Whose England?

Natasha Chahal

Somewhere between Boris Johnson’s Brexit bus and the 51.89 per cent who voted to leave, I lost my identity. I’m a British Asian Midlander, raised in a Western household. I had always prioritised the British part over the Asian and the Midlander over anything else: I’m proud of being from Derbyshire. I was born here, my parents were born here and my grandparents helped to fight on Britain’s side in the Second World War. My culture is pints (a half of Guinness, if you’re asking), the English seaside, books by Alan Sillitoe, football. I had no need to question it and by the time I reached my early thirties I was comfortable in my brown skin. Until Brexit.

The idea of the 1960s – To Sir, with Love, the Beatles, Bobby Moore – reinforced everything I loved or thought I loved about growing up English. I was reasonably content to live unburdened by the obvious inequalities of my world, safe in the knowledge that, as my dad would often say, the Winter of Discontent was much worse. We’ve got it so good now, racial aggressions are often micro and you don’t hear slurs on the TV any more.

The referendum shattered my illusions. Brexit forced me to confront my identity in ways I didn’t want to have to. As many people of colour will tell you, we know the barriers we are up against. The stories are handed down. Some of us are given English names to make our lives easier. I’ll never know what’s it like having to squirm every time your name is mispronounced by a teacher reading out the register, but I know what it feels like to be asked: ‘So what are your parents called?’

England’s 2018 World Cup squad helped rebuild my sense of pride in the country. The visibility of players such as Raheem Sterling, Tammy Abraham and Marcus Rashford, all vocal advocates of social change, helped remind me of an England that had got lost among the tabloid headlines and expats complaining about immigration. I didn’t know if I could support an England that didn’t support me.

England’s opening match at Wembley yesterday saw them take on Croatia, who knocked them out of the semi-finals in 2018. The Ballon d’Or winner Luka Modrić was back, a little slower now at 35 but still an inspiration to his teammates.

As they kick off, I’m thinking about England. I’m thinking I don’t care as much as I used to. The game is slow. I’m trying to tune out a man at the table behind, loudly asking no one but excited at the sound of his own voice: ‘Why is Sterling playing? Bring on Jack Grealish.’

The media have long been unforgiving of black players. Sterling took to social media in 2018 to point out the different ways two of his team mates, one white, one black, were treated by the press. They’d both bought houses for their mothers. One was portrayed as a doting son and rising Manchester City star; the other was overpaid and undeserving of his salary.

The game progresses. Kieran Trippier takes a free kick. Nothing happens. There are murmurings around the pub: Gareth Southgate ‘doesn’t know what he’s doing’. In the 57th minute Sterling scores, slotting home a nifty pass from Kalvin Phillips (who also has Jamaican heritage). England go on to win their opening match (1-0), the first time they’ve managed that in the Euros.

It’s a victory for England and it’s a victory for Sterling, who grew up next door to Wembley Stadium. My eyes are hot. I care more than I thought. Blinking furiously, I’m ruminating on the past two years of trade deals, thinly veiled prejudice, the politicians who are afraid to stand for something and those all too proud to.

On 25 March 2019 Sterling tweeted a photo of himself celebrating a goal against Montenegro after being racially abused. ‘Best way to silence the haters (and yeah I mean racists),’ he wrote. In the photo he has a finger behind each ear, a gesture to a crowd he can no longer hear. It’s a powerful image and helped cement his status as a role model. It was announced last week that he’s getting an MBE for his work promoting racial equality.

Not to support this team would be to shun the achievements and faces of Sterling and the other black players. To reject my stake in England’s national team would be to concede that England doesn’t belong to me. And it does.


  • 15 June 2021 at 5:40pm
    Atique says:
    Nice. Good one.

  • 15 June 2021 at 5:55pm
    Katherine Hibbert says:
    Since the EU, especially its so-called "Parliament", is a "hideously white" institution, the more so, ironically, now the very multicultural Brexit party has left, it is far from clear why the author should miss it.

    • 17 June 2021 at 10:21am
      Ander Broadman says: @ Katherine Hibbert
      Firstly, Natasha didn’t say she missed the EU or it’s Parliament. You’ve created that yourself to permit your whatbouttery.

      Secondly, you conflate “white” with “culture”. I recognised the part about mispronunciation in class. My family took refuge here from the European racism of the 1930s and 40s, though are indisputably white. The EU Parliament grapples with the pronunciation of Slavic, Germanic, Latin, Greek, Hungarian and many other names, but it’s principally a place to put aside differences and agree how to live together. That’s quite the opposite of the sentiment of Brexit, which even now undermines the fragile peace between two disparate white communities in Northern Ireland- a peace originally formulated in the context of the practical and psychological benefits of the pooled sovereignty of EU membership.

      Thirdly, she talks about this country, and what it felt like to like through a period with unmistakable racist undertones, fuelled by mendacious political leaders, or TV celebrities, or whatever it is they’re trying to be these days. Brexiteers in the main didn’t make your mistake in their racist anti immigrant propaganda where Polish food on the high street takes away our British culture, Romanians on the tube our sense of security, and Slovak potato pickers all our jobs. In the minds of some, Brexit even meant we’d send all those, probably child abusing but certainly not British, Pakistanis back home. Britain for the British. Or the English at least.

      This is the context of which Natasha writes, and of which your comment is ignorant.

  • 15 June 2021 at 6:11pm
    Lawrence Waterman says:
    Lovely piece, and in answer to the question about "why miss the EU", most of us were not and are not in love with the bureaucratic institution but value engagement, participation, the exchange of people and ideas hinted at in the phrase "free movement". Oh, and the idea of no war in our part of the world, the enjoyment of relatively local French chesses rather than trumpeting a trade deal that will ship meat half-way round the world. Remember the words from a Joan Armatrading song, Love and Affection, something I'd swap for a train-load of Brexiteer propaganda.

    • 15 June 2021 at 6:21pm
      Dan says: @ Lawrence Waterman
      Do you mention chess because it is fundamentally a game of black v white in which the white pieces have the privilege of moving first? I don't see how French chess is any different though...

    • 16 June 2021 at 6:13pm
      Lawrence Waterman says: @ Dan
      Thank you for a witty response to a typo in a rather dull riposte to an even duller comment.

  • 15 June 2021 at 6:32pm
    XopherO says:
    While institutional racism continues despite denials by what can really only be quasi-racists or the unthinking, and particularly in sport, it is depressing that one has to celebrate Sterling and Rashford's achievements as one in the eye. But it is not just racism, the current denigration of Macron (deliberately misunderstood, though I have no truck for his right wing policies - one could understand the tabloid attacks if he was on the left) and France reminds us that the underlying xenophobia is alive and kicking. Unlike the blogger - a really good piece of personal reflection - we left, and are so glad we did.

  • 15 June 2021 at 6:34pm
    Dan says:
    It's funny that I watched the game and didn't pay any attention to the posturing, but rather watched the football. I didn't observe the Jamaican heritage of an England player in an England shirt (is he somehow representing both nations?) , nor did I pay attention to how visibly a player advocated social change. I did notice that Kalvin Phillips was far more deserving of the wasteful Sterling's star of the match award, but as I say, I didn't really notice the political gestures. Does this mean I'm not a football fan?

  • 15 June 2021 at 7:02pm
    Joanna Carrington says:
    Thanks Natasha - thought provoking - I was born in Derbyshire too - I didn't watch the match but found this moving

  • 15 June 2021 at 11:14pm
    Steve Dutton says:
    Thank you. I love this .

  • 16 June 2021 at 3:16am
    Christopher Bryan says:
    A beautiful article, and reassuring: after the spiritual and moral betrayal (not to mention economic madness) that was Brexit, it is good to be reminded that there is still a real England that stands for better things.

  • 16 June 2021 at 10:31am
    thought_fox says:
    Great piece. I'm with you on not feeling as enthusiastic as normal, despite never having encountered racism myself. Seeing the boneheaded 'fans' booing when the players took the knee, and Brexit and the continued bigoted clown show of the UK gov, made me almost support Scotland instead. But then the cheer Rashford got when he came on, Southgate's blog, Kalvin Phillips' determination... just Kalvin Phillips. You're right, England belongs to you and me as much as it does to 'them', and we cannot let the right define what England is.

  • 16 June 2021 at 4:13pm
    Harvey Greenberg says:
    As the song goes, there's a crack in the world -- a very big one -- but maybe Sterling's act wil help let a bit of light in.
    HR Greenberg

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