One evening last week, I found myself sitting in the cinema watching Gary Oldman strutting around in what was presumably a fat suit and copious amounts of facial prosthetics. The visual transformation into Winston Churchill was quite remarkable (and I believe has been nominated for an award) and Oldman’s performance was certainly convincing. However, I found myself preoccupied, pondering our national obsession with World War Two.
On the surface, it’s all rather rousing isn’t it? The collective ‘memory’ of our little island triumphing over adversity – Britain loves an underdog after all. Who wouldn’t want to bask in the reflected glory of a conveyor belt of Britain’s finest actors proclaiming that we would fight them on the beaches? Who didn’t shed a tear at Christopher Nolan’s ‘Dunkirk’ when it all seemed so hopeless?
I don’t mean to belittle the sacrifices that were made and the appalling loss of life that came from both world wars. However, I object to the multitude of myths that have resulted from this national obsession. The myth that we were once a purely white society, those ‘golden days’ that have long since been blighted by immigration and sea of brown and black faces. The myth of the unassailable greatness of our most revered icons, such as Winston Churchill himself, who was happened to also be openly racist. The myth that ‘our boys’ who won the war were all white; Nolan’s film has faced accusations of ‘whitewashing’, erasing the vast numbers of Indian and African soldiers who were also on the beach, and also participated in the rescue effort. But therein lies our problem – to acknowledge non-white soldiers’ participation in the war effort, would be to acknowledge that they existed in the first place. To acknowledge that, would be to acknowledge race. One does not talk about race.
Afua Hirsch puts it perfectly:
“The problem is, there is still race, and there is still racism. Denying it does not solve the problem, it creates two further problems. First, it assumes that seeing race is something bad, that perhaps to admit to seeing race is to embark on the slippery slope towards racism. Given that most of the prejudice and othering I’ve experienced in my life has come courtesy of polite, smiling people who claimed not to see race, I know that this is not true.”
In her debut book, Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging, Hirsch explores this national state of denial; this collective amnesia that celebrates abolition, yet forgets our formative role in the slave trade. That waxes nostalgic about the Empire yet forgets that it has led to the destruction of peoples, cultures, and identities across the globe. That now leads us to believe that we can be “colour blind” without ever having done any of the messy, complicated, painful work of acknowledging and dismantling the structural racism that continues today.
Hirsch’s book covers an incredible breadth of ways in which this amnesia and ingrained racism manifests itself in modern society. Whether it’s in perceptions of beauty, access to education, poverty; or at the core of this work: identity.
Hirsch also provides us with a unique perspective, as she comes from a mixed heritage. Her mother is black and Ghanaian, while her father is white and the son of a Jewish German refugee. As such, this is not simply a book about being black in Britain, but something much more complex about being of mixed heritage and searching for an identity in a Britain that assumes you are not “from here” and a Ghana that sees you as a light-skinned, Western tourist. I also found it particularly interesting when Hirsch took the experiences of her Jewish ancestors and put them in the context of Brexit and perceptions of who does and doesn’t qualify as a “Good Immigrant”.
“The last recorded image from a human zoo – a hugely popular form of entertainment for white audiences from London to Stuttgart to North America and France – was taken in 1958. It shows a little black girl in the ‘Congolese Village’ at a human zoo in Brussels, no more than four or five years old, being fed by a member of the crowd who reaches an outstretched hand into the enclosure, dozens of others watching in amusement.”
This is a book that I have been waiting a long time for. Most of what I’ve read about race has been written by American authors; this does not negate the importance of their work, but I’ve yet to find their British counterparts that aren’t dry history books. At times I was shocked (especially by the above quote), others I was outraged, and others moved. I’m immensely grateful to Hirsch for taking what must be very personal and painful experiences and putting them against a backdrop of the British history that we do not get taught. I was particularly glad when she tackled Brexit and another of our national obsessions, immigration:
“The frustration and fear affecting these people was clearly justified – they faced uncertainty in key areas of their and their family’s future. But it was equally obvious to me that the root causes of these problems had relatively little to do with immigration. The family unable to access social housing in Hertfordshire were experiencing the repercussions of successive government decisions not to build or replenish anywhere near enough social housing stock to meet demand.”
The only thing that prevented me from giving this a five-star rating was that I felt some of the chapters were too long and a couple a bit convoluted. The chapter about class was eventually spot-on, but it took a long time moving through both the music industry and police brutality before she finally tied those things to how race intersects with class.
Overall, this is a fantastic book, and a critical contribution to the little accessible literature we have on race in Britain. Many people will take one look at this and think this is not the book for them. I’d argue that that very thought means it is.