As a young teacher in a multicultural school in West London, with a reasonably serious level of interracial conflict among the children, I was asked to deliver a programme of anti-racist education to 13 year old children. As with much of the material that was produced at the time, it was well meaning and good intentioned, but ultimately a little patronising and slightly cringe-worthy. The material only came into its own when matters deviated from the prepared lesson plan and into uncharted territory.
It was during one of these sessions that the concept of Englishness that the English hold so dear was illustrated to me. The material provided was a fairly asinine attempt to dispel stereotyping. There were five illustrated figures and five jobs – the task was to match the figure to the job. Clues were in the illustrations about which jobs the figures held, while all of the jobs were highly associated with racial stereotypes. The task meandered along, with me giving heavy hints of what to look for to correctly associate the job and the figure. Problems arose when it came to an illustration of a middle aged asian woman in traditional dress carrying a briefcase. The correct answer, which was by this time the only one left – was “a sales executive”. This matching was robustly challenged by one of the white boys in the group.
“She cant be a sales rep, Miss. She cant speak English.” he insisted.
“I think she can”, I replied. “What makes you think that?”
“Well” he said, “course she can speak a bit of English, maybe even a lot…but not…like proper English”
Proper English”, I questioned. “Whats “proper English” – like not using swear words and slang you mean?”
“No.” he said, reddening now. “Proper English, you know what I mean by proper English…like proper, proper English, like the English speak English”.
“….because she’s not proper English”, butted in another white boy, “so she doesnt speak proper English. Only the proper English speak proper English”.
“The proper English?” I asked ”
“Yes” said the first “like…the proper English, you know, the proper proper English”
“I’m confused”, I said “All of these people are English. Look it says so at the top of the page.”
“I know what he means” interjected a Black girl with a knowing look. She was one of the most confident in the class and a clear peer group leader. Several others nodded to indicate that they knew too.
“Guess, I’m not getting this because I’m Scottish.” I replied, “So are you proper English?” I asked the girl.
“Oh no, Miss” she said, “I’ll never be proper English”.
“But I dont understand, you live in London, you were born in London, the capital city of England, how are you not proper English”
“You knooow, Miss”, said the first white boy, although dark pink would be a more accurate reflection of his skin colour by this stage. “I mean, I’m not proper English myself you know, but like the proper English, the English English”.
“So you’re not English either?”
“No, Miss, see my Dad’s Irish, so I’m not the real English”.
“I’m confused”, I said. “Obviously I’m not English, I’m Scottish, I only came here to teach, but you live in England, were born in England, how come you’re not English”
“Well I am kindof English, Miss, but I’m not like proper English”
“I see…so who here is proper English? How about you I said turning to the second white boy who had raised the concept “Are you proper English?”
“Me? Nah, my granny’s from Edinburgh”
We then went round all eight members of the group. None of them were proper English. The last one to answer was a shy Asian girl, who didnt answer for ages before whispering “No”.
“This is weird.”, I said “Here we are in the capital city of England, and there arent any proper English people here. How about your parents? Any of them proper English”
“So”, I said “If there are no proper English people here, where do all the proper English people live?”
A puzzled look crossed the faces of all of the group, as silence descended while the group pondered. After a moment, the second white boy pipped up. “In villages, Miss. All the proper English people live in villages”, he said triumphally.
And with that, the bell rang and the lesson ended.