This week, we’re delighted to publish a series of blog posts written by our new intake of MLitt British Studies students at the University of the Highlands and Islands. As part of their induction onto the programme, we wanted to get our students thinking about the nature of British identities, so we set them a blogging task: to answer the question ‘What do British identities mean to me?’
Our first post comes from Marlene Wöckinger, an Erasmus exchange student from the University of Salzburg.
… It’s Complicated…
English is not my mother tongue. If you could hear me speak you would notice a strong accent. When I am travelling people ask if I am German. No, I answer, I am from Austria. Not Germany! Even though we speak German, we – Austrians – always make sure we are not mistaken for Germans. After the first and second world war Austria struggled to find a national identity. We now like to be known for Schnitzel, Strudel, skiing and Mozart. But one of the most important things is to stress that we are not German.
Even in Austria – a rather small country – there is a great variation between different regions. Folks who do not live in Vienna do not like the people there. Each state has its own national dish, their own dialect, their own history. On a micro level, even people from one valley know from the way you speak if you come from a different valley; they sometimes can even be aware of the village you grew up in. Origin is important to us.
Not all my childhood friends were Austrian. They came from Croatia, Turkey and Germany. Sometimes they did, sometimes their parents did, sometimes their grandparents did. Growing up, it did not matter to us. Now some of them struggle with their complex identities. It happens most of the time when they are challenged by others who cannot get their head around a person having more than one identity, more than one country they belong to.
Earlier this year I became even more aware of the extent people use national labels to define who they are. When traveling to Palestine and Israel one can easily offend someone by using the wrong term. To give a brief impression of what I mean by that, here are some examples of different identities I came across whilst travelling: ‘Israeli’, ‘Arab’, ‘Palestinian’, ‘Arab with an Israeli passport’, ‘Jew’, ‘Arab Jew’, ‘Israeli with Polish or German ancestors’, … some used more than one of these labels. It is astonishing how many different identities there are. Some defined themselves against someone else, others used relational concepts.
Concerning British identities: looking at Britain one can make comparisons to the examples above. Even though people speak English, never assume they are English! Just like with Austria and the German language, the language you are speaking does not define were you come from and who you identify as.
Scottish or English? Big difference! North or South England? Big difference! Manchester or Liverpool? Big difference! City or countryside? Big difference! Every region has their own identity, their own prejudice, the things they are proud of, the things they like to hide. Being aware of the global, regional or micro level you are looking at is therefore important.
Dealing with British identities one should discuss quite a few opposing but also complementary identities. With its rich history many aspects (migration, race, sexuality, and so on) have to be included in the analysis in order to paint a representative picture of the people.
Coming back to my example of the many different self-definitions I was confronted with in Israel and Palestine, it is vital to point out how national identities differ from person to person. What might fit one, does not fit the other. I still cannot grasp how many ways people have here to describe themselves. It is much more complex than being British, English, Scottish, Irish and Welsh.