Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging by Afua Hirsch
Working to forge a sense of belonging, Afua Hirch lays out her conflicting ideologies as a half-Ghanaian, half-English woman. Her book, a mix of memoir and British history covers heritage, place and class in chapters aiding to undercover what shapes the identity of Britain’s black, Asian and minority ethnic (BANE) citizens. Where are you from? The title of her first chapter touches on some of the underlying presumptions surrounding race. Highlighting how BANE identities are often challenged in a country where Britishness is synonymous with Whiteness. Arguing that a lack of representation and information has helped deepened the divide in our understanding of diversity and immigration. It is also linked to our distorted view of who can be labelled a true Brit.
Despite having naturally unruly hair and a name often unpronounceable to others, Hirsch was raised as with a “colour blind” approach, where her friends and family wilfully side-lined discussions around race. With friend's reassurance that she wasn’t seen as black, Hirch’s narrative is one of a privileged outsider. Having studied Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Oxford University before training to be a barrister, Hirsch’s perspective of race-based inequalities centre around ideas of the good immigrant. Brit(ish) follows her path from childhood to adulthood, unravelling the conflicting sense of belonging that led her back to Ghana.
Continuing the conversation at Manchester’s Central Library, Hirsch explains how her alienating experiences form her crisis of confidence, leading her to believe that identity was tied to a place. Claiming that a recognition of Britain's multi-racial history, discussion of Britain’s involvement in the slave trade and addressing how Britain has benefited from deeply entrenched immigration, could bridge the countries colour-blinded gap.
Comparing her university experience to her grandfathers, Hirsch found that the underrepresentation of people of colour (POC) brought a heavy sense of responsibility. As one of the few POC in the elite university, her sense of Otherness intensified as she began to challenge the old-fashioned curriculum and conversations centred around race and inclusion. Oxford continues to face questions of institutional bias against minorities, highlight by the Guardian reporting on the Freedom of Information Act by Kurien Parel. The findings revealed that one British black Caribbean undergraduate was admitted in 2009 and white applicants are up to twice as likely to get a placement in competitive subjects despite having the same grades.
Recent conversations around the Rhodes Must Fall movement and #WhyIsMyCurriculumWhite challenged the racial exclusion that continues to overlook the experience of POC. Oxford’s Vice-chancellor, Lord Pattern stated, students who don’t like the “generosity of spirit” shown to historical figures like Rhodes should “think about being educated elsewhere.” Here Hirsch argues that inclusion should not be tolerated based on the grounds of political correctness, but on the grounds of historical fact and academic integrity.
Attitudes towards racial sensitivity and inclusion are glacially moving forward, but Hirsch’s pushes for a commitment to fight back against prejudice and challenge the racial debates warped by misinformation. Britain's understanding of immigration is often used as a distraction to divide and conquer, Brit(ish) recognises how the status quo benefit from a belief that slavery bypassed Britain. A narrative that has helped form immigrants as the Other and led to our lack of inclusion.
This review was originally written for Northern Soul