Posted by: roamingolivia | March 4, 2011

Encounters with Britishness

I don’t want to make judgments or sweeping generalisations with this post, but just share two recent experiences I’ve had here in London. I am still getting my head around this Britishness thing, and tend to avoid making comments on the simultaneous and often (but not always) connected debates that people are having here about “multiculturalism” and English / British identity, etc. I’m not from the UK, I’m not British, and it’s annoying when foreigners comment on things they don’t totally understand. That said, an article kind of linked to this was in the Economist, so I can write about this in a timely manner.

I’ve had two incidents in the past few months with discussions about Britishness, although they’re quite different experiences. I sometimes discuss them with my British friends, to see what they mean. Both are not really the flattering portrayals of British people I would normally give, and I stress that these are very much outlier experiences – just two in several years (although I wonder if that’s just because I am white and not a foreigner who looks “different”). 

A few months ago, I was taking a taxi home late at night and discussing various things – including my origin – with the driver. I always talk to taxi drivers, but I usually am the one asking the questions. This one was asking me more questions than I was asking him, and he started asking me about my boyfriend. First the question was where he was from. I said he was British. He asked which part of the UK. I told him. He asked if he is English. I said he was British. He said, “No, but is he English?” 

This became quite a contentious point, as my boyfriend’s part Scottish and part English and part whatever, but I don’t really care about these identities. Plus, in various conversations I’ve heard friends joke that identifying themselves as ethnically “English” makes them feel slightly fascist. (To get an idea of this debate, you can see this, something I picked up off Google, or this. I’m not really qualified to comment.) He started getting angry that I was trying to muddle the issue with things like “he has relatives from different parts of the UK”, and the conversation ended with me just ignoring him for the rest of the ride.

Last Friday, I went for some drinks with colleagues, and then went home, stopping off at my corner Lebanese restaurant for a shawarma. (A note of background: I live in an area of London that used to be really Irish and now is full of Afghan, Lebanese, Iranian, etc. shops and restaurants (with a smattering of Polish and Romanian shops) – and hard-core Irish pubs.) I don’t go there a lot – although I might now that I know they have shawarma for 2.50 – but it is pretty tasty. I ordered and paid.

As I sat down to wait, an older man – probably 60 but a hard-drinking 60 – walked in the door and straight over to my table. “What are you doing here?” he demanded. I was confused but said, “Ordering food?”

He said, “No, what are you doing here? With these people?” – and pointed to the Arab guys behind the counter (upon talking to them, it turned out they were Syrian and Lebanese). The guys behind the counter were watching attentively, trying to figure out if I knew him.

“What?” was all I managed in response.

He said, “You should not be here. You should be with our people.”

He was clearly drunk, and I asked him what he was doing there. “I like blondes” was his response. 

I am sure I raised an eyebrow at that, and picked up my New Yorker, and motioned to the guys to indicate that I didn’t want to talk to him anymore, and they asked him to leave. It was pretty weird, not least because I then had to piece together how he saw me (I assume he was at the pub next door).



  1. It’s a bit of a cop out to say you don’t want to make judgements, but talk about ‘Britishness’ (there is such a thing? isn’t this something dreamt up by Gordon Brown?) and then two incidents you’ve recently encountered. It kind of infers they’re related. I’m sure everyone has stories of bigoted or racist individuals/pissed up twats they’ve encountered. So what’s your take on it? Or is it just that such incidents are so infrequent that they’re worth noting?

    • The point of all my blogs is not really to analyse things but to tell stories…

  2. I think generally (at least for Americans) you have an idea that ‘Britishness’ is actually a thing. Until you actually come to Britain and realize that there is this English identity that people have. this is just a general thought that i don’t think many Brits/or English are aware of.

    As for some asshole in a pub…maybe I’ve lived in the ‘wrong’ parts of the U.S for this, but I couldn’t imagine someone in America coming in and making a comment like that to me. But sadly I’ve come to realize that girls are forced to hear more claptrap from old drunks than guys do.

  3. Echoing the others, isn’t it a bit misleading to entitle this post “encounters with Britishness”? These are encounters with racists. British racists, of course, but still just racists – racists who made no attempt to define or constitute a sense of what “Britishness” is.

    It seems to me that the political and cultural project of defining Britishness, what constitutes a national character, is a totally different thing (also, sadly, at times quite racist, but definitely different).

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