my class, race and national identity crisis – who can relate?
disclaimer: this is my first proper article via joshakapo.com and it’s exciting, but i didn’t think i’d be writing about something so serious so soon. also, this is *not academic* but i’ve read some stuff surrounding the issues i’m about to discuss, plus my experiences are valid anyways, so there we go.
final also: i know the theme of my site is lower case, however this is so long and confusing to make all lower case, so i’ll cop out and put the whole thing in quotation marks.
What am I? No really, what am I? I would have started with “who”, however I quickly realised I have been dehumanised since birth. Thus I ask, “what”? And yes, I’m cynical as hell.
I’m black. I am black. A black man. A young black man, a second generation young black British man of Nigerian-Beninese origin – the Benin part of my identity is still relatively new to me. That didn’t feel like it took a long time to explain, yet I feel as though I have been explaining this my entire life. ‘So, where are you from?’, ‘no no no, where are you really from?’, and the infamous ‘where are you from from?’ – all questions created by British Britons which evoke an internal identity war every time they are asked. I have a red passport, my English is brilliant, this country is the only home I have ever known, yet am I still not “really from” here? I am sure I am not alone in this struggle, which only emboldened itself as I grew up.
Further understanding the ills of the British Empire, its hand in destroying and destabilising the homelands I (by force) must represent by consequence of being both black and British, made me not want to be British. They enslaved my ancestors, literally and figuratively – my young, angry self definitely did not want to be associated with the UK after learning this. However, even if I did want to entirely accept my Britishness by right of citizenship, I would not be able to because I am not “really from” here. I mean, for as long as the British government are deporting British citizens for no reason other than their blackness, it is both institutionally and socially acceptable for a black Briton to not actually be considered British.
Now, I would be completely comfortable with getting a Nigerian dual-citizenship, or if I had never been a British citizen and instead had a green passport in principle, however aside from the fact that living in Nigeria without a lot of wealth is very difficult and being a Nigerian Nigerian in the UK is much harder than having citizenship, I have never been to Nigeria or Benin, ever. My “Nigerian culture” is watered-down at best – I can cook jollof well, and can force an accent; that’s it. I lack tangible elements of “Nigerianness” in which I would even not be able visit to Nigeria without a serious culture shock, let alone return permanently. If my culture is primarily British, yet in Britain the only identity I am unanimously given is that of the “other” (in this case, Nigerian), where am I truly from?
Let me try again, then. I’m working-class. I am working-class. I am a working-class man, who just so happened to attend a grammar school, a Russell Group, a ‘Golden Triangle’ university and who managed to kind-of sort-of gentrify the same borough I grew up in, although I am still as broke now as I was then..? That was more difficult an explanation.
Class has also been a difficult means of identification growing up. I lived in East London for half of my life in a small house sharing a room with my sister. We evidently were not middle class, however I am thankful we never lacked the basics. The very bottom of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs was met to the best of my memory (except sex, I was 9). I think it’s interesting to note here that a few old friends thought we were rich because we had a garden. Although I knew money was an issue growing up, I never really noticed my social class as a young boy. And what’s more, all my then-friends and I were all in the same boat; broke minority kids.
And then, we moved to Kent. Swale, to be precise. One of the worst boroughs for young people to live, the borough with the highest current ratio of GPs to number of people, and one of the most economically deprived boroughs in Kent. However, when we moved, I thought this place was rich people land. In hindsight, this taught me that the white working-class experience was very different to that of ethnic minorities, especially the black working-class. The houses were larger, my new Kent-based friends went on holidays abroad, and they wore designer designer clothes on non-uniform days; 10-year-old me was shocked.
It costs a lot of money to go to a grammar school. Now, of course it is free, however to enjoy the institution to its fullest, one has to go on the majority of school trips abroad, thousand-pound annual ski trips, class trips, buy expensive uniforms, update their wardrobes for unnecessarily-often non-uniform days; this list is really not exhaustive. A lot of these perks I was not able to experience, however during this time I felt more middle-class than I ever have. Merely living in Kent, being amongst British Britons who somehow had the money to go on holiday yearly whilst maintaining impressive levels of disposable income, exposed me to a world of wealth I never knew existed. I believed I was part of it, but in reality my black British self could only dream of it.
Even my white working-class friends had more savings than I, had higher household incomes than mine, and still had elements of generational wealth somewhere in their family tree. Meanwhile, many mid-to-low income black families still have to provide financial aid to other lower income family members – this was not a foreign concept in my family. Now, include paying tithes and settling age-old debts due to the institutional racism that existed before as black people applied for various forms of credit, our already stretched salary learned new levels of flexibility. Despite this and a lack of tutoring, of which many of my British Briton friends benefited, I was still able to enter elitist institutions almost reserved for the middle classes. I know I have not yet achieved social mobility, but am I on my way? And do I even fit into the binary of working-class vs middle-class?
In writing this, it has become very clear to me, both in feeling and in practice, that the terms British and working-class/middle-class (in the British context) were not created to include black people nor other minorities. The definitions of these terms also continue to exclude black people. Or at least that is how I feel. I see Britishness as a unit by which only white people can be measured, whilst black and brown minorities are left denied what is (or should be) rightfully ours. I see the working-class label as the elevated bottom exclusively for white Britons, with “underdiscussed” underclasses of minority working-class Britons and migrant working-class populations living in the UK. Parts of my identity are either strongly contested, woefully absent, or just are unable to fit neatly into an understandable narrative. Even if class structures were inclusive in the UK, I still don’t know where I would fit. It does feel tough to know that, whilst many facets of what makes me are unconventional at best, the very makeup of my identity is often disputed by people who do not know me, nor know how these discussions affect others like me.
So I still ask, what am I? “