Grouping people according to their "historical" cultural identity is both divisive and dangerous. Migration is about change, not ossificationby Mike Phillips / September 24, 2010 / Leave a comment
Published in October 2010 issue of Prospect Magazine
Encountering younger black people who regard themselves as activists of one kind or the other, I’ve become accustomed to hearing the mantra: “Nothing’s changed.” How would you know? is my instinctive, irritated response. But I tend to keep that thought to myself, because while a great deal has changed, we are still living with a confused and potentially damaging welter of ideas about race, ethnicity and identity.
Today, any person’s identity is, of course, determined by the people they know, the circumstances they encounter and the different kinds of knowledge they acquire. With the ongoing revolution in global communications, and the unprecedented levels of migration and travel, no one can be a simple and irreducible unity. Inevitably, then, national identity and national self-image are constantly changing, and British citizenship is now a political formula that has outstripped ethnicity and racial origins.
On the other hand, in the long 20th-century battle against the ideologies of empire, black and Asian activists were concerned with mapping the outlines of “authentic” national identity, whose health could be determined by the extent to which it resisted the influence of “alien” and dominant cultures. In Britain, largely in reaction to the racism directed against migrants, activists began to echo this trend, pegging assertions of dignity, self respect or even humanity to a newly-recovered memory of exclusive and uncorrupted cultural origins: “roots.”