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Dear John Cleese: Why Was My White, Nordic Immigrant Family Never Accused of Making England Less English?

Not once were we told that we eroded national culture by bringing in our own, outside habits, languages and experiences

John Cleese at the Byline Festival in England, 2017.

John Cleese at the Byline Festival in England, 2017. (Photo: Rahael Moran, cc)

In 1979, my family moved from the United States to England. The four of us were born in four different countries, and held three different nationalities: US, Danish, Swedish. I lived in England for close to 15 years, and my parents stayed on until their deaths, with my mother living there for what turned out to be half of her life. In all of that time, not once were my parents accused of making England "less English" by their presence. Not once were we called "immigrants." Not once we accused of taking jobs or occupying beds in the National Health Service reserved for "real" citizens. Not once were we told that we eroded national culture by bringing in our own, outside habits, languages and experiences.

So, when comedy legend and British "ex-pat" (code for "white immigrant") John Cleese decided to lament the declining Englishness of the city of London due to immigration – and to then double-down on his comments with tweets about having specific cultural preferences – I couldn't help but wonder if my own family had, in fact, damaged England by our presence. Cleese was celebrating Englishness, so, logically, any non-English influence (however that is defined) would damage the seemingly delicate English cultural ecosystem. I wondered if we had played a part in the erosion of that ecosystem. I wondered if we accelerated the process of turning England's green and pleasant land into a leftist, multicultural dystopia.

In short, I wondered if those who rail against immigration saw us as a problem.

Actually, I didn't. Because I knew the answer.

My parents left their home countries of Denmark and Sweden in the late 1950s, never to return. During their lives they lived in multiple cities, and on multiple continents. Until their deaths, they held on to their national traditions while living abroad: Christmas, Easter, language, food, music. We traveled back to the Nordic region every summer, often for long stretches of time. Many of their friends in England were other Danes and Swedes. At home, my parents often spoke to my brother and me in Swedish and Danish. We would respond in English.

At Christmas, my family celebrated on Christmas Eve, and not Christmas Day. The food we ate was Nordic. The music was Swedish and Danish. The church service we attended was at the Danish church in London. No element of English/British Christmas tradition was integrated into our celebration. 

In all of these years, I never heard anyone tell my parents that they were not "respecting traditions" when they celebrated with those from their own countries. Nor was having a significant number of close friends from the home country considered bad "integration." Speaking languages other than English at home? That was seen as a plus since their kids would grow up to be multi-lingual.

My parents loved living in England. Their avoidance of some traditions had nothing to do with what they thought about the country or the people. They created their own patchwork of cultural traditions: a patchwork that enabled them to keep in touch with both their past and present. It gave them a sense of security and familiarity that allowed them to learn how to navigate through unfamiliar social and cultural waters. Anyone who has ever lived in a foreign country for an extended period of time knows the importance of this sense of security.

But, here's the thing: my parents were white Europeans. When non-white immigrants do precisely what my parents did – sometimes favor their own traditions, own religious preferences, own food, own language, friends from their own countries – it is immediately defined as a rejection of the new country. As a failure to "integrate." As a slap in the face to their hosts. When my parents did it? Well, that was different. They were just respecting their "heritage." While many treat everyday traditions of non-white and/or non-Christian immigrants like so much trash to be discarded, white European "traditions" are to be valued, treasured, protected and celebrated when living abroad. The hypocrisy, xenophobia and racism in this double-standard can be striking.

The argument about "Englishness" (or any "National-ness") often ignores the everyday, which is where we often find our commonality. In the case of England, this would be going to the pub, watching the same TV programs, enjoying the same humor, following the same sports teams or joining the same unions. We need to consider the everyday cultural elements immigrants embrace, elements often defined as less important than "high" tradition. 

If a non-Christian immigrant doesn't take part in some Christian activities, why should her union membership, support for the national team or volunteer work count for less on the "traditions" scale? Are these not also activities that help to forge a sense of community? The "traditions" argument can be a black hole. It swallows context and nuance, flexibility and change. It favors a narrow, elite version of commonality while ignoring a far more everyday, grounded, democratic version of the many things that can bind us together as a society.

So, did my family erode Englishness by our very presence? In the end, that's the wrong question. The right question would be to ask why we were never, and never would be, accused of eroding Englishness. The answer is simple, and it's in answering that uncomfortable question that we really get to the heart of the matter.

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Christian Christensen

Christian Christensen

Christian Christensen, American in Sweden, is Professor of Journalism at Stockholm University. Follow him on Twitter: @ChrChristensen

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