Identity is more than a passport

Chris Eisenstadt is a dual national who has lived in Northern Ireland since he was 11.

Recently, with the success of the English cricket team, there has been a “debate” about what it means to be English. The captain of the team, having been born in Ireland, has been praised and criticised for his decision to take to the field (is it a field? My cricket knowledge is rubbish. I’d never pass the Tebbit test) for England. I don’t know, nor do I pretend to know Eoin Morgan. I don’t know if he sees himself as Irish or English or a mixture of both.

Thing is, whatever he decides to call himself, it’s his choice. More importantly, there is no “wrong” answer on identity. He’s not right or wrong to say that he is or isn’t English or Irish or a Dub or whatever he wants to consider himself. I personally can’t stand people (particularly on the internet) arrogantly and snidely remarking for political purposes (I’m also thinking of you Hard Brexit Now/FBPE folks here) that he is really this, that or the other.

I don’t know Mr Morgan and I don’t make any aspersions about him or his national identity. However, he is hardly alone in having what might generously be described as a “contested” national identity. The current US president, loathe though I am to mention his antics, indulged in a little identity politics just recently. He described a number of women who self-identify as American and not being real Americans. Again, for political purposes. This is really unpleasant, and I’d hope that most of the readers of this blog refuse to take part in that sort of thing.

I’m aware that a more subtle version of this sort of thing happens all the time. It isn’t as openly racist or hateful, but I can say from personal experience it is pretty irritating at best and really alienating at worst. I will say that I understand that identity in this place is a contested concept. I know some people (usually, faceless twitter trolls) get very upset when someone else from this place proclaims themselves to be “Northern Irish”, or someone else denies being “Irish”. Primarily because such descriptions don’t gel with their own narrow political viewpoints. I don’t know when this game of denying or questioning another person’s identity started, but I do wish it would stop.

If you met me in the street, before I said anything I imagine most of you wouldn’t doubt I was “from here”. I can pass for a native pretty easily. The second I open my mouth, though, all pretence fades away. If I had a penny for every time someone asked me “Where are you from?”, “What part of the States are you from?” or “American or Canadian?” I’d be able to retire in any country I currently hold a passport for. I definitely don’t love that people routinely feel the need to ask me where I am from, but I can forgive that easily enough. Ninety nine times out of a hundred, it is a well-meaning question (though I do get tired of telling them I’m not a tourist and that yes, I really do live here).

No, what upsets me, and what upsets quite a few people who talk differently, look a little different or have some other sort of connection to another place, is that when I answer that I’m ‘from’ Bangor I get a look of confusion. Thing is, I’ve spent the majority of my life here in Northern Ireland/the North/this place. I haven’t lived outside of it since I was a literal child (not counting going to England for Uni). This is my home, and the US is a faraway place that has little to no meaning to me.

I’m really, really not sure why people feel the need to tell me “Well, you’ve not lost the accent!”. Would you say that to someone with a pronounced Spanish accent? Chinese? Kenyan? Surely people can deduce that if they ask “where I am from”, and I say “here”, it is rude to imply that I’m not. What exactly am I supposed to say to the comment that, intentionally or not boils down to “it is hard to believe that you are from this place, because you don’t sound right”.

No one gets to decide what someone else’s identity is. If Eoin Morgan says he is English, he’s English. If he’s Irish, he’s Irish. If he’s both, he’s both! Same goes for Romelu Lukaku (famously “Belgian when I’m winning, Belgian of ‘Congolese descent’ I’m not”) or Andy Murray or me (not a list of people I expect to regularly find myself in). More importantly, stop trying to weaponise the identity of others.

A sports person’s heritage, or a political opponent’s mother’s place of birth or an accent isn’t some zinger to be thrown around on social media. It’s not a “truth bomb” or a “gotcha moment”. It’s already hard enough to have a contested identity within yourself. People should have a little respect, especially when they are talking about people they either hardly know or don’t know at all. It is one thing to critique someone using a flimsy façade to score a political point. If I suddenly tried to pipe up on Belarussian politics because my great-great-great grandfather was from Minsk, then it would be fair to question that. But if I said I “felt” a connection to that place, then what right does anyone have to tell me I don’t? It doesn’t suddenly make you an expert, but it isn’t like there is a checklist of what “makes” you have a national identity or not.

If someone is exploiting identity in bad faith – say for example, to mock or hurt others it is fair to call them out on it. But, given the complex nature of identity in this place, I would hope that people would be more accepting of the fluid nature of identity. Let someone be who they feel they are – even if it doesn’t suit your political goals. If a nationalist decided that they do feel at least partially British because of family history, it wouldn’t suddenly mean they are no longer nationalist. Equally, a unionist deciding to learn a bit more about their Irish family roots don’t make them less of a unionist.

Don’t make someone feel alienated from a community you belong to, and to which they have expressed a clear and good faith desire to be a part of. Be careful with your words, and be open to those seem different, but feel the same.