Having grown up in an era during which the prominence of the National Front forced you to take sides in a very ugly and frequently violent national debate about who could and couldn’t be considered to ‘belong here’, and in which the first brave black players to play for the English national football team were greeted, by some sections of the crowd with bananas, monkey grunting and banners proclaiming that ‘There ain’t no black in the Union Jack’ (sic.), it’s always been a point of principle for me that anyone born and raised in England is by definition English – and that to oppose this notion is essentially a form of fascism based on ridiculous, outmoded and unscientific folksy notion of racial purity and blood and land.
Of course, there’s what I may believe and hold to be true and there’s what students believe, and clearly the two can sometimes be at wildly divergent odds . . . as I found out in class yesterday. One of my students is a lovely woman who always calls herself Russian, despite the fact she was born and bred in Latvia. Now, having been to the country a couple of times, I’m all too aware of the tensions between ethnic Latvians and ethnic Russians, and I can understand why people might choose to adopt such taxonomy. In the coffee break, chat turned to her fiance, who she calls Russian too. It emerged that he too was born and bred in Latvia, despite having one Russian parent and one parent who was born and raised in Azerbaijan. I commented that for me this meant he was Latvia, whereupon I was told that even if they had kids which were born and brought up here in London, they’d still be Russian. I laughed and said ‘They’d be Anglo-Lativian-Russian-Azeri, but they’d be English, to me at least’ . . . and all hell broke loose.
There then followed a lengthy discussion about what it means to be English, during which it became clear (a) that for many – perhaps almost all – students the notion of Englishness is still very much connected to the idea of being white and to the idea of having deep family roots in the soil. How deep those roots need to be, how many generations they need to go back, varied from student to student, but the message seemed clear – and it seemed disturbingly similar to that propagated by the NF when I was younger, albeit in a far less aggressive or politicised manner, of course – and (b) the construct of Englishness that prevails seems rooted in a general shock at the wilder excesses of a small section of London youth. One student, a Sicilian with a sister living in the UK, married to an Indian with whom she has two kids, claimed that her nephew and niece, despite the fact they’re growing up here, would never be ‘English’ because of ‘cultural differences’ such as not going out dressed half-naked to get violently drunk and have sex in the street on a Tuesday night!
In the ensuing discussion, I tried to point out that there really isn’t – and has never been – one kind of ‘English’ person and that the English differ in their attitudes, morals, behaviour, politics, lifestyles, etc as much as anyone else. Some English people are totally behind gay marriage; others oppose it vehemently; some are Buddhist, some Muslim, some absolutely atheist; some love football, others loathe it and so on and on! At this point, a Spanish student called Mohammed chipped in saying this was exactly what he’d been fighting and arguing about all his life, as a first generation Spanish-Moroccan and as the first kid of Muslim origin to attend a Catholic school in Malaga. Despite strong family ties to Morocco and despite a recognition of the fact that he had cultural roots that were different to many other Spaniards, he sees himself defiantly as Spanish – as well he might!
So where do we go with all of this and why am I blogging about it? Well, firstly, if we are to take the Common European Framework seriously, then we have a responsibility to ensure that through our teaching of language we help students “to achieve a wider and deeper understanding of the way of life and forms of thought of other peoples and of their cultural heritage.” If this is to happen, then perhaps the first step towards recognising / accepting / discussing the diversity that exists within students’ own cultures is to have their vision of Britain complicated for them. Perhaps such discussions can act as a mirror inwards and give pause for reflection? Of course, London may a special case in many ways given that 37% of its inhabitants – my students included, of course (!) – were born outside of the UK, but what’s happening in London also happens everywhere: people travel, relationships form, kids are born, cultures change.
Secondly, it’s clearly of vital importance for many many teachers and students alike that these issues are aired. An ever-increasing number of native-speaker teachers are of mixed-race or non-white origin and thus more likely to be prejudged – often negatively – by foreign students demanding what they perceive to be ‘native’ native speakers of English! In addition, there are many students who come from complex families and whose right to self-definition and determination is a basic human one. In my time at work, I’ve met Swedes with Afghan, Eritrean and Iranian roots; Swiss students from all manner of interwoven backgrounds; a young Polish lad who’d grown up in a very rural area as the only mixed-race kid for many many miles, and so on. These students’ stories and lives deserve to be validated and recognised.
So what can we do? Well, for a start, we can at least have exactly the kinds of discussions I outlined above, should the opportunity / need arise.
In addition to this, I then sent an email round my class – as I do after every lesson – containing some follow-up links and things to read. Here’s what I included:
Next up, that series I was telling you about called 100% English.
It’s an incredible view and I’d really recommend you watch at least one episode.
It’ll hopefully complicate your ideas of what ‘English’ or even ‘white’ means!!
Connected to this is this amazing article about a guy in Scotland whose DNA traces directly back to the first woman in East Africa. Fascinating story.
I then asked the class to record a Vocaroo each detailing what they felt they were a product of. This was an expression that had come up in a reading we did, wherein a mother lamented the fact that her slightly unruly fifteen-year-old son was the product of a very liberal age, and I’d discussed my own roots and formative influences briefly on my own recording that I mailed out to announce the homework.
Small steps and I’m realistic enough to know that such steps are unlikely to bring about any sea change in attitudes or prejudices, but also small steps that slowly lead to somewhere else, and ultimately it’s a belief in the power of dialogue and discourse that allows me to retain a rosy, optimistic slant on these matters even when things seem particularly cloudy!