Working to forge a sense of belonging, Afua Hirsch lays out her conflicting ideologies as a half-Ghanaian, half-English woman.
Her book, a mix of memoir and British history, covers heritage, place and class and aims to undercover what shapes the identity of Britain’s black, asian and minority ethnic (BANE) citizens. Where are you from? The title of her first chapter touches on some of the underlying presumptions surrounding race. She argues that a lack of representation and information has helped to deepen the divide in our understanding of diversity and immigration, and is linked to our distorted view of who can be labelled a true Brit.
Despite having naturally unruly hair and a name often unpronounceable to others, Hirsch was raised with a “colour blind” approach, where her friends and family side-lined discussions around race. With a friend’s reassurance that she wasn’t seen as black, Hirch’s narrative is one of a privileged outsider. Having studied Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Oxford University before training to be a barrister, Hirsch’s perspective of race-based inequalities centres around ideas of the good immigrant. Brit(ish) follows her path from childhood to adulthood, unravelling the conflicting sense of belonging that led her back to Ghana.
And so we see Hirsch at Manchester’s Central Library during the Manchester Literature Festival. She explains how her alienating experiences form her crisis of confidence, leading her to believe that identity was tied to a place, and she asserts that recognition of Britain’s multi-racial history, discussion of Britain’s involvement in the slave trade, and addressing how Britain has benefited from deeply entrenched immigration, could bridge the country’s colour-blinded gap.
Comparing her university experience to her grandfather’s life, Hirsch finds that the under-representation of people of colour (POC) brought a heavy sense of responsibility. As one of the few POC in her elite university, she says that her sense of otherness intensified as she began to challenge the old-fashioned curriculum, and conversations centred around race and inclusion.
Meanwhile, Oxford University continues to face questions of institutional bias against minorities, highlighted by The Guardian when it reported on disclosures under the Freedom of Information Act uncovered by Kurien Parel. The findings revealed that one British black Caribbean undergraduate was admitted in 2009, and white applicants are up to twice as likely to get a placement in competitive subjects despite having the same grades.
Recent conversations around the Rhodes Must Fall movement and #WhyIsMyCurriculumWhite have challenged the racial exclusion that, according to some, continues to overlook the experience of POC. Oxford’s vice-chancellor, Lord Pattern, has been reported as saying that students who don’t like the “generosity of spirit” shown to historical figures like Rhodes should “think about being educated elsewhere”. Here Hirsch argues that inclusion should not be tolerated, not based on the grounds of political correctness, but on the grounds of historical fact and academic integrity.
Attitudes towards diversity and racial sensitivity are moving forward at a glacial pace. Britain’s understanding of immigration is often used as a distraction to divide and conquer; Brit(ish) recognises how the status quo benefits from a belief that slavery bypassed Britain.
Main image: Afua Hirsch, image by Urszula Soltys
Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging by Afua Hirsch is published by Jonathan Cape and available to buy now.