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Defining Britishness

So what does it mean to be British?

When I was first introduced to the concept of filmmaker Eelyn Lee’s documentary, I must admit, I was terrified. The scope of what it means to be British was, and still is, such a broad, daunting idea to me – which is why I immediately said yes to the offer.

A small group of us from the Hive network – myself, Danae Wellington, Amy King, L Worthy and Warda Yassin, were commissioned to write poems for the project initially (although for many of us, this was just the beginning). We met with Eelyn, cameraman and creative tech whizz, Dan Bernard and author, Desiree Reynolds to write and film our initial thoughts when posed with the overwhelming question of what it means to be British.

I say ‘question’ as if it was a matter of just the one. There were hundreds; each of us arrived with our own understanding of ‘Britishness’ and how on earth we were going to narrow down our collective ideas to define it was going to be a long process.

Personally, I didn’t know where to begin. I’d never really associated with ‘Britishness’. To me, having grown up in a small, working-class village in an era of Brexit, I felt that ‘Britishness’ was racism and colonialism, and I didn’t want to identify with the shame my ancestors should have felt hundreds of years ago. I felt a guilt that wasn’t truly mine, but needed to be acknowledged.

In the film, we delved into these ideas, with rap artists Fionn Mccloskey (Hyphyn), and Ross Walcott (Honey Bear) providing some great contributions to our discussions. At our round table talk with the Magid, still Lord Mayor of Sheffield at the time, we noted how diverse people’s understanding of ‘identity’ itself is, whether that included ‘Britishness’ or not. I remember describing myself as “a woman first”, which, if you know me, is rather predictable. My poetry typically revolves around my experiences as a young woman, growing up in a world of covert misogyny and divide while also acknowledging the privileged position I’m in, being both white and British.

And here we are again – British – it seems to crop up no matter what aspect of identity we are exploring, and I think this is why it’s such a complex subject that cannot be summed up by the ticking of a box. Identity, nationality, the ‘who am I’ question, that never seems to be answered in life, simply can’t be answered with a yes or no.

There needs to be an acknowledgment of the past, whether that’s in our mistakes or our successes, the history that has lead us to the multicultural, diverse society that we are fortunate enough to live in, and an ability to see a world beyond the stereotypes crafted by generations before us – the latter, being something I explored in the poem I wrote for the project.

Surely, by living here and now, we set the stereotypes for generations to come. I can only hope for, and play my own part in a world in which ‘Britain’ means diversity, equality and love, because we are not defined by ‘British’.

‘British’ is defined by us.

Writer: Shannon Johnson

Britishness [57mins / 2019] A special preview screening for cast and crew will be held in Sheffield later this year. It’s hoped to be officially premiered at a festival soon.
Commissioned by Football Unites, Racism Divides (FURD)
Thanks to Eelyn Lee & Hive South Yorkshire for this opportunity.
Shannon Johnson is a young poet currently attending Rotherham Young Writers.