Why we need to be careful talking about a ‘native’ population

With the rise of UKIP and other nativist parties across Europe, we, as academics and journalists, need to keep a close critical eye on how we use categories ─ particularly when those categories regulate who is and is not being excluded from our communities. The use of language in British debates about immigration and its multicultural society is, however, worryingly uncritical, often conflating ethnic minorities and Muslims with migrants, and drawing no distinction between different types of migrants. With such strong public hostility to immigration (and more worryingly toward migrants) this isn’t good enough. We need to work harder to break down the categories, explore the intersections and rethink our lazy assumptions.

The separation of a ‘native-us’ and ‘migrant-them’ has long been the basis upon which the nation-state itself is based. Today, Anderson notes that “the debates around immigration are about the contours of the community of value as much as they are about trade-offs and economic impacts”. In other words, the immigration debate is not just about economics and welfare, but about negotiating the very meaning of thenational community as the presence of ‘the other’ (real and/or imagined) forces us to think deeply about who we are and what we believe in. With this in mind, conversations about immigration can tell us as much about the native population as they can about migrants. But who are exactly are we referring to when we talk about the ‘native’ population?

The Oxford Dictionary defines ‘native’ as “A person born in a specified place or associated with a place by birth, whether subsequently resident there or not”. This seems clear enough, but for many people national identity is about much more than being born in a place. Nativist politics often rely on an iconic or idyllic image of both nation and natives, often with little basis (or with skewed or partial basis) in historical fact. For example, Englishness tends to conjure up images of green and pleasant lands, red phone boxes in pretty villages, country pubs and Sunday cricket matches on village greens, despite the fact that this is not an England known to most of its residents.

This idyllic image of England is, however, one that easily excludes non- and failed-citizens[i] and plays straight into the hands of those who would rather see a white Christian nation. Where such national imagery is in use, place of birth can become almost as irrelevant as the (supposedly native) white Christian majority ‘us’, who fit into such imagery[ii], is distinguished from the non-white ‘them’ (the supposed non-native migrant population[iii]). Research shows that ‘white’ places are often referred to as ‘English’ and ‘English’ is frequently positioned in opposition to multicultural’. This use of ‘English’ supports and reinforces imaginary binaries that separate ‘English’/’Muslim’ and ‘Asian’/’English’, reinforcing the idea that Muslims cannot be native in England, or at least not ‘properly’ native.

The exclusion of Muslims and ethnic minority Brits from the national imaginary ignores the changing social landscape in many areas of the UK and the fact that many Muslims are ‘native’. A British nationality and Muslim identity are not mutually exclusive and yet ‘the Muslim’ has been racialised as naturally prone to violence and terrorism and is therefore routinely perceived as irrevocably incompatible with ‘British’ ways. As a result, Muslims seem to be trapped as forever ‘non-native’.

In discussions about immigration there is often a tendency to essentialise identities as fixed and immutable, with people divided into either an ‘us-group’ or ‘them’.What isn’t mentioned is the fact that the boundary between these groups is permeable and shifts over time in relation to changing legal, cultural and moral frameworks. As we seek to define ourselves amid the “turbulent waters” of modernity, this fluidity and flexibility is lost; replaced by an identity politics in which people attempt to mark out their place in the world. Meanwhile, migrants, Muslims and people of colour are being reduced to particular sets of traits, their full selves reduced and seen as dependent on one identity. Migrants are ‘migrants’ and Muslims are Muslims and these singular identities seem incapable of intersecting with a British, or even more so English, national identity in the public imagination.

The normative division between ‘British/English’ and ‘Muslim’ needs to be challenged, and not by hyphenation alone.[iv] Academics and journalists must pay attention to their use of such categories and, where possible, attempt to break down and challenge fixed notions of national identity that exclude non-white and non-Christian groups. It’s not that we shouldn’t talk about the native population or their concerns, but when we do so we need to remember that that native population includes people of migrant background from across the globe. Denying the native-ness of British-born Muslims and people of colour is exclusionary and ultimately counter-productive as it will only accentuate internal social divisions.

The problem is that, as a nation, we simply don’t know who we are. We are not a nation of church-going, maypole-dancing, white, top hat wearing gentiles; but nor are we secure in our diversity. For many, Englishness has come to represent something closer to culture or ethnicity than nationality, leading to suggestions that Englishness cannot be multi-cultural. Britishness, on the other hand, was designed to be inclusive of different identities,[v] although it has become increasing unpopular as a form of identification[vi]. Even so, both Englishness and Britishness are accused of holding connotations of whiteness and of excluding people of colour born or naturalised in the UK.[vii]

Any division between Muslims and natives is likely to reinforce the idea that Muslims are culturally incompatible and don’t belong amongst the ‘native’ population. As people interested in migration we must set a better example. We must avoid falling into the trap of essentialism and not make lazy categorisations. We must emphasise the multiplicity and intersectionality of identities. And we must break down the binaries that exclude British-born individuals from being seen as ‘native’. It is possible, after all, to be a native Brit and a Muslim (and many other things besides).

Of course, these conversations are different again when we start to talk about ‘indigenous’ people.[viii] But perhaps that’s a topic for another day…


[i] Anderson talks about failed citizens as “those individuals and groups who are imagined as incapable of, or fail to live up to, liberal ideals… folk devils like the Benefit Scrounger… the paedophile, the rioter, the Criminal, and others… a disappointment and threat to the local community and/or nation” (2013:4).

[ii] Many academics note the raced nature of the English countryside and this is also acknowledged in the work of artists like Ingrid Pollard, whose photography challenges the whiteness of rural England (see Kinsman, 1995).

[iii] As I’ve noted previously, even British-born ethnic minorities are frequently reduced to a migrant background, labelled second, third (even fourth) generation migrants, rather than being recognised as native.

[iv] I would argue that the identification of British-born Muslims as “British-Muslims” is insufficient to problematise the national/Muslim binary.

[v] Britishness was always designed to incorporate the different national identities of the Union and during colonialism was inclusive of colonial subjects from across the globe.

[vi] Given the common perception of Englishness as a culture or ethnicity, the loss of this broader, more inclusive national identity is, I would argue, problematic.

[vii] It is widely argued that British, and more commonly English, identities are tainted by racial and ethnic connotations of whiteness (Parekh, 2000; Gilroy 2002[1987]; Mann, 2011; Bond, 2006; Byrne, 2007).

[viii] The Oxford Dictionary defines indigenous as “originating or occurring naturally in a particular place”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: