Theos

Home / Comment / Reviews

Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging

Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging

Ben Ryan reviews ‘Brit(ish)’, an autobiographical memoir on race and identity in contemporary Britain by Afua Hirsch. 28/08/2018

Interested by this? Share it on social media. Join our monthly e–newsletter to keep up to date with our latest research and events. And check out our Supporter Programme to find out how you can help our work.


Brit(ish) is an autobiographical memoir written by the journalist Afua Hirsch on the nature of identity and race in contemporary Britain. Ever since it came out it has received some of the most remarkably hostile reviews I can ever remember reading. Several of these have followed a pretty common formulation. It goes something like this; Afua Hirsch is a privately educated woman from suburban London who went to Oxford, rose quickly through the ranks as a barrister then changed career and rapidly became a high profile journalist, seemingly without so much as brushing a speedbump on the way. Is this really the mark of someone who has been a victim of oppression? Or is it just, in the words of more than one reviewer a case of “poor little rich girl”?

The book is, at least in part (as I’ll return to below) an autobiographical account of Hirsch’s own particular experiences, so of course it is always going to be somewhat open to those critiques. The more personal the evidence that is presented the more the author opens themselves to personal attacks and criticism. That doesn’t make them any less an example of playing the man rather than the ball, and some have just been plain nasty. Not only does the book simply not deserve the level of vitriol some have directed towards it, but in this particular case to do so raises a bigger problem.

Hirsch is writing about the experience of race in British society and making a point about endemic racism. There is plenty of evidence, statistical, anecdotal and other, much of it covered in the book, to support the basic premise that there is a serious problem and that black people (and those of migrant backgrounds more broadly) face barriers in education, employment, the criminal justice system, in terms of housing, and elsewhere. Having the debate about why that is, how bad it is and what can be done about it is important, and hearing the voices of those who have experienced challenges is an important part of that conversation. But here’s the issue; those who have experienced the full brunt of these issues at their most extreme edge are significantly less likely to have the time, connections, or profile to write such a book. They are more concerned with the struggle of getting by in the face of serious hurdles then getting a book deal on the topic.

It’s a point the American writer Amy Chua has made in her book Political Tribes. When groups of people experience inequality inevitably the people who the ability to have a public voice and profile will tend to be those who are the most educated, and by some counts at least, most privileged of that demographic. That is an irony that Hirsch herself recognises and is up–front about from page one. But the issue is that if those at the extreme end rarely get to tell their own stories, and those at the more privileged end can be dismissed for being insufficiently oppressed, effectively you are left with a scenario in which no one is allowed to give voice to the experience at all.

That would be an absurd injustice, not least because, if nothing else, there is a lot in this book that ought to challenge and provoke readers on the reality of race and identity in the UK. It is always easy to look at the mounting chaos across the Atlantic and be smug in the assumption that at least we’re better than that. Unless more accounts give voice to the reality of the experience we risk silencing the issue completely.

***

I think that defence is important, and ought to set the tone for how this book is read. What is unfortunate is that, for all that, I don’t actually think that this is a great book. The issue under discussion is immensely important and deserves a truly thorough and in–depth analysis. It doesn’t quite get it in this book, partly because it’s never quite clear what the book really is.

Reading Brit(ish) it feels like two books trying to be one; an autobiographical memoir and an essay on race in Britain more broadly with clear policy proposals for change. The strongest part is when Hirsch is autobiographical, reflecting on the ironies and difficulties of navigating an identity that is somehow at home in neither the UK or Ghana. There are some fascinating observations in this vein that speak to the curious dislocation of a mixed identity. Hirsch’s experience of trying to fit in in Ghana (she moved there for a period after graduating in an effort to feel more at home), and the incredulity of her mother and grandmother that she should want to go there and try, after their own efforts to leave, are well–observed and explained, and instructive of a difficulty faced by many people with some sort of mixed background. There are some wonderfully poignant moments too, such as the difficulty Hirsch has in knowing how to say the name “Afua” in the authentic Ghanaian way. And there are some accounts of being on the receiving end of racist behaviour that are genuinely shocking and upsetting.

However, the book also tries to be more than a personal account, a second theme is that it tries to be a broader essay on race relations in the UK. These sections are a mixed bag. Some are compelling, but some are not and the selection of themes covered feels fairly arbitrary. A section on the sexualisation of black people is dealt with by virtue of looking at a swingers club in Dunstable for people with a fetish for black men, in what feels more like a sensationalistic journalism scoop than a serious effort at analysing a complicated issue.

The mix of personal anecdote and wider thematic study means that structurally the book feels confused. Neither truly thematic, nor chronological, it leaves you never quite sure where you are or where the book is going next, and which parts belong to Hirsch’s own experience and which she is only reporting on. Is this a truly personal piece, or is it a systematic study? The difference matters on a number of key areas.

As an example of this there is essentially nothing at all about religion in the book. Evidently it doesn’t matter much to Hirsch herself, nor is there any particular reason that it should do. If the book were simply about her own experiences and feelings that would be fair enough. However, if this is an essay about identities and race more broadly than this is an important omission. Taking Ghana as an example, over the past few decades more than 93,000 people who were born in Ghana and were included in the 2011 UK census. Fully 90% of them were Christian, a proportion dramatically outstripping the UK population as a whole, and there are reams of data to support the idea that this is a particularly religious group for whom Christian identity not only truly matters, but has an impact on the way in which people live their lives and integrate (or not) into their communities.

This had had an impact on British church–going and society. Ghanaians have helped boost Catholic numbers (including leading change in the way in which some Catholic churches conduct worship), but even more dramatically have been at the heart of driving the remarkable growth in Pentecostal churches over the past few decades. That religiosity, and all the social and identity questions to which it is tied, and how it differs from or connects with others in local communities, is a huge question on identity and a potentially critical issue that goes entirely unaddressed, save for a brief criticism of faith schools as ‘cementing segregation’.

***

There is plenty in this book that will wind lots of people up. Throwaway remarks (of which there are many), for example, on the innate white supremacy of the monarchy, will raise hackles. But there is an important message which goes beyond any single claim – identity matters. “Colour blindness” matters, because the liberal trope that we simply need to move beyond race to see people as individuals is problematic. Problematic because it isn’t true – people do still experience racism, regardless of how far society thinks it has moved on. Moreover, it is problematic because it robs people of something important to them. People’s identities matter to them, they don’t want that identity suppressed or made invisible. This is a brave idea, one that runs counter to a liberal trend of stripping people of their identities, racial, ethnic, religious and national. In this sense, curiously. Hirsch has rather more in common with ideological opponents of the post–liberal variety. Both groups want a serious conversation about identities that are taken seriously and treat people as more than atomized rational actors.

Lots of the best lines in the book come from Hirsch’s family and partner. One that stuck with me is the question Hirsch’s partner Sam asks her: ‘What kind of black person feels they actually have to write a book about being black?’ It’s a great question. It could be asked of a whole genre of European intellectualism, the existential obsession with identity and who we are. It’s the reason why for all the foibles of this book it has served the purpose it set out to do, to present, in authentically British intellectual style a starting point for a critical discussion, or as she herself puts it at the end of the book ‘a conversation begun in the spirit of honesty, not defensiveness, or fear, or blindness’. I hope that it does that, because she’s right – it is a conversation that needs to be had.

Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging, by Afua Hirsch. Published by Johnathan Cape, Penguin Random House UK

 

 Image by Penguin Random House UK available in the Public Domain 

Ben Ryan

Ben Ryan

Ben Ryan is Head of Research at Theos. He is the editor of Fortress Britain? Ethical Approaches to Immigration Policy for a Post–Brexit Britain (JKP 2018) and the author of Theos reports on chaplaincy, the EU, the Catholic charity sector, mental health and ecumenism. He holds degrees in European politics from the LSE and in Theology and Religious Studies from Cambridge. Outside of Theos he is a trustee of CSAN (Caritas Social Action Network).

Posted 28 August 2018

Britain, British Values, Identity, Review

Research

See all

Events

See all

In the news

See all

Comment

See all

Get regular email updates on our latest research and events.

Please confirm your subscription in the email we have sent you.

Want to keep up to date with the latest news, reports, blogs and events from Theos? Get updates direct to your inbox once or twice a month.

Thank you for signing up.