What does it mean to be British?

Channel 4’s ‘Make Bradford British’ asks what it means to be British in the twenty first century. What happens when you bring together people who usually live segregated lives?

I manage the InterACT programme, which also brings together diverse groups of people. I was interested in drawing comparisons between the ‘Big Brother style’ TV programme and the outcomes of my own work.

To demonstrate how difficult it is to define Britishness, Make Bradford British starts with Bradford residents sitting the UK citizenship test, with over 90% of them failing. From that 90%, eight were chosen to take part in a ‘social experiment’ to see if they could live together harmoniously.

Challenging misconceptions

Predictably, tensions quickly flared up, which often seemed to be caused by a lack of knowledge and understanding about each other’s values and beliefs. In some cases, participants did change their views, notably Maura, who initially joins in criticism of Rashid for going to the mosque to pray five times a day.  However, watching Rashid pray during a group trip, Maura starts to admire his religious devotion.

Challenging misconceptions is an important outcome for the InterACT project. In Birmingham, the local young people initially showed a lack of understanding of what an asylum seeker was and the kinds of issues they faced. Working together on the project the group identified that there are not enough opportunities for young people from different cultural backgrounds to interact and developed a drama to campaign for more multicultural youth provision. One of the participants explained her changed attitudes:

‘When Helen [recently arrived from Eritrea] was speaking [about her difficulties in being able to communicate and make friends with her limited English] I felt really emotional…At first I still didn’t really like [the young refugees and asylum seekers] very much. But now I’ve realised they’re just like us’

– InterACT participant, 2010


Some powerful moments in Make Bradford British were caused by participants sharing experiences and stories. This was not always comfortable watching. In one scene, ex-policeman Jens tells the group that he thinks its fine to use terms like ‘Paki-bashing’ as long as it’s used ‘jokingly’. Audrey, who admitted to using the word ‘Paki’ was shocked to hear Sabbiya talk about the discrimination her parents faced. She started to make the connection between the language she had been using and the racial discrimination she herself had experienced.

Sharing experiences and storytelling has proved a powerful tool for developing mutual understanding in InterACT. For instance, in Swansea, the young people opened up to each other about experiences including claiming asylum, homelessness and drug addiction:

‘The young people have nicknamed this project ‘I teach you, you teach me’. Sharing stories really opened new understanding for them.  Not only have the young people we work with challenged their ideas about young asylum seekers and refugees, but it’s worked both ways.  The young people from DPIA have had the chance to understand more about the challenges around heroin addiction.’

– Key Worker from Swansea, 2010

During a residential weekend, the Swansea participants took part in lots of team building activities. As their confidence grew, they began to open up about their own experiences.

Developing common understanding

Make Bradford British attempts to unite participants under the banner of ‘Britishness’. This proves a challenge as participants struggle to define what it means to be British. Audrey expressed her frustration at the way other people saw her identity: ‘the fact that I’ve got a British passport tells me I’m British, but the colour of my skin tells everyone else I’m not.’ The programme shows that achieving cohesion is about more than just bringing people together.

InterACT sees social action as facilitating social cohesion. Through working together to design and deliver a social action project in their local community, participants have the opportunity to work with people they might not otherwise work with and to realise what they have in common:

‘[InterACT has really challenged the young people we work with to think differently about young refugees and asylum seekers and it’s been fantastic working with them and watching bonds form between them as they recognise that at the end of the day, they’re all just young people.’

– Key Worker from Birmingham, 2010

Space to listen and learn from each other

The debate about Britishness is interesting but perhaps academic. For one thing, we do not have one identity, we have many and identities change over time.  I like Mark Easton‘s claim that defining Britishness is like trying to ‘paint the wind’. This means cohesion must embrace the fact that people are different.

However, the programme does show the importance of having a space for people to interact, challenge their own prejudices and to learn from each other. This is the most important outcome of InterACT. At the end of the the first two years of the project, 100% of the local young people said that InterACT has increased their understanding of the challenges facing refugees and asylum seekers in their communities. Bringing people together to do something positive highlights the things we share and provides the space for people to learn about each other. Which is surely what cohesion is all about.

Views expressed on this blog are not necessarily those of the Citizenship Foundation.

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