Afua Hirsch has got people talking, and about the thing we’re often most reluctant to discuss: race. Her memoir-cum-polemic Brit(ish) takes a long hard look at the parts of British history that have been aggressively airbrushed, as well as Hirsch’s own past, as the product of a union between Jewish and Ghanaian parents and a country that refuses to acknowledge its othering of people that look like her.
Focused on “race, identity and belonging”, Hirsch leads us through the heartrending and at times harrowing stages of her identity crisis, contextualising her struggle with that of the country’s inability to face up to racial discourse. She says she grew up surrounded by whiteness – raised in “pampered and preened” Wimbledon – and surrounded by those who promised they couldn’t see colour, most importantly, hers.
“I grew up around people who would be horrified if you ever called them racist,” she tells me with a laugh. “But who nevertheless had subconsciously absorbed ideas that made them other me and commit all these microaggressions and made me feel an alien in the country in which I should feel I belong.”
In response to that lack of belonging she fled Britain to “leave being British”, moving to Ghana, the birth country of her mother. But, even after making the pilgrimage to where strangers insisted she was “really, really” from, her sense of displacement lingered.
“I always had this idea that Ghana was the place I’d make sense, because I never really felt that I fit in here. After living there, it really dawned on me that it was not the solution to my identity crisis. That there was no place I could go that was going to resolve that for me.”
Spurred on by her search for an inalienable identity, she began drafting what would eventually become her book. She says she was also prompted into writing after being confronted with a wave of British-born “returnees” of Ghanaian heritage on her trip, who had also moved to Ghana hoping it would be kinder to them than their place of birth.
“On one level, it was really quite empowering,” she says. “And I was one of them in the sense of wanting to go to the motherland and contribute.
“But on another level there was something that troubled me about it, because it was the tailend of the recession and so many people said they had done it because they felt that there were no opportunities for them in Britain. That they weren’t valued – that really affected me because I was like, they’re British people and they’ve given up on the idea that they could make it here. It got me thinking about what is the deeper failure of Britishness to make people feel that it’s not fully theirs, that they don’t have a stake in this country to make it work here. That leaving is an option that comes so easily.”
“British-ness”, as Hirsch discusses in her book, is often dependent on factors less fixed than your place of birth when you’re not white. The criterion shifts and with it so does one’s sense of self, never quite sure whether its definition will have room for you in its next iteration. It’s the same with the term “racism”, she says in her book, speaking of a society that has “racism with no racists”. The lack of open bigotry in polite white society leaves it in some ways harder for minorities to articulate the problem. And therefore, she says, harder to mobilise.
“When I talk to people even just 10 years older than me who got chased down the street by Teddy boys and regularly called crudely offensive racist terms at work and things that would never happen to me, it definitely gave me a sense of how much progress has been made,” she says.
“But when I look at the struggles of those earlier generations, in a way there was something about it that I envied, because the problem was so tangible and clear. I was very conscious that it hadn’t gone away and it had just become more insidious. It meant that when you wanted to talk about it, you found yourself questioning yourself. I don’t know if you saw the clip on The Pledge, but that to me was a classic example of people telling you that what you know to be true and what you’ve lived is not a valid experience – you have no legitimacy to to claim it.”
If you have multiple identities, which so many of us do, you don’t necessarily get to the point where you have an answer
In an episode of The Pledge, Sky News' weekly debate show, Hirsch was interrogated by an all-white panel after explaining that she still experiences racism. Soon after, she became something of the online embodiment of what happens when trying to articulate experiences to those who don’t share them. Hirsch informs me that she actually has a rule against discussing race on the show, but broke it against her better judgement: “While the other people who take part in these conversations find it light entertainment, I personally find it deeply emotionally draining because its a lived experience, about which I care passionately. After The Pledge that day, I couldn’t speak for the rest of the day. I was upset. I don’t regret it because it helps people understand whats going on but you pay a price for that.”
She has also had her experiences very publically written off by sports writer Michael Henderson, the dubious choice of reviewer commissioned by The Times to write about her book. The write-up was heavily criticised for focusing more on her character than its content. Henderson referred to her as a “self-obsessed woman” who manages to balance this obsession with herself with “an obsession with weed”.
“What concerned me about it wasn’t that there was some white cricket writer out there who hates me – that doesn’t really surprise me that much,” she says.
“It’s that The Times would publish something that isn’t a review of my book, but literally just a personal attack. That affected me because that's my professional community – I'm a journalist and I know how much editorial scrutiny there is over decisions to publish things. That showed me there's a group of my peers somewhere who think that’s an acceptable thing to print in a broadsheet and a paper of record. And that’s disturbing.
“It’s really ironic, because you’re questioning the validity of your experience because a lot of what you're talking about is quite subtle and coded. And then you get a blatantly racist response that really gives you confidence that what you’re saying is really important. The people that are responding this way aren’t trying to validate my argument but they are unwittingly doing so in a very powerful way. On one quite counterintuitive level it’s reassuring.”
The purpose of Brit(ish) is to provoke and comfort in equal measure – and it is already doing just that, even prior to its release. I ask her if writing it has in any way made her more comfortable with her sense of identity. She pauses for thought.
“It was a very cathartic process.” she says after a while. “It made me have conversations with people in my family, people I grew up with that I’ve not had before, which was quite difficult but healthy. It’s a journey. If you have multiple identities, which so many of us do, you don’t necessarily get to the point where you have an answer. The cumulative effect on my life has been accepting that and putting an end to the idea that I can just get somewhere and it will be sorted. It’s not – you always have to work on it.
“I wrote this book for people who live here, and I think that was an act of me investing in this country. In the past I’ve kind of had the instinct to run away and find another place where I can be. This was an act of investing myself here – maybe the greatest thing I’ve ever done to invest myself here. Symbolically, that was quite important. I have rooted myself here to an extent I don’t think I’ve done before.”