Monday, 22 April 2019

Brit(ish) - on race, identity and belonging by Afua Hirsch


Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

This conversation is long overdue: a conversation begun in the spirit of honesty, not defensiveness, or fear, or blindness.”

Afua Hirsch is a British born woman of mixed race. On one side, the father is half Yorkshire, half German Jewish. On the other side, her grandparents were Ghanaian. She grew up in relatively privileged circumstances in the leafy London suburb of Wimbledon, going first to private school and then Oxford University.

While Hirsch acknowledges that her experience is a world away both from the brutal racism faced by her parents’ generation and the life of young black people growing up in places like Tottenham, where poverty and lack of opportunity are rife:

“I didn’t find race, race found me: in the playground, or the classroom, on the street, in the shops.”

Hirsch describes searching for an identity in Africa, first as a new graduate working for a non-profit organisation in Senegal, and later with her young family in her grandparent’s home country of Ghana. Yet what she discovers is that, though Britishness contains the threat of exclusion, there is in fact nowhere else to go. Her identity IS British.

In this wide-ranging book she addresses such topics as our failure to properly address the truth about imperialism and British involvement in the slave trade. She examines the changing policies towards interracial adoption, Home Office attitudes to immigration and the concept of the Good Immigrant. She looks at colourism and the attitudes towards black women’s hair. She looks at riots in the 1980s and the Brixit vote in 2016.

Above all, she castigates white British society for its failure to acknowledge that racism and white privilege are still facts of life – and that this affects all members of society.

“Failing to acknowledge that whiteness exists, means ignoring the burden for a white child born into a culture that tells them they are innately superior, that they are entitled.”

Rarely have I gone through a book highlighting so many passages. Hirsch brilliantly captures both the positive and negative aspects of having multiple cultural identities. On the one hand, it: “offers the possibility of full-body immersion, deep-sea diving; an experience that is difficult to pin down, but feels mystical and profound.”

On the other, “at its worse ... (it) can feel like being helplessly adrift, unable to embrace the beauty of any one place, fearful of the water, awkward on land.”

This feels like a more deeply personal book than Eddo-Lodge’s Why I Am No Longer Talking to White People About Race. As well as her own experiences, Hirsch draws upon individual experience of other black and mixed race people – like Lola who experienced some of the worst aspects of the care system and who now provides a home of teens emerging from that system.

Despite the depth of racism – structural and otherwise – in British society that it exposes, this book feels optimistic. But if we are truly to become a post-racial society, it is vital that we stop trying to pretend that we already are. We have to have the courage to have to difficult conversations, to acknowledge ugly truths about ourselves. To have humility.

LONGLISTED FOR THE 2019 JHALAK PRIZE

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Natives by Akala, Why I Am No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge

Avoid If You Dislike: Honestly appraising the role of race in our society

Perfect Accompaniment: Jollof rice and herbal tea

Genre: Non Fiction

Available on Amazon

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