What Does it Mean to be "English?"

I knew instantly the kind of hate I was about to receive and that is a sad reality.”

Bukayo Saka.

If there’s anything we should be doing this week, we should be talking about racism.

So, let’s do it.

The anti-Black racism that has polluted social media this week (and at many other points in time) rests on a couple of assumptions:

  1. That Englishness and Whiteness are one and the same.

  2. That “pure” English people exist. (White supremacists often haul out the Anglo-Saxons when they want to add legitimacy to their racism).

Let’s unpack some of that, but first, let me preface this conversation by saying that I don’t mean to reduce racism to something that has a single cause. It’s far more complex, both historically and presently. But the association between White supremacy and the Anglo-Saxons has got to a point that many historians are thinking about dropping the term “Anglo-Saxon” entirely (here and across the pond). So, I think it’s a good starting point.

Firstly, have English people always been White people?

Well, we need to start with the notion of Englishness because that is an interesting story and a very important one to tell right now.

  • The “Anglo-Saxons” came to England sometime after it ceased to be part of the Roman Empire in the fifth century. It seems they were invited to help defend the country and then decided they’d stick around (which many people from the existing population weren’t pleased about). BUT, and this is a big but, we have so few sources from this era that it’s difficult to piece together an accurate view of those events.

  • When these Angles and Saxons (and other groups, including the Jutes) came to England, this land was not occupied solely by White people. There has been a continuous African presence in England since the time of the Roman occupation.

  • Alongside people of African descent, there were plenty of other nationalities, cultures and races here, too. England was, by no means, an isolated nation.

“England,” as a concept, also looked very different from what White supremacists would have us believe. Before the late 9th century, England was made up of lots of independent kingdoms. People likely identified not as “English” but in relation to the kingdom they lived in. For example, here in Manchester where I live, I might have called myself a Merican as this was part of the Kingdom of Mercia. We used to think there were 7 kingdoms in total, which historians called the “Heptarchy.” We now know that there were many more. (They weren't deemed significant enough to be recorded by the makers of History). So, what about these Anglo-Saxons, specifically? Interestingly, they didn’t refer to themselves as “Anglo-Saxons.” They called themselves “Angles” or “Saxons,” depending on which specific part of Europe they came from. When the various kingdoms of England were united under Alfred the Great in the late 9th century, he called himself “King of the Anglo-Saxons.” Fancy schmancy, eh? With that, England, as a political entity, came into existence. I’d argue that this was very different from the “England” that ordinary people knew and understood. More importantly, politically or otherwise, this England was not 100% White nor was it 100% Christian (or privileged, heterosexual, or male). It would also change and develop many times over. Recently, I reviewed some teaching materials on Anglo-Saxon England. What really worried me is that the material did not talk about the great diversity that existed across this island. Such a wasted opportunity to let young people really get stuck into the concept of cultural and national identity. If you take anything away from my history lesson/rant, let it be that the conflation of Englishness and Whiteness, or Englishness and the Anglo-Saxons, isn’t worth the energy or time it takes to express it. If you want to read more about this early history of England, check out David Olusoga’s, Black and British, and Marc Morris’s new book, The Anglo-Saxons.

Until next time,

Kaye x


Until next time

Kaye x

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