogant ;o)), but there are times when I think the attachment of labels serve to sustain the divisiveness in society... and this was one example.