Deconstructing the Question of Race, Identity and Belonging


  • Picture of Anj Handa FRSA
    Anj Handa FRSA
    NED, lobbyist, speaker. I help women leaders evolve as changemakers to drive transformational change
  • Fellowship
  • Social justice

Anj Handa, the founder of Inspiring Women Changemakers, leads a conversation on identity ahead of a Fellow-led event in Leeds on 29 May.

Three-quarters of people believe you must be born in Britain to be truly British. That’s according to a NatCen Social Research study in 2014, which also found a small increase in the proportion of those who think it important to have British ancestry, feel British and be born in Britain since its 2003 study.

But can surveys like NatCen’s serve to cause further divide during unsettled times? When the report was published, I recall children of former servicemen, ex-pats and people in inter-racial marriages taking to social media to ask if they are not considered British by three-quarters of the population.

I, too, am frequently asked “Where are you really from?” Even after I’ve already answered that I’m from Leeds. So, what does being British actually mean? Is it your citizenship, your nationality or your ethnic national identity? Michael Ignatieff aimed to clear this up in 1995:

“Citizenship denotes a person’s legal status vis-à-vis the state; nationality denotes his or her intrinsic identity. Ethnic national identity is characterised by an attachment to one’s ancestry, tradition, culture and language – and not necessarily to the state a person was born and lives in. This is why an ethnic national identity is exclusive: if you are not born into it, you cannot acquire it.”

Citizenship, for me, is having a sense of belonging. I was born in Leeds, Yorkshire. I’ve lived in various parts of the UK for work and study, and also in Germany, but I’m proudest of my Yorkshire roots. I love the diversity, its friendly people, its green spaces and its heritage.

A Hindu by birth, I grew up in North Leeds with mostly Jewish neighbours and went to school with Christians, Muslims, Sikhs and athiests. One of my closest friends at secondary school came from a family of Jehovah’s Witness. Growing up with such a mixed group of friends, inclusion comes as second nature to me.

Inspiring Women Changemakers

As an adult, my own inner circle and members of Inspiring Women Changemakers come from diverse places and backgrounds and speak a range of languages. Importantly, we share similar values and a sense of purpose and that’s what connects us. I want to see the world become a better, more empathetic place and so do our members.

Inspiring Women Changemakers is a dynamic movement for positive social change which I set up to give changemakers a platform to connect, communicate and campaign. Members come from all walks of life and while we’re a women-led movement, we are inclusive of all genders. I believe that to truly make change, we must involve all parts of society.

By joining our movement of purposeful, positive and professional people, members become part of a community that now spans across the world, using our collective networks and expertise to drive positive social change.

Disorienting Race

I believe that we all want to belong to something, in some way. This is an important debate and it’s why I feel honoured to have been asked to chair Disorienting Race in May at the Carnegie School of Education, Leeds Beckett University.

Set up to celebrate the tenth Anniversary of the White Spaces Network, the event will bring together people from all walks of life to explore how race impacts on the way we think, speak, look and act.

The White Spaces network was set up by Dr Shona Hunter FRSA to bring academics, practitioners and activists together to discuss Critical Whiteness Studies both here in the UK and abroad. Critical Whiteness Studies brings discussions of whiteness into broader conversations about race.

The Network is part of the broader global public initiative WhiteSpaces, led by Dr Hunter which extends these academic discussions into the public culture. It’s a space to consider how the colour of your skin – whiteness - can shift the balance of power, influence and opportunity at home, at work, in society and within formal systems and processes.
You can find out more by watching the RSA Friday Conversation on this work and by visiting WhiteSpaces.

Re(lationally) choreographing resistance

By bringing together artists, policy-makers and grassroots organisations - as well as academics - I feel that the Disorienting Race event will embody its aim of creating ‘the challenging, discomforting, but loving urge’ to work together for social justice.

Even more importantly, I hope that it will challenge people’s long-held, often unconscious views on race, belonging and identity. Art, be it through theatre, poetry or storytelling, is a powerful way to bring about such challenging conversations with love.

Please bring along your open heart and open mind to Disorienting Race on 29th May 2019 in Leeds and join in the conversation by booking your place.

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