I am writing this from Nigeria, and the other day I read an article in a national newspaper reviewing Nigeria’s chances for medals at London 2012. Given that Team Nigeria is competing in only five sports outside track and field, the article was predictably downbeat. What was interesting, however, was how the article referred to medal-contending athletes of Nigerian descent who were competing for countries other than Nigeria. Team GB’s gold medal hope in the triple jump Philips Idowu, for example, was referred to as “a Nigerian representing the United Kingdom.” The idea that the article intended to convey was that there are Nigerians amongst the best athletes in the world, but they have decided to win medals for other nations. I began to wonder whether Philips Idowu would refer to himself as a “Nigerian representing the United Kingdom”.
This is particularly interesting for me because I was born in Nigeria, and most of my biological family still live here. I came to the UK when I was one and I have lived in London ever since, apart from the three years that I spent studying in Manchester. Given the fact that I am a British Citizen and have been largely socialised and encultured in the United Kingdom, I have almost always been pretty relaxed about being called British.
I say ‘almost always’ because I did go through a brief phase as a teenager when I completely rejected the idea that I was British (or English), instead choosing to call myself Nigerian. I get the impression that this kind of thing is quite common because many of my friends (who were all also socialised and encultured in Britain) who had heritage from other parts of the world also rejected the idea that they were British, choosing instead to define themselves according to whatever other country they had even the vaguest relationship with. I presume teenagers go through this kind of phase because they are generally struggling to work out their identity – of which nationality is, of course, a part – and perhaps because they find the simple description of themselves as British too boring. Anyway, that phase ended for me when I became more comfortable with my black British identity and, more specifically, when I stopped thinking that the straightforward description of myself as Nigerian made much sense.
I have since always found it curious when people who seem to me straightforwardly British choose to passionately affirm any other heritage that they can, and equivocate about calling themselves British. It is not so much that I deny that this other heritage may be constitutive of their identity; I suppose the individual’s word is authoritative in this respect. A person’s struggle to form an identity often makes for an enchanting story and, strictly speaking, I could say that I identify with anything. But it is also important that we scrutinise whether the things we say make (or lack) sense. And part of the reason I stopped saying that I was from Nigeria is because I started to be sceptical about the sense in such a claim.
The primary source of this scepticism came from the fact that I do not think that working out where somebody is from is simply a matter of adding together where each of their parents or grandparents is or was from. This kind of calculation seems to me to misrepresent and brutalise identity. And, in any case, it also ties nationality to ethnicity – to where one’s blood comes from – in a way that seems to me to lead directly to racism. In fact, when one actually thinks about what is so questionable about the philosophy of racist political parties like the BNP (they do have a philosophy), it is that they make precisely this close connection between blood and nation. The idea is that what is means to be British – to be ‘from’ Britain – is to be indigenous, to be able to trace your blood back through generations of people living on this island into time immemorial. This racist notion of nationality is surely what is fundamentally questionable about the BNP, but it is also what people appeal to when they, though raised and socialised in Britain, claim to be ‘from’ elsewhere simply because they have blood ‘from’ that place. It is ironic that some of the people who are most keen to emphasise that they are ‘from’ somewhere else are also those who are most vocally appalled by the racism of the BNP – even though they apparently agree with the fundamental premise of their philosophy.
Now, quite obviously I don’t mean to suggest that those who identify their nationality with their ethnicity are exactly the same as the BNP; that would be silly. For one thing, the former group have not organised themselves in to a political party and do not advocate the cessation of all inward migration to the UK. The crucial point, however, is that what makes the BNP so fundamentally objectionable is not their policies – though these are generally also idiotic – but their principles. And their central principle is the cack-handed and unappealing way that they tie nationality to race.
Another source of scepticism came when I started to compare myself with people who were actually raised and socialised in Nigeria. It became clear to me that I shared very few of the things that I thought characterised them as Nigerian: I am not fluent in any of the languages; I do not recognise many of the cultural references; and I know little of the history. (Like most African states, Nigeria is actually made up of many peoples: the principle three being the Yoruba in the south west, Igbo in the south east, and Hausa in the north. The cultures of these people are very different, which makes the idea that someone could identify a single, separable Nigerian culture or identity even more dubious. But let’s assume that there is one for the sake of argument) I could, of course, make great efforts to acquire these characteristics, but this only proves that I do not posses them at the present. What possible sense could there be in me describing myself as Nigerian when I am so different in so many different ways from those people who are so uncontroversially Nigerian? That isn’t to say that Nigeria is completely foreign to me. My mum is pretty straightforwardly Nigerian and she raised me on Nigerian food, playing Nigerian music, and regularly taking me to Nigeria to see my family. I recognise a lot from my upbringing when I come to Nigeria: the strict respect for elders; the warm welcome and pampering afforded to visitors; the wicked sense of humour; the flamboyant sense of dress; the pride and the love of officiousness. I suppose I just think that for me to call myself Nigerian because I like spicy food, have a few pieces of traditional dress, and recognise a few insults is actually a bit disparaging to Nigerians. As if being Nigerian is such a meaningless and vapid thing that this is all it amounts to. If national identity means anything, it is surely more than this.
I must say that my recent visit to Nigeria has moderated my view somewhat. It is pretty clear that Nigerian culture has helped to make me the person I am, and when my mum takes me around her home town to visit relatives who I don’t remember having met before but who still seem to remember me, or shows me institutions that my relatives participated in and helped to build, I can’t help but feel a strong relationship with the place. Somebody without this kind of relationship to Nigerian (or any other) culture could not hope to manufacture it. In this sense, then, a large part of me is ‘from’ Nigeria, although not in a way that can be quantified in such a crude way as fractions or percentage. (Given that I was brought up a Christian, I suppose that there is a probably a sense in which a large part of me is also ‘from’ Christianity, even though I am not a Christian.)
The fact is that in the past it might have always seemed as though ethnicity and nationality necessarily converged. I doubt this was ever true, but it is certainly not true today. People of all ethnicities are moving around the world and raising their children in places other than where their biological heritage may be from. These children are mixing together with children who have biological heritage from a variety of places and together they are shaping and reshaping the culture that they share. If we want we could describe these people according to where their blood comes from, but then we would need to seriously rethink our opposition to racism. Or we could invent multi-hyphenated categories to account for the myriad cultural forces influencing people and making them the people they are, but this seems slightly deranged. (I’m actually not especially inclined to define my identity principally in terms of nationality, but if I was, the relatively simple description Nigerian-British would make most sense for me. Given that I’m not, I seems that I would have to call myself Nigerian-British-Londoner-Christian single mother raised-90s Hip-Hop obsessed… This certainly seems deranged.) Or we could stop looking for exotic labels and give up on the idea that there is any simple story about where anyone is “from”, and enjoy the fact that we all make different valuable contributions to the culture that we all share. In this way, perhaps identity is more forward-looking than backward-looking: more about what you do than where you’re from. This often has a great deal to do with your ethnic heritage, but it is surely not reducible to it.