In 2009, London’s Wellcome Collection conducted a series of interviews about the meaning of identity, to coincide with its exhibition Identity: Eight Rooms, Nine Lives, part of an Identity Project season. They were published in a book called Identity and Identification. The interview I gave as part of the project has some bearing on the current debate about British identity and values. So, here is a cut-down and somewhat reworked version of my interview.


Who are you?

The question ‘Who am I?’ depends on context. The question ‘Who am I to my daughter?’ is very different from ‘Who am I to you?’ Identity is, in one sense, about one’s relationship to other people, and such relationships are always changing. They change in two ways. They change over time, of course. But they change also in the sense that how you define yourself, and how you want other people to define you, depends upon who they are. The way I want you to see me is very different to the way I would wish my daughter to see me. Hence ‘Who are you?’ is not a useful question in the abstract. It makes sense only in context.


How does this relate to questions of Englishness and Britishness?

I don’t have any organic relationship to Englishness in the way that, say, Roger Scruton or Billy Bragg, from the other side of the political spectrum, appear to have. Personally, I see Englishness as a faux identity. It has emerged largely because the notion of British identity has broken up. Suddenly, people who might never have thought of themselves as English have begun thinking, ‘the Scots have their identity, and the Welsh have their identity, so I want my identity’. In that sense, this sudden rush to find an English identity expresses the absurdity of the way we think of identity.

As for Britishness, the problem, it seems to me, is that much of the discussion about how to create a sense of Britishness is based on false premises. The idea that you teach people how to be British, or that by getting immigrants to learn about the Magna Carta or the British penchant for queuing, or by taking part in citizenship ceremonies, and signing a piece of paper, you can get them to feel more British, is to misunderstand the issue. Identity is not about signing on a dotted line. It’s about your relationships. Your identity emerges organically out of the relationships you have with other people. To say that people do not possess a core sense of ‘Britishness’ is, from one perspective, to say that their relationships to other people who are British is in some way strained or constrained.

My relationship to Englishness and Britishness has, like all my relationships, changed over time. Take sport. When I was a teenager I would not passed Norman Tebbitt’s crcket test. Growing up in a Britain that was viciously racist, and tried to deny me the right to belong, I refused to support any British team, still less any English one. Whether in cricket, football, rugby or tiddlywinks it was a case of ‘anyone but England’.

Thirty years on, it is very different. Racism has not disappeared, but the kind of vicious, in-your-face racism that defined Britain a generation ago is thankfully relatively rare. The nature of Britishness has changed too, no longer rooted in race and Empire, but seemingly defined as much by its diversity as by its jingoism. I have long since dropped my ‘anyone but England’ attitude. I now, too, feel the pain of penalty shoot-out defeats and the joy of Ashes victories. But I’m not a ‘patriot’ in the way that many people would want me to be. Patriots create a mythical Britain with which all Britons are supposed to identify, a mythical nation from which the reality of conflict and struggle has been photoshopped.

What is the Britain in which we are supposed to have pride? The Britain of immigration and diversity or the Britain that is suspicious of immigrants and immigration, and whose politicians continually seek to limit it and to preserve ‘British jobs for British workers’? The Britain of Kevin Pietersen and Thierry Henry or the Britain of Enoch Powell and Nigel Farage? The Britain of the Levellers, the Pankhursts and Red Clydeside? Or the Britain of Knox, Rhodes and Rothermere?

There are many aspects of British life that I admire. There are many that I despise. There are many British traditions that resonate with me. There are many I find abhorrent. There are many moments of British history that bring a lump to my throat. There are many that make me shudder.  And there are many non-British traditions that have helped shape my views, my values, my ideals. To erase this complexity in the myths of patriotism is to diminish the very meaning of common values.


So, you won’t wave the flag?

When I was young I would far rather have burned the flag than waved it. The Union Jack was then the property of jingoists and Empire loyalists, on the one hand, and of neo-fascists on the other. If I saw a pub or a housing estate with Union Jacks flying, it signaled to me ‘enemy territory’.

It’s different now, of course, but I have no great attachment to the Union Jack. Actually, I probably have a greater emotional response to the Tricolore than to the Union Jack even though I don’t think of myself in any way as French. Why? Because the flag has a certain symbolic resonance for me. It’s rooted in a particular history and in particular political traditions. The Tricolore represents something important to me because part of what I am is shaped by my relationship to the ideas of the Enlightenment and to the ideals of the French Revolution. I have no attraction to being French, but I have a certain symbolic attraction to the ideas that their flag represents.


So you’ve landed on a kind of an intellectual and to an extent a political tradition as something that defines how you see yourself.

You’re using the words ‘intellectual’ and ‘political’ as if they’re simply abstract things. But of course, the way one feels about these things is deeply in you, it’s part of you. Some people argue that religious ideas are deeply felt and humanist ideas are not. I don’t see it that way. Your attachment to your ideas and your ideals is part and parcel of who you are, and therefore intellectual ideas and political ideals are not just ‘out there’, they’re part of you.


You are involved in ongoing debates about multiculturalism. And one thing you have not mentioned at all about who you are, but which some people might pick out above everything else is that you are Asian man. So what does ‘Asian-ness’ mean, or is that question itself enforcing something on your identity that you don’t want?

Well, I quite deliberately didn’t mention that, precisely because it’s what people expect me to say. There used to be a kind of conversation that would happen all the time. People would ask me, ‘Where are you from?’ And I’d say, ‘I live in London’. Then they would ask: ‘No, no, where are you really from?’ So I would reply, ‘I was brought up in Manchester’. But they would persist in asking, ‘No, no, where are you really from?’ And when I said ‘I was born in India’, it was as if suddenly, they’d found me, that they knew who I was, that they’d uncovered my essence. And that’s what I resisted then, and what I resist now.

There are things about India I like, but actually those things are the very opposite of what most people associate with India. It’s not the traditions that I like about India, it’s the India that is resisting those traditions. The India that has a sense of being a global player, a sense of wanting to make a mark upon the world, a sense of being modern.

When I grew up I called myself ‘black’, as many of my peers did, because blackness was not an ethnic term, it was a political term. It was a term to define those who were non-white and fighting against racism. The notion of blackness, as it developed in Britain in the 70s and 80s, was very different from the notion of blackness in America, or in India. In America, it was both an ethnic and a political term. And in India no one would think of calling themselves black. Similarly, there developed in Britain in the 70s and 80s, a political, rather than ethnic, notion of being ‘Asian’, which just like the notion of blackness emerged in response to racism.  And insofar as people use it in that context, I’m happy to be ‘Asian’.  But I have no attachment to what most people would imagine when the terms ‘India’ or ‘Asia’ are used.


Can you say something about what the idea of ‘home’ means to you?

I think about home in the same way that I think about identity. The concept of ‘home’ derives, as identity does, from your relationships to other people. Those relationships are not merely relationships to other individuals but also to communities and traditions and histories and cultures. That can make such relationships seem as fixed as concrete. But they are actually also contingent.

Britain is home to me. When I go abroad, on holiday for instance, I often feel like a stranger because these are places of which I don’t know the customs, I don’t have a history of living there, I can’t speak their language very well. I’m not an intimate part of the culture there – if I watch TV abroad, I wouldn’t necessarily understand the jokes, any more than an American or an Indian, paying a fleeting visit to Britain, might understand the significance of Del Boy or the humour of of Fawlty Towers. All of this feeds into what you think of as home. You have certain relationships which are important, which surround you and which give you a certain sense of purchase on that society in which you live.

But I could quite easily have grown up in France or Italy, in which case I would have come to Britain, seen Fawlty Towers and not understood the jokes there at all. So ‘home’ might seem that which is most permanent but, in some ways, it is also contingent. Even though I see Britain as home, and I relate to British culture, it’s only an accident that I don’t see France as home or Italy as home, in which case they would be equally important to me, but also equally contingent to me.


Is ‘identity’ something that can be forged and actively chosen?

Not necessarily. I haven’t chosen to be British. I haven’t chosen to live here. My parents came here, and I’ve grown up here. My parents could have settled in France or Italy or America or elsewhere, in which case, you’d be talking, in one sense, to a very different Kenan Malik, but, in another sense, to a Kenan Malik who is much the same.


But for you, the things that you considered important at the very start of this conversation were relationships, not just to people but to ideas.

You can choose a relationship to ideas. But not all your relationships are chosen. We are rational beings, but we are not entirely rational. We have emotional as well as rational attachments to ideas. But the important thing is that we are able to choose in some contexts. There’s a distinction to be drawn between saying ‘Everything is chosen’ and saying ‘One is able to choose some things’. I don’t accept that everything is chosen. But I do think that the choices we make are important in shaping who we are and what we are.


The painting is Paul Klee’s Rose Garden


  1. Transatlantic

    Oh, how well I understand your “position” on talking about identity! I suspect there are millions of us🙂

  2. N

    I used to get the “where are you from?” a lot (along with guesses of ethnicities that span all six continents). I groan even more upon that question now that I live in Europe after a decade in India and another in the US. I do understand a shallow and superficial curiosity about someone’s ethnicity, but I don’t think it’s influenced how people view me afterwards. I’ve never understood feeling like a stranger in another place, personally, as all the similarities always jump out to me far more than any differences when I’m on vacation.

    The parts about appreciating those aspects of India resonate really well with me and my conclusions. I grew up around a rather annoying NRI culture that amounts to, “India has gone to hell or the dogs, but India’s traditions and values are worth keeping.”

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