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BRIT (ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging by Afua Hirsch

I enjoyed this book. Afua Hirsch goes in search of Britishness, and does not find it, but her quest is full of eclectic learning, passionate indignation, and personal experience of both Britain and Ghana which will be new to most of her readers.

One proof of her sincerity lies in her willingness to cite evidence which does not redound entirely to her credit. Sam, her boyfriend and husband, a man of Ghanaian descent who has had a tough start in life in Tottenham, is dismissive of her and her privileged friends:

“Listen, in my brain, you lot went to Oxford, you are supposed to be the crème de la crème. You are supposed to be blitzing this life. And there you were, sitting there, so tentative like.”

Hirsch is an odd mixture of the tentative and the trenchant. Some readers will find this annoying. Kwasi Kwarteng ended his review with an irascible dismissal of the book as “a letter of protest written by ‘a poor little rich girl'”.

Born to a father of German Jewish descent and a mother of Ghanaian descent, Hirsch is brought up in a well-off and loving household in Wimbledon and sent to a private school, but never feels at ease being British.

One may say, if one wishes, “Grow up and be thankful for all the good things you have.” But since this is palpably how she actually feels, that strikes me as a totally inadequate reaction, on a par with saying to someone who is suffering from depression, “Pull yourself together – there are millions of people worse off than you.”

She finds being of mixed race very difficult, and the way the British are “taught not to see race” makes matters worse, for it means the subject cannot be discussed.

Just as one is thinking to oneself that class is generally more important than race, she admits this. But race is what matters to her in this book, and she is not to be fobbed off by tiresome efforts on the part of the authorities to demonstrate that her preoccupations have become part of the curriculum: “Even more irritating is Black History Month’s indefatigably celebratory tone.”

She is good on being mistaken, when she works at the Guardian and at Sky News, for other black women who look nothing like her. Even more wonderfully, a famous columnist – a middle-aged white man – walks up to her in a restaurant in Westminster and says: “Michelle! Can I just say, it is such an honour.” The idiot has mistaken her for Michelle Obama, just then on a visit to London, “as if the prospect of there being two distinct black females in Westminster at any one time was too implausible”.

That line reminded me of How To Be Black, a very funny book by Baratunde Thurston.

Hirsch is too agonised by her predicament to wish very often to be funny, but she has a good ear for comic disparities, as when, in her Acknowledgements, at the end of a list of family members many of whom have African names, she surprises us with “Graham Roderick Laurence Oliphant of Oliphant, younger”.

She finds that although she “performed convincingly in tutorials” at Oxford, “internally, the atmosphere…destroyed my confidence”, for she felt “constantly face-to-face with my sense of otherness”, and later came to understand her behaviour “as an experiment in suppressing myself”.

So off she goes to Senegal, only to discover, “to my endless confusion, how British I was”. Later she goes to Ghana, which is full of “returnees”, people brought up in the UK in the Eighties and Nineties “who leave in search of something that truly feels like theirs”.

Her neighbours in Accra are scandalised by the way she goes gallivanting round town on journalistic business, and in front of her tell Sam, who arrives in Ghana four months after her: “You need to control your wife.”

Not a very British thing to say. But although she and Sam met in London, she discovers from her grandmother that by an astonishing chance, or perhaps thanks to some deep-seated affinity, his family comes from “the exact village” that her own grandfather comes from: “The two families have been neighbours for generations.”

After she and Sam are set upon by robbers on a beach, who hold a knife to his throat and take her jewellery, she becomes “permanently jumpy” and “terrified for our daughter’, and all her “romantic ideas” of bridge-building and circle-closing come to nothing.

Proud though she is of her African heritage, “I really am very British, as Ghanaians have often taken great pains to point out”. She feels baffled, and remarks that while reporting on the radicalisation of young British Muslims, she has interviewed dozens who tell her, as a young man in Blackburn puts it:

“I’m not British, British people won’t accept me as British. But I’ve never even been to Pakistan, I’m not really from Pakistan either. What I do have is, is Islam. That’s the only identity I’ve got, it’s everything to me.” 

Hirsch does not pretend to have reached an answer to this problem. She says at the end of her book:

“Identities are not becoming less important in our globalised world, they are becoming more important than ever. And Britishness is an identity that is excluding a growing number of people who, like me, should be among its core constituents.”

She wants “a conversation begun in a spirit of honesty, not defensiveness, or fear, or blindness”. So here very briefly is my contribution to that conversation.

Britishness is a highly artificial concept, which contains seemingly incompatible elements. The British are very polite, so that quite often one cannot tell what they really mean, but are also at times appallingly rude, so that they seem no better than barbarians.

They – or perhaps I should say we, for I too am a Briton – are at once very repressed and very free; very educated and very ignorant; very cosmopolitan and very insular.

One will never get to the heart of Britishness by looking at race, interesting and significant though that subject certainly is, for as Hirsch says, racially we are and in many ways always have been a complete mixture.

The best way to define Britishness is to look at our politics. The term developed as a convenient way of describing the by no means entirely consistent or admirable amalgam of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland which forms the United Kingdom.

As citizens of this British nation, we share various institutions. One is the monarchy, whose symbolic value should not be underrated, and which acts as a check on tyranny, for any tyrant would need to fill the space occupied by the monarch.

But ever since the 17th century, Parliament has asserted its supremacy over the monarch, and today, all Britons over the age of 18 have the (not always exercised) right to elect Members of Parliament.

The House of Commons is the essential British institution. It is constantly evolving, and is just now becoming, thanks to Brexit, particularly significant. In recent decades, it has acquired many more women members, and many more who are descended from recent immigrants.

The Labour Party was on the whole better at recruiting and integrating these new arrivals into our politics, though to the Conservative Party fell the honour of providing the first Prime Minister of Jewish descent – Benjamin Disraeli, whose grandfather had emigrated from Italy to London in 1748  – and the first two women Prime Ministers.

The racial harmony that springs from a sense of belonging, of being really British, can only be achieved by political means. It is through our fluid and imperfect politics that we conduct the conversation which Hirsch quite rightly wants, and to which, with this book, she has made such a distinctive and thought-provoking contribution.

162 comments for: Britishness is a political, not a racial, characteristic

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