Friday, 5 January 2007

What is race and what are you?

You say that you are an English girl, but what does that mean? You may think that it means that if you went back through your ancestors you would find only Angles and Saxons. But in fact your great-grandfather’s family was probably Viking (Danish) and a number of your ancestors were Celts (Scots and Irish). A DNA test on you would probably reveal all sorts of traces of inter-breeding. We are discovering how mixed up our ancestry is.

Yet even before DNA testing, anyone who understood English history would know what a particularly mixed or mongrel race the ‘English’ are, with Celts, Romans, Angles, Saxons, Danes, Norwegians, French, Dutch mixtures up to the seventeenth century, and since then all sorts of peoples from the Empire and post-Empire. So the idea of being ‘English’ is just a constructed identity. It defines you against others, the French or Germans or even Scots, for example. Yet it really means very little.


You might not only say that you are ‘English’, but also British, that is to say that on your passport and in your own feeling of yourself your nationality is British. Behind this is the idea of the nation, that is a bounded political, linguistic, cultural and territorial unit. You might assume that your idea of belonging to a nation-state is common, indeed universal, and has long been the situation of most people on earth. This can be questioned.

Many people now argue that the nation-state is really an invention of the last two hundred years in most of the world. There were no nations in India or Africa, or in the Near or Far East in 1800. There were states and Empires, but if you asked people ‘What nation do you belong to?’ they would not have understood your question. If you had changed the question to ‘What is your people?’ or ‘What do you call yourself?’, you would have got surprising answers. Even in France, Italy, Germany or Spain, people did not think of themselves as French, Italians, Germans or Spanish, but rather Bretons, Gascons, Lombards, Basques, Andalusians and so on.

Most of the inhabitants of France only began to think of themselves as primarily French after about 1870, and the same was true in all the countries of continental Europe. The change occurred even later in the rest of the world such as Eastern Europe or the Middle East. In many parts of the world it is only just happening. When I went to the Himalayas in the late 1960’s the people I worked with in the central hills referred to the Kathmandu Valley alone as ‘Nepal’. They thought they lived outside Nepal, in their own village and group and region, though on the map it was all ‘Nepal’.

Nations are invented or imagined communities, where people who do not know each other and often have little in common come to think of themselves as ‘the British’ or ‘the French’. Some say this is the result of the spread of printing and hence of newspapers and books in the national language. They also argue that the spread of an economic system which binds people together through a common currency and set of money exchanges is behind the change. Others see it as the result of factories and cities, or of new educational systems. Whatever the cause, it is true that nation-states have only dominated the world during the last two hundred years.

Yet, by chance, you happen to live in a somewhat older nation. Because we live on a small island which early adopted a common language, law, economy and set of political institutions, the English have been becoming a nation from as early as King Alfred in the eighth century. If you had asked someone what nation he belonged to five hundred years ago he might well have said ‘England’. Then the English became British when the King of Scotland also became the King of England in 1603 and Scots and English people settled in Ireland from the seventeenth century. Now they are becoming English, Scottish, Welsh or Irish again.

We fight wars and discriminate against outsiders and immigrants as if there were such things as nations, but they are just lines on a map. Nations are constructed and deconstructed. There is nothing natural or given about them. They are imagined, invented, concepts and there is no British nation, English nation, except in our imagination. Some even say that they are short-lived fictions and that the age of the nation-state will soon be over as we merge in a global world. And not before time according to many of those who have suffered the vicious effects of nationalism like the refugee Albert Einstein who wrote that ‘Nationalism is an infantile disease. It is the measles of mankind.’

Certainly what it means to be ‘English’ and ‘British’, as you will find, will fluctuate over your lifetime and your feelings of national identity will alter enormously. As it shifts back and forth, is aroused by war cries or lulled by talk of European integration, it is good to remember what a constructed thing it is. The same is true of those who live in most of the nations of the world, whether in Cyprus, Israel, Japan, North Korea, Vietnam or elsewhere. The pulse of national identity slows and quickens, and the very meaning of ‘being’ of a certain nation changes deeply as the world changes around a group of people.

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