Afua Hirsch’s Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging interrogates Britain’s relationship to race and racial identity, whilst also exploring Hirsch’s identity as a Ghanian and British woman. Her writing is deeply personal; charting her journey in understanding her own identity. Starting from her childhood in affluent Wimbledon, Hirsch takes us through her life, including her time as an Oxford student and her experiences living in Senegal and Ghana. The book deals with multiple facets of Hirsch’s identity, including chapters on origins, bodies and class. She also explores these concepts, through the lens of race, within Britain generally.
The different themes covered: from the fetishisation of black bodies, racism faced by Serena and Venus Williams at Wimbledon to the refusal to include Black History in the mainstream curriculum, all speak to the way British society “others” non-white people. Making them believe they do not belong.
The dichotomy between her two identities is a crucial focus of Brit(ish) and frames the more general exploration of Britain’s conflicted relationship with race.
As a mixed-race woman, Hirsch explores the feeling of otherness she has experienced throughout her life. At her private school in Wimbledon she recounts feeling the pressure to conform and fit in with her white classmates. In one particularly heart-breaking account, she remembers how when asked during show and tell to talk about what she had done that weekend, instead of talking about her visit to her Ghanaian grandmother she lied saying that she had been to see her white father’s parents. To her, it seemed “so much easier to explain that world to my already critical school teacher and the other little white girls”. This is just one of the many experiences of feeling ‘othered’ that Hirsch explores. Something I found particularly eye-opening was how Hirsch has struggled to feel a sense of identity as both a British, but also as a Ghanaian woman. In 2012, she moved to Ghana, believing that she would feel a belonging that was absent in Britain. She recounts how living there made her as aware of her Britishness as living in Britain had made her aware of her Ghanaian heritage.
The dichotomy between her two identities is a crucial focus of Brit(ish) and frames the more general exploration of Britain’s conflicted relationship with race. She begins her book with the discussion around the question “where are you from?” often followed with “but where are you really from?”. Hirsch explains how such a question, whilst not usually coming from a place of malice, is damaging and unsettling. She describes how “The question….is often posed before a single word has even been uttered. The question is reserved for people who look different, and thanks to it, someone who looks like me is told they are different and asked for an explanation, every single day”. This question, along with multiple other microaggressions faced by Black people and other ethnic minorities in Britain, feeds into the narrative that unless you are white, you do not wholly belong in Britain.
Hirsch argues…we must bring the discussion of Black british history into the mainstream historical narrative, rather than confining it to four weeks in October.
Hirsch suggests that the way race and black British history are discussed in Britain is deeply flawed. We hold two contradictory positions. Britain and many white British people are intent on ‘not seeing race’ in a belief that this leads to equality. This is problematic when done within a society that does little to confront our highly racialised history. We refuse to interrogate our history as the largest slave-trading power, and in turn deny that the wealth of our nation is bound up with the atrocities of slavery. Hirsch explains that we cannot on the one hand claim to not see colour, a claim that also blinds us to different identities and cultural experiences, while not tackling a history that is intrinsically linked to race and racism. To fully tackle racism within our society and have educated conversations around race, Hirsch argues that we urgently need to address the legacy of slavery. We must bring the discussion of Black british history into the mainstream historical narrative, rather than confining it to four weeks in October. Brit(ish) is an essential read for all. Hirsch’s exploration of her identity brings to light the difficulties of growing up as mixed-race and black in Britain. She also challenges the British perception of race, and how our inability to confront our past has profoundly affected our ability to coherently understand and discuss race in our present. Brit(ish) is a call to action, if we genuinely want to progress as a society, we must change our discussions and understanding of race.
Image: Sammy Albon via Flickr