Articulating identity options: Eastern and Southern European migrants in Britain

Identification processes amongst migrants and their descendants have long constituted an important topic of research. In particular, scholars have debated the extent of choice, ethnic minorities have in expressing various identities, and the role of categorisation and racialisation therein (Waters 1990; Song 2003). This paper adds new insight to this literature by examining the meaning and salience of ethnic identity for ‘white’ European migrants in Britain. Drawing on over 70 in-depth interviews, it compares East and South Europeans from four countries (Italy, Romania, Slovakia, Spain) who tend to see, embrace or downplay ethnic identity in markedly different ways. Ethnic identity turned out to be relatively unproblematic for South Europeans, who could ‘choose’ to emphasise their Italianness or Spanishness, regarding it as a source of pride and comfort, when they did. This was less so for East Europeans, more likely to articulate ethnicity’s importance in negative ways, underlining its ‘given’ aspect, hard to conceal or escape. These tendencies seemed reinforced when participants downplayed the salience of ethnic identity in favour of cosmopolitan or European ones, which were mobilised to assert openness or, alternatively, overcome a stigmatised ethnicity. I relate the different ways in which East and South European migrants articulated their identities to the British context of reception, and the positive or negative discourses surrounding specific ethnicities and migrant groups. I also discuss how the EU Referendum potentially reshuffled these hierarchies and representations. The findings extend research on ‘ethnic options’ with insights from the experience of ‘white’ migrants who find themselves differently perceived in British society.