Lucky Non-Ethnic Nations: Anglo-based Identities

Anyone coming to the UK, especially large cities like London, will notice the mix of cultures, races, and ethnicities there. This has been going on for a long time and has usually been celebrated: In 1933, journalist Glyn Roberts commented "I still think the parade of peoples and colors and tongues just about the best thing in London." Not only are lots of different peoples present in London, they mix. This may seem like nothing extraordinary to an American, Canadian, or Australian (I assume), but it actually is rather unusual and, in my mind, a very good thing. In many places, mixing is a bit more difficult. The reason, I think, has to do with national identities.

What does a German look like? The tall, geeky engineer type, maybe, or the stout beer-drinking Bavarian? The German of Turkish heritage at a kebab shop probably does not come to mind, although he or she is surely an integral part of Germany today. "German" is now changing to include people who don't "look" German, but it is not as easy as "American," or "Canadian," which have always been mixes. Many nation-states are composed of, well, nations, which usually have a common ethnic heritage. This makes it difficult to join the nation just by getting the passport (i.e. citizenship in the country). Countries that have built national identities on things other than ethnic heritage have an easier time integrating newcomers.

Americans and others from outside the UK, who are likely to mix up terms like "English" and "British," may not recognize that the UK has long been a place of (more or less) accepted multiple nations and identities, too. The term "British" can mean anywhere in the British Isles (though calling Ireland, technically a British Isle, "British" would ruffle feathers) but usually means someone belonging to the United Kingdom. Historically, these were white protestants (after Henry VIII and Elizabeth I broke with Rome) living on the island of Great Britain with differing identities: English, Welsh, and eventually Scottish. In much more recent times (in the last 20 years about, according to a recent article in The Economist), immigrants to the UK, unable really to feel part of the English "tribe," for example, have adopted hyphenated identities involving being "British." The nice thing is that the term British, always a wider tent to include more peoples, has more easily expanded to allow immigrants to feel they own the term as well. No one's shocked if a woman with dark skin says she's "British." If she says she's "German," however, we may be a little surprised (though our surprise may, rightly, embarrass us). Now how to make these other national identities more flexible?


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