On a recent visit to Amsterdam I fell into conversation with a woman who owned a gift shop. “Tell me, where are you from?” she asked, after we had been chatting for a few minutes. “Oh, can’t you tell?” I said, smiling and taking care to over-articulate my words. “Well, you speak with a British accent,” she said, “but you’re not white like me, so where are you from?” For non-white travelers, such incidents are familiar and a reminder that identities are not wholly ours to define. Neither my passport nor my accent nor the fact that I had spent virtually my entire life in Britain qualified me, in this woman’s eyes, as British. Since she appeared not to be persuaded by my honest answer that I was British I eventually explained that my family were originally from Pakistan, and this satisfied her. It was only after reading Who Are We?, Gary Younge’s penetrating and provocative new book, that I realized the best response to her question would have been to turn the tables on my interrogator and demand to know where she was from.
“The more power an identity carries, the less likely its carrier is to be aware of it as an identity at all,” Younge notes. “Because their identity is never interrogated they are easily seduced by the idea that they do not have one.” Among the great merits of Younge’s book is that he reminds us — and them — of the falseness of that assertion. There are few journalists better equipped to navigate this territory than Younge, not only because of his experience as a foreign correspondent for The Guardian but because his own biography demonstrates the fluid nature of identity.
In the book he weaves his own story — the working-class son of a single mother from Barbados, who was raised in England and now lives in the US — with powerful reportage from across the globe that reveals the changing nature of identity. There are fascinating tales, such as the black girl born to white South African parents and the son of a Jewish leader who was judged not to be Jewish. Younge correctly notes that identity is dependent not only on the individual but also the behavior of the wider world. This helps explain why Barack Obama, the mixed-race son of the white mother who raised him, defines himself as black, and it is also a factor in the emergence of political Islamism across Europe. Younge cites compelling statistics that depict the weak position of Muslims in Britain: More than a third of Muslim households in Britain have no adults in employment, a third of young British Muslims leave school without any qualifications and those of Pakistani and Bangladeshi descent are eight times more likely to be victims of racial attacks on the streets than whites. That, coupled with what is happening to Muslims globally in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere helps explain, Younge suggests, the growth of Islamic identity among young Muslims: “Muslims will be more likely to organize around their religious identity both home and abroad, so long as they feel attacked as a result of that religious identity.” This, surely, is only part of the explanation. After all, the first generation of Muslims who came to the UK suffered far more discrimination and yet they expressed far less hatred towards the country than some young Muslims today. Indeed they often urged their children towards education precisely so that they could prosper in the UK.