Somewhere between Boris Johnson’s Brexit bus and the 51.89 per cent who voted to leave, I lost my identity. I’m a British Asian Midlander, raised in a Western household. I had always prioritised the British part over the Asian and the Midlander over anything else: I’m proud of being from Derbyshire. I was born here, my parents were born here and my grandparents helped to fight on Britain’s side in the Second World War. My culture is pints (a half of Guinness, if you’re asking), the English seaside, books by Alan Sillitoe, football. I had no need to question it and by the time I reached my early thirties I was comfortable in my brown skin. Until Brexit.
The idea of the 1960s – To Sir, with Love, the Beatles, Bobby Moore – reinforced everything I loved or thought I loved about growing up English. I was reasonably content to live unburdened by the obvious inequalities of my world, safe in the knowledge that, as my dad would often say, the Winter of Discontent was much worse. We’ve got it so good now, racial aggressions are often micro and you don’t hear slurs on the TV any more.
The referendum shattered my illusions. Brexit forced me to confront my identity in ways I didn’t want to have to. As many people of colour will tell you, we know the barriers we are up against. The stories are handed down. Some of us are given English names to make our lives easier. I’ll never know what’s it like having to squirm every time your name is mispronounced by a teacher reading out the register, but I know what it feels like to be asked: ‘So what are your parents called?’
England’s 2018 World Cup squad helped rebuild my sense of pride in the country. The visibility of players such as Raheem Sterling, Tammy Abraham and Marcus Rashford, all vocal advocates of social change, helped remind me of an England that had got lost among the tabloid headlines and expats complaining about immigration. I didn’t know if I could support an England that didn’t support me.
England’s opening match at Wembley yesterday saw them take on Croatia, who knocked them out of the semi-finals in 2018. The Ballon d’Or winner Luka Modrić was back, a little slower now at 35 but still an inspiration to his teammates.
As they kick off, I’m thinking about England. I’m thinking I don’t care as much as I used to. The game is slow. I’m trying to tune out a man at the table behind, loudly asking no one but excited at the sound of his own voice: ‘Why is Sterling playing? Bring on Jack Grealish.’
The media have long been unforgiving of black players. Sterling took to social media in 2018 to point out the different ways two of his team mates, one white, one black, were treated by the press. They’d both bought houses for their mothers. One was portrayed as a doting son and rising Manchester City star; the other was overpaid and undeserving of his salary.
The game progresses. Kieran Trippier takes a free kick. Nothing happens. There are murmurings around the pub: Gareth Southgate ‘doesn’t know what he’s doing’. In the 57th minute Sterling scores, slotting home a nifty pass from Kalvin Phillips (who also has Jamaican heritage). England go on to win their opening match (1-0), the first time they’ve managed that in the Euros.
It’s a victory for England and it’s a victory for Sterling, who grew up next door to Wembley Stadium. My eyes are hot. I care more than I thought. Blinking furiously, I’m ruminating on the past two years of trade deals, thinly veiled prejudice, the politicians who are afraid to stand for something and those all too proud to.
On 25 March 2019 Sterling tweeted a photo of himself celebrating a goal against Montenegro after being racially abused. ‘Best way to silence the haters (and yeah I mean racists),’ he wrote. In the photo he has a finger behind each ear, a gesture to a crowd he can no longer hear. It’s a powerful image and helped cement his status as a role model. It was announced last week that he’s getting an MBE for his work promoting racial equality.
Not to support this team would be to shun the achievements and faces of Sterling and the other black players. To reject my stake in England’s national team would be to concede that England doesn’t belong to me. And it does.