Rating 4 stars
In BRIT(ish), Afua Hirsch has written a sort of memoir, sort of political appraisal, sort of social history of race and racism in the UK. There’s a bit of travelog in there as well. I struggled to get to grips with it at first, finding it a little piecemeal in its approach, jumping from personal experience peppered with historical context to historiography peppered with personal experience to journalistic investigation of specific aspects of racism in Britain. Each piece had its merits, but for me they didn’t always hang together as a whole. That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy it. It’s articulate, it draws out different strands of the issue, there were lots of things that I learnt from reading it. Hirsch clearly has something she wants to say, and has struggled to understand her own existence, and there is value in what she extracts and shares from that personal struggle.
BRIT(ish) is split into specific aspects of identity, with a majority focus on black identity and white responses to it. The examination of Hirsch’s personal experience varied from the introspective to the insightful. Sometimes it engaged my attention, challenging me and educating me, other times I’d forgotten what she said almost immediately, because she didn’t seem to be saying very much about anything other than herself, perhaps only for herself.
On identity, Hirsch outs herself as too black to be white and too white to be black. She’s both and she’s neither. She admits that she is from a privileged background, comparing herself to her partner, who was raised by a single mum in Tottenham, growing up in poverty, and discusses how they have very different experiences of being black and British. To him and his friends, Hirsch speaks and thinks like a white person, because she has grown up within social systems of privilege and opportunity that most black Britons don’t get to experience. Hirsch owns his criticism and acknowledges that she is better able to negotiate racism because she has the white skills to reassure those who find her blackness, her difference to them, a challenge.
One of the things that struck me throughout the book was how universal some things are: not liking how you look, feeling that you don’t fit in, wanting to belong; and then how we layer extra elements on top of these universal experiences based on skin colour, ethnicity, religion and social class that serve to separate us from each other. It’s something that Hirsch returns to as she describes the things that unite us all, the things grounded in our humanity, while still acknowledging that the extra layers make individual experience different.
As the book progressed, its sub title On Race, Identity and Belonging started to make sense with the book becoming as much a rumination on what being British is as a reflection on the black British experience. There was something in what Hirsch said about nobody in Britain knowing what it means to be British that clicked with me.
She identifies the inability of the British to acknowledge their country’s past in all its facets as being at the root of what she calls The Question – the habit white people have of asking people of colour where they’re from. This lack of acknowledgment of our colonial past is also at the root of our inability to know what British actually means. There’s a white version of Britishness that has grown out of colonialism in a blind way, and that has left a void for anyone who isn’t white. Even 60+ years after Empire ended, there is still an unwillingness among white people to acknowledge why there are British people who look to them as though they come from somewhere else. This, Hirsch suggests, is why her own parents failed to realise that their daughters didn’t feel that they fitted into the society of their birth, and why white people ask her The Question before she’s even opened her mouth to reveal how British she is.
She picks up on the way colonialism has infected the way Britain thinks of Africa, and has resulted in most British people of African heritage living in poverty. Her chapter Origins serves a purpose in making digestible, over 50 or so pages, 400 years of black history. It raised a point for me that I hadn’t given much consideration to before, namely why the history taught in British schools and romanticised in film and television focuses on that seven year period when the rational world fought against fascism but ignores almost completely those 400 years of slavery. Hirsch quotes from an interview with Steve McQueen who suggests that Britons don’t engage with the history of slavery because it’s too hideous to contemplate. Hirsch suggests that it’s so long ago and is sufficiently lacking in pictorial evidence that it feels irrelevant. My take on it is that white Britons don’t want to engage with it because we know in our hearts that we are culpable. We don’t want to admit that we were the architects of the system that we only refer to in relation to our celebrated abolition of it, that our national wealth was built on the backs of slaves, that the world we live in now would not have existed without slavery. It’s a direct relation of our desire to be seen as ‘colour blind’. We wish that we could move on from slavery, in a way that makes even more ridiculous our jingoistic clinging to the narrative of brave warriors who liberated Europe from fascism. Why should we be allowed to move on from something that has impacted on British society so deeply, and if we are to move on from it because now is a different time to then, shouldn’t we also move on from 1945? This cherry picking the aspects of history that makes us feel better about ourselves, that allows us to construct a fable about our decency that is a lie, sickens me. Our decency today should be rooted in the way we treat our citizens and the citizens of other nations today, not how we behaved for a seven year period in the mid-20th century, and on current evidence we’re not doing a good job of being decent.
Talking about a range of things, from the ignoring of the racist beliefs of philosophers like John Locke and David Hume, to the resistance shown towards acknowledging the toxicity of people like Cecil Rhodes and removing their influence through the legacies they set up in universities in England and in African countries, to the marginalisation of black history to a single month of the year, Hirsch makes an important point.
Britain has no ‘white history’. British history is the multiracial, interracial story of nation interdependent on trade, cultural influence and immigration from Africa, India, Central and East Asia, and other regions and continents populated by people who are not white, and before that, invasion by successive waves of European tribes most of whom, had the concept of whiteness existed at the time, would not have fitted into it either.
It’s not so hard to grasp, is it? At least, not unless you are an insecure little toerag of a nation that is threatened by the notion that it might not be as Great as it has misconstrued its geographical descriptor as meaning.
Another excellent point Hirsch makes is about the need for history to have integrity.
Reassessing British history is not about race, it’s about integrity. It’s not about separating out who to celebrate for the good, and who to blame for the bad. It’s about the fact that the past is linked to the present in a smooth continuity, from slavery, colonialism and the pillaging of resources to immigration and even today’s waves of ‘marauding’ African migrants, the word chosen by the foreign secretary in 2015, to describe refugees from conflicts which Britain, in a number of cases, had a hand in creating. Seeing things differently would affect reality for everyone.
It is (it)our(it) history, as British people. If we were able to see a different version of it – not a carefully curated, highly selective, politically convenient one, but an honest one, in all its nuances – it might give us all a chance to carve our individual and collective relationship with Britain in a more realistic way.
This is the point at which Hirsch’s writing really gelled for me.
She touched a nerve with me when she discusses the racism shown to Serena Williams. I have had occasion to examine my own attitude to Serena, framed as it has been by terminology including bully, bulldozer, brutal, aggressive, ungraceful and petulant, and by an opposing attitude to her more slender, feminine and socially charming sister Venus who plays the kind of tennis that I think is more appropriate for a woman to play. It was the incident last summer on Serena’s return to work from maternity leave that forced me to examine and admit my racism towards her. Everything that Hirsch describes rings true with me. I’m ashamed of it. I’m also ashamed of the sexism I have felt towards Venus and Serena, and all the women tennis players that I have either thought of as too masculine or overly appreciated as feminine. What the actual fuck, Jan?
Hirsch puts her finger on something else in the same chapter when talking about the white British affectation of the acronym BAME. Hirsch correctly identifies that we hide behind it, on the pretence of not wanting to cause offence, and the reality of not wanting to use descriptors like black, Asian and whatever ‘minority ethnic’ is the catchall for.
Elsewhere, Hirsch talks about her grandfather, who was awarded a scholarship to study at Cambridge University at the tail end of the Second World War. She relates his experience as a black student at Cambridge to her own experience at Oxford, and realises that her grandfather had a better understanding of what his opportunity was about. This is the thing that struck me:
The scholarship he’d received was a deliberate component of British colonial ‘indirect rule’ – a system which involved educating ‘natives’ to perform much of the administrative work of running colonies on Britain’s behalf. In spending scarce public money in the midst of a conflict that threatened Britain’s very future, shipping young Africans … to British universities across 7,000 kilometres of war-ravaged ocean, the government was deliberately inculcating loyalty to British culture and establishing a future generation of colonial officials.
Her grandfather went on to head up the development of the education system in Ghana when it gained independence, but his loyalty to Britain became his Achilles heel as far as radical pan-Africanists were concerned, and the family had to flee Ghana in 1962. Hirsch traces her own confusion about who she is to this moment, and builds around it a convincing narrative about the long term impact of colonialism on contemporary prejudices shown towards people of colour.
Following her own brief sojourn in Ghana, trying to build bridges between her past and her present, Hirsch returns to her theory on British identity, this time linking it to her inability to find a place where she feels she belongs.
… Britishness has not yet fully rejected its roots in ideological whiteness, and the pain that has inflicted on blackness. For someone like me, Britishness contains the threat of exclusion. An exclusion only made more sinister by discovering – after so many years of searching – that there is nowhere else to go.
Back in Britain, she explores more fully the racism present in well meaning positive action like increasing diversity, questioning why we talk about getting more non-white people into white dominated industries as diversifying rather than as normalising. She discusses the racism she has experienced in the workplace, with white colleagues kicking back against what they think of as positive discrimination when a job is taken up by a person of colour, never once considering that the person who got the job was the most qualified and did the best interview, regardless of their skin colour.
She challenged me again in talking about the issues that black actors have to deal with in film and television, that on the face of it seem petty – having to specify a black hairdresser or makeup artist as part of their contract or face having to travel off-set to get hair and makeup done – but are actually signifiers of a deeper racism, wherein black people are so far from being the norm on set that their specific needs aren’t automatically covered. I admit that it had never crossed my mind to think about hair and makeup acting as barriers to people of colour.
She’s excellent on the reasons behind and consequences of the Leave vote in the UK’s EU Referendum, presenting a balanced assessment of what happened and how racist it actually was. Some of my family members, surprisingly the ones with university educations and professional careers, voted Leave for racist reasons, others for political and ideological reasons. Hirsch suggests that, even if your reasons for voting leave aren’t directly related to immigration, but rather are seated in a belief that, politically and economically, the UK is better out of Europe than in, that belief is still rooted in the same dream of Empire that the beliefs of the racist, anti-immigration Leave voters hold. It all boils down to identity. I was particularly interested in the statistic that shows that two-thirds of people who identify as English voted to leave the EU, while two-thirds of people in England who identify as British voted to remain. I fall into the latter category. I was born in England, I live in England, but I would never define myself as English because it’s such a petty, exclusionary identity. It limits who you are. I have Welsh ancestry within four generations and I’m sure that further back in time I’m likely to have French ancestry, given that one strand of my family lived in Kent and had surnames like France and Revell. So I’m not English. Whatever English is.
This is the thing I’ve taken away from Hirsch’s book – that she isn’t in the business of generating a radical call to arms for black Britons to follow, but rather that she wants to shine a light on the long denied but ongoing effects of British colonial activity from Elizabethan times onward. They’re effects that are felt particularly hard by people of colour, but they’re also effects that prevent white people from understanding what British means and accepting the society colonialism has created. Denying these effects harms white people, too, but in a less damaging way. It holds us in a fixed position, rather than holding us back and denying us equal rights to a sense of belonging.
Hirsch ends the book with the hope that it will contribute to the start of a conversation about how British identity excludes so many people who should be included but aren’t because of the colour of their skin. Whenever I’ve seen her interviewed on TV, I’ve been struck by the way interviewers are keen to challenge her viewpoint. I get that TV journalism occupies the debate landscape, rather than the conversational, but it made me wonder whether this debate approach is symptomatic of the influencers in society not wanting to have a conversation. I tweeted her to ask whether she felt that her hope is being achieved.
She also provides a playlist that illustrates her personal sense of identity. I couldn’t find all of them on Spotify, so I’ve had to substitute a couple of songs or versions of songs. I made this Spotify playlist after I’d finished reading the book. I wish I’d done it beforehand. It’s a good soundtrack. And BRIT(ish) is a good book. I hope lots of white British people read it, and do so with an open mind.