Published by Jonathan Cape on February 1st 2018
Afua Hirsch is British. Her parents are British. She was raised, educated and socialised in Britain. Her partner, daughter, sister and the vast majority of her friends are British. So why is her identity and sense of belonging a subject of debate? The reason is simply because of the colour of her skin.
Blending history, memoir and individual experiences, Afua Hirsch reveals the identity crisis at the heart of Britain today. Far from affecting only minority people, Britain is a nation in denial about its past and its present. We believe we are the nation of abolition, but forget we are the nation of slavery. We sit proudly at the apex of the Commonwealth, but we flinch from the legacy of the Empire. We are convinced that fairness is one of our values, but that immigration is one of our problems.
Brit(ish) is the story of how and why this came to be, and an urgent call for change.
Last year Reni Eddo Lodge’s book on racism in the UK and why she was no longer talking to white people about it had my head nodding from page to page. There is something about books written about minorities on their experiences of race that are transcendental beyond each ethnic grouping. Saying that, of course, there are many aspects of Eddo Lodge’s experience that are completely different to mine as a Muslim-Pakistani-British-Male. When I picked up Afua Hirsch’s ‘BRIT(ish)’ I expected to understand the general experiences of being from a BAME background, but that it would be largely about how general major and minor structures of racism operate in the UK.
What I was not expecting, was to relate to Hirsch in a much more personal way. While not revealing her age specifically, I could figure we are in all likelihood around the same age, both grew up in South London (albeit different parts), privately educated, studied law, with major questions about our identity, and attempting to find it within black culture. There are moments within Hirsch’s book that I cannot discern from my own experience. The book was relatable at level I had not been prepared for. While I was privileged to attend a private school, I always tried to find myself in the company of those who seemed more ‘free’, but had my own expectations from my Pakistani parents that helped to keep me grounded (and perhaps saved me) from another life that might have disrespected the privileges I had been given. It was thus, that in the early pages of her book I was a little taken aback by her comment that her partner had been given a cultural silver-spoon by growing up in Tottenham, but then something that made a degree of sense:
“…when it comes to identity, I tell him, he was born with the equivalent of a silver spoon.
Because when it comes to the black British experience, Sam’s world is its epitome. He comes from Tottenham, one of the most diverse inner-city communities in Europe.”
Hirsch, from a mixed African and Jewish, growing up in a well-to-do part of Wimbledon experienced little of what it meant to have the cultural experience of a person of colour in London, as Wimbledon Village provided little opportunity to interact with those who might help to provide a world that extended by white privilege. This is not to say that Hirsch was not identified as being overtly black, while denied the opportunity to grow up around those who looked like her, she was at times denied the spaces that were open:
“The harshest lessons came in my late teens, visiting my best friend at work at a boutique in Wimbledon Village. The manager told her I could not come in. ‘It’s off-putting to the other customers’, she said ‘and the black girls are thieves. Tell her she is not welcome.’ It’s one of the only times I was given the dignity of having my racial identity openly acknowledged.”
Afua Hirsch’s black-life existence in the UK is not simply accidental. It is the product of many other forces and influences that have not only produced her presence in these sunny isles, but also shaped the way in which wider society has formed itself in relation to black and brown lives. It is in this space, that Hirsch provides a scathing critique of colonialism, and the deep and long-lasting impacts it has had on not only those outside, but inside the UK. She is correct, when she reminds us that had Major Baden-Powell not been in Kumasi, then her Ghanaian family would not be in the UK – linked to him not just through the displacements that occurred, but also through the seemingly innocuous activity of scouting and its racist roots. Key to these long (and important) sections on racism, is the wilful amnesia by the part of the state of the legacy of slavery, choosing to present a revision which promotes the idea that there was a slavery period, and a post-slavery period, which the British were key in bringing about. Hirsch calls them out for this revision, setting out how the legacy of slavery is not just real, it has carried through to contemporary UK:
“Structural, deliberately orchestrated disadvantage is intergenerational, passed down through families, in just the same way as those born into privileged families inherit wealth. The impact of slavery on the African continent, from where so many millions – often the strongest and most able – were kidnapped, is harder to delineate. But it’s widely acknowledged that slavery deprived huge swathes of Africa of its working-age people over four centuries, aid that the trauma of industrial-scale kidnap and murder has been far-reaching.”
The book doesn’t leave the argument there, what this book is so brilliant at doing, is tying the ideas around racism to the way in which human beings behave in all the large and small areas of life. Hirsh provides an account of witnessing the activities in a sex club, where white men and women with specific sexual proclivities for black men were in her mind reinforcing the idea of the rapacious black man – an idea that still very much exists today. Yes, all those involved in the process are consenting, but that in no way removes the idea that there is a market for the dangerous black body, which itself reinforces racial stereotypes.
This argument is extended in other areas, where racism is hidden behind ‘legitimate banter’ or critique. Nothing speaks of this more than Hirsch’s section on the tennis player, Serena Williams, considered by many to be greatest tennis player (either male or female) of all time. Hirsch describes the language that was used about the Williams’ sisters when they first appeared on the scene, including that they were ‘disgusting’ or like ‘boys’ due to their ‘masculine’ physique. This wasn’t just limited to media pundits, also fellow tennis players (Caroline Wozniacki and Novak Djokovic) mocked Serena, in what was always portrayed as harmless fun – yet is was always carried out by white people.
Importantly, Afua Hirsch does not limit racism to a race specifically, but is willing to think about and make connections to the Muslim community. She meets with Tommy Robinson, the founding member of the English Defence League and understands that for Robinson, being ok with black people effectively means that he thinks they are becoming just like him, something that is abhorrent to her politics. It’s clear that Hirsch understands that in order to call our racism effectively, it needs to be addressed at all levels, including that of language:
“In the constantly evolving landscape of racial, religions and ethnic minority identities, language carries real significance. The use of the term ‘Islamism’ to describe the ideology cited by terrorist groups is, for example, a source of anger and resentment among many Muslims, who perceive a tendency to conflate politicised Muslims on the one hand with criminal extremists on the other.”
As someone who has been on his own voyage of self-discovery, whether it is through reading or travelling, I find Hirsch’s book completely relatable. It is hard to travel to find yourself, only to find that the only place you belong is home, a home where there are constant reminders that you don’t just quite fit.
With Akala’s ‘Natives’ being released and Reni Eddo-Lodge’s book from last year, there is a platform from which books like ‘BRIT(ish)’ can push back from. Afua Hirsch has made an extremely important contribution to British-based literature on anti-racism, and it is the personal telling of that story alongside the wider and broader critique that makes its argument so much more personal and compelling.2