Friday, October 27, 2006

The Fun Of Stereotypes

You hear a lot (well, among that sector of the British who have more time to whine about such things than those of us who have jobs) about the loss of British identity. Britishness is suddenly a brand, a principle to be pursued rather than a simple function of being British: a dangerous distinction because it means that Britishness is becoming an aspiration, a target, and we all know what happens to targets. Defining anything as a target under New Labour, rightly or not, makes it distinctly optional.

I don't believe Britishness can be taught - it's a bit like trying to teach funniness, or acne - much less enforced. Like beauty it is easier recognised than defined, and then rarely by ourselves. Take today's Penny Arcade strip, or the Austin Powers movies - the parodies and caricatures say more about us than we ever can (or would), and I am proud of that. It's something I've become more conscious of in the last ten years, largely through the wonders of the internet and thereby getting to know Americans, who are at least as opinionated about the British as we are about them (and through the same primary research tool of imported television), to the extent that a mention of us in Penny Arcade cheers me greatly, no matter how obvious it might be. Yes, yes, racial steretypes, blah blah, but honestly, if the stereotype is actually pretty cool then why argue? I've never met a black guy who complained about people assuming he must have an enormous penis, and by the same token the notion of Brits as a race of stiff-upper-lipped, Blitz-spirited, single-eyebrow-raising, arch, restrained, faintly perverse James Bonds and Lara Croft-a-likes who know something nobody else knows and aren't letting on just doesn't offend me.

But what defines Britishness to us? Having met and worked with a few Americans I find myself unconsciously accentuating the stereotypical aspects of the British persona, flying the flag for Britain in a fairly abstract sort of way. My accent has never been so aristocratic as it was during a visit to Connecticut a few years ago. The funny thing is, whenever it comes to defending or promoting Britishness in our own country it turns into something rather more malevolent: xenophobia, soccer hooliganism, binge drinking, domestic violence, laziness, snobbery - these become our values and we slag off communities that don't exhibit them. I mean, I always thought that tightly-knit communities and a strong belief in God were quintessentially British: it's the very epitome of villagey Englishness. Do Muslims need to play cricket every Sunday to make their God-fearing, tightly-knit communities acceptable to the rest of us?

I don't think this is about them not being British enough. I think it's about the rest of us. We want Britishness to be identifiable, to be a badge we can force other people to wear without bothering ourselves, and it just doesn't work that way. You want a definition of Britishness? It is this: if you're born in Britain then you're British and everything you say and do is British. It is a function of who you are and no fucker can tell you otherwise, no matter how much better at it than you they think they are.

You hold your head up high, you ignore anyone who tells you what to be or what to do - whether they're terrorists or politicians - and you grit your teeth and quietly get on with it: THAT is what it means to be British. It has won us wars before, and it'll do so again.

That said, on a purely selfish level I'd love to see Muslim women wearing bowler hats and tracksuited council estate birds wearing hijabs. That would be cool.

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