Identity, ‘Britishness’, and Leaving the EU: What will decolonisation look like for the UK now?

by Vanessa Bradbury

I felt a deep sadness on the 31st of January 2020, as the UK left the EU. It was a sadness that seemed to run much deeper than the repetitive ‘what ifs’ of politics, policies and trade deals echoing through news channels. A sadness that seemed personal, and, as I was trying to understand and reflect on these emotions, brought me to question the ambiguity of identity, ‘Britishness’ and, ultimately, what this farewell will mean for the wider project of decolonisation.

There is something inherent in my identity – the straddling of two worlds: both English and Filipina – that has heightened my sense of political subjectivity, and fuelled my drive to dismantle colonial legacies. I have moved on from feeling like I have to justify ‘how’ brown I am, ‘how’ Filipina, ‘how’ British I am – my political subjectivity suddenly heightened by both a sense of alienation and contradiction felt by being a ‘woman of colour’, but also living, breathing and being part of that very British structure I attempt to resist. An alienation I have come to feel by the very unease of not complying to the idea of whiteness, where dominant British values and norms are upheld by standards of privilege – norms and values continuing to be ignorant to colonial legacies and an imperial past and present. Living in a country, a kingdom, which has been built on the back of other people’s pain, with seemingly little accountability towards the consequences, and a rhetoric that continues to promote a wilful defensiveness towards anyone who tries to voice the consequences of these legacies. I feel that discomfort, that heaviness, when I witness that sense of entitlement based on erasing other-than Britishness. At the same time, I have felt comfort in being an EU citizen, which seems to have been somewhat of a counter to this pervasive force.

There is a heaviness in my heart as we break from the EU. ‘We’ being a very ambiguous term which doesn’t seem to justly encompass the complexity, anguish and nuance of perspectives that has led to this point. A part of my identity, that of being an EU citizen – that rests upon that openness, the richness and warmth of multiculturalism – is being taken away. As someone who has committed energy and passion into dismantling colonialism and striving for decolonisation, it’s hard not to see that the dominant narrative that has led us to this point sounds awfully similar to a nostalgia for the British Empire; a nostalgia for the upheld imaginaries of past colonial “glory” (read: “make Britain great again”). Namely, the idea promoted by Brexiteers that the EU is diminishing the UK’s right to sovereignty and self-determination is a palpable hypocrisy to a perceived ‘right’ that Britain themselves did not afford to those they subjected. To reiterate, it is a selective amnesia – that Britain feels at once entitled to the right to its own sovereignty, but does not need to be accountable to the sovereignty taken from others, and the consequent colonial trauma that has resulted. This amnesia is layered and promoted even further through a rhetoric, keenly propelled by far-right media, that fuels an utter resistance to difference: that any form of difference equates to erasing whiteness (meaning Britishness) (Eddo-Lodge 2017).

That heaviness in my heart is maybe the blunt realisation that my sense of EU identity and belonging has unknowingly (until now) been a crutch that has made me feel supported – as both a woman of colour, and a British citizen. Despite straddling these two identities, it has been somewhat of a comfort knowing that Britain has been part of a membership that forced them to become a union member among several; something that, I like to think, has, until now, forced Britain to take a step away from global dominance and elitism, towards solidarity. That heaviness in my heart is knowing that that crutch will now be taken away, faced to deal with the uncomfortable truth of Britishness and what that encompasses. A heaviness felt for all those that straddle both worlds and are trying to make sense of it; to those not afforded ‘British’ rights that have been built on their ancestors misfortune; and those physically isolated by the barricades of borders.

This isn’t about the intricacies of policies, of wealth and GDP – the heaviness in my heart is an anxiousness towards the structural inequity of power, for what this will mean for the project of dismantling colonial legacies, and the certain freedom away from Britishness that being an EU citizen afforded. Nevertheless, it is now a farewell that is inevitable; and we can only use this as a stark revitaliser to our collective political subjectivity. In our increasingly global and multi-cultural landscape, there is a deep complexity involved in unpacking the intersection between identity and the project of decolonisation. But with this subjectivity, comes a sensitivity and reflexiveness to ones complicity in reproducing structural inequities; and, in all hopefulness, a turning point for much needed change.

Vanessa Bradbury is a researcher passionate about de-/anti-colonisation and Indigenous rights. She currently works as a Research Assistant at the University of Bedfordshire.

One thought on “Identity, ‘Britishness’, and Leaving the EU: What will decolonisation look like for the UK now?”

  1. Beautiful article Vanessa. Truly touched the heart at a critical time where many British and American political decisions have pained so many hearts and continue to do that… and the ones suffering can barely see the intersections and can barely catch their breath. Being in a bigger identity like EU does give the world more safety, diversity and a sense of direction that can be multifaceted and human.

    I pray for the world to experience more love, peace, belonging and a universal human identity. If not today, we can plant the seeds. This website is a seed . That has been growing beautifully.

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