Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging, Afua Hirsch, Jonathan Cape, 2018, pp 318, reviewed by Bill Hartley
What is it like to be the descendant of immigrants to Great Britain? Such a person may never have visited the home country of their parents but is made aware on a regular basis that they are different to the majority. Skin colour is of course the great identifier but one can only the imagine the reaction of people like Afua Hirsch, a child of mixed English, German Jewish and Ghanaian ancestry, when asked by some well meaning person; ‘where are you from?’ Or, indeed, when government departments, prodded by their ‘race relations advisors’, produce forms asking about one’s ethnicity, lumping the descendants of Africans and a host of other nations into a handful of categories such as ‘Black British’. Hirsch shows us the complexities of race and identity from her own perspective, augmented by research into the history of black migration.
Ms Hirsch’s ancestry is certainly varied and unlike those who may have undertaken homework to reveal a distant and varied lineage, hers is there to see, reflected in both skin colour and surname. She writes of the difficulty in pronouncing her first (Ghanaian) name, not just by others also but also by herself. She moves to Ghana, in a vain attempt to find herself. She deplores the British condescension towards a whole continent which she believes is widely misunderstood. There is now, she contends, a word to describe how people like her feel: otherness. Growing up as she did in an affluent corner of London, you evidently don’t need to start life in an inner city tower block to feel this way.
Being a Cambridge graduate from an advantaged background, then working at the Guardian has not shielded her from the more subtle forms of racism. She recalls visiting a school on a London council estate which had become an unlikely success story, only to be asked by the head (a black male) ‘what kind of black person are you, you’re not a proper black person!’
Brit(ish) contains a chapter on how slavery and black migration to this country are deeply interwoven. It takes us back to Empire in Africa and then to the present day where even in Kenya there is a colonial lite approach to tourism, allowing the better heeled visitor to re-enact the Robert Redford/Meryl Streep, Out of Africa, fantasy. Somewhat more historical balance could however have been achieved by reference to East African slavery stamped out in the main by teenage, Royal Navy midshipmen. Or, indeed, to that practised by the Ottomans, by whom white Europeans were sometimes held in bondage.
The book touches on but does not fully explore the intricacies and complexities of racism. Hirsch cites statistics which show that more black men marry white women than vice versa and records the experience of a high achieving black female friend, who frustrated by her inability to find a partner joined a dating agency only to have her money refunded because no-one was interested. Nor is the near invisibility of the Chinese population whenever the race question is raised addressed.
Hirsch does a good enough job of bringing to the attention of the majority population the unseen trials and tribulations of ethnic minorities and in particular a now discredited approach to fostering known as race matching. She cites the example of a foster child removed from a white family and placed with an abusive black family. When approving the adoption of say a mixed race child, the state ultimately takes responsibility for determining which experiences of identity he or she will have. Race matching policies made it three times less likely that black and mixed race children in the care system would be adopted.
Ultimately, Brit(ish) is a subjective record of one woman’s experience, marked from birth by British society, as she puts it. It is a compelling analysis of the complexities of identity in modern Britain and of the inept attempts by the powers that be to prove themselves colour blind. However, we could have done without Hirsch’s otiose comments on Brexit. As the late Tony Benn used to say, if you don’t like the government you can vote to get rid of it.
BILL HARTLEY is a former deputy governor in HM Prison Service