Thirty years after the ‘cricket test’ was first proposed by Norman Tebbit as a way of assessing ones allegiance to a country, political rhetoric in the UK and the US still questions who truly belongs in the country.
In 1990 the politician Norman Tebbit controversially developed a method for determining how loyal British Asians and Caribbeans, as well as their children, were to England. It became known as the ‘cricket test’. It asks which team a person supports in a cricket match between England and the country of their heritage (generally where their parents or grandparents are from). The outcome of the test, according to Tebbit, is that the person who supports their heritage country over England has not fully integrated into British society and rejects crucial aspects of British culture. He said, “a large proportion of Britain’s Asian population fail to pass the cricket test. Which side do they cheer for? It’s an interesting test. Are you still harking back to where you came from or where you are?”.
This is only one example; many policymakers in the US and the UK continue to question the allegiance and identity of people in their country. This rhetoric has the power to shape perceptions towards ones citizenship, particularly for those in the first and second generation, including myself.
This was captured during the 2008 presidential campaign in the US. There were accusations that candidate Barack Obama was not American enough to lead the US. Although Obama went on to become the first African-American President of America, the controversy raised important questions around how much minorities are considered to “belong” in the US.
For several decades, America has been known as a ‘nation of immigrants’. Given this, it is curious to claim some people are not American enough if they have a minority background.
Trump brought this claim up during his own presidential campaign and again in mid-2019 when he said that four US Democratic Congresswomen should “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came,” adding that they “can’t leave fast enough”. It is notable that three of these Congresswomen – Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib and Ayanna Pressley – are US-born and Ilhan Omar came to America when she was a child. It is doubtful that they would have received such comments if they were not of minority origin; their minority background meant that they were not perceived to be truly American. The comments were subsequently condemned as racist by many commentators.
The reaction of UK policymakers was worrying. During the UK Conservative Party’s leadership election this year, Jeremy Hunt said Trump’s comments were “totally offensive”, and Boris Johnson replied saying they were “unacceptable”. it is notable, however, that whilst many other commentators condemned the remarks as racist, neither of the Prime Minister candidates did so, possibly as a means of protecting UK-US relations for the future. A short while after, Nigel Farage added that the comments were “genius”.
Those in power have the ability to shape which comments and narratives are legitimised and acceptable in personal conversation and on the international stage. If political leaders make and condone these remarks across nations, it sets the tone for which rhetoric is acceptable in wider society. Without fully condemning and rejecting this rhetoric, it is normalised, leaving people as vulnerable targets to these comments in everyday conversation.
This is crucial when many people of migrant descent have heard similar words themselves in private conversation. Seeing these comments in the media can evoke fear over their belonging and it can bring back foul memories for those who have heard these comments before. Indeed, when the New York Times asked readers to share their tales of being told to ‘go back’, 16,000 people in America alone responded sharing their stories of being made to feel unwelcome in their country of birth or naturalisation. It only takes a quick search online or a chat with colleagues to find these shared stories across the UK and in the US.
If political leaders have a relatively fixed idea of what it means to be a native, then this raises questions about belonging for those whose identity transcends this fixed idea. Leaders have the power to shape how inclusive national communities are, on the international stage and in the private sphere, using their rhetoric. Toxic rhetoric, such as the examples outlined, incite fear and hatred, often with traumatising long-term impacts on those who receive the remarks. Political leaders have the power to incite inclusivity and stronger communities, but for that, the rhetoric must change, and it starts with how our leaders set the tone.
Preeti Pasricha is co-Head of Agora’s Democracy & Governance Programme.