Activism, Books, Culture, Equality, Race, Representation, Social Issues

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

Featured image: A banner which shows the book cover on a deep red and black background.

Thanks to Vintage and NetGalley for the review copy.

I first heard Afua talk about her book on a Brexit podcast way back at the beginning of 2017. I was immediately excited and then disappointed to hear the release date was so far away. It’s finally here and I can say it was worth the wait!

Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging examines what it means to be black and mixed race in Britain today. It tackles a wide range of issues from both Afua’s personal viewpoint and a broader perspective, including how to identify when your friends ‘don’t see you as black’, the question (Where are you from?), the age of racism without racists and so much more.

The beginning this book had me brimming with joy. It has everything I want from this type of social commentary. It is autobiographical, full of personal stories and rich illustrations of Afua’s life. It is sociological, diving straight into examinations of how different social forces and identities work with and against each other. It is poetic, bringing across the key points beautifully. It is angry, refusing to hold back in its analysis of racism and social injustice. Afua is unafraid, both to call out and dissect racism in all its forms and to recognise how her own privilege has influenced her path in life.

It is a timely and much needed encyclopedia of race and racism in Britain, covering a number of topics in fascinating detail. My brain is straining trying to remember them all! There are far too many to list but a few include: the objectification of black bodies, the immigration debate, race matching in adoption, Britain’s selective amnesia when it comes its violent past, how to choose a child’s name and in fact how to pronounce a child’s name! At its core is a central theme of searching for an identity and a sense of belonging when no-one in your hometown looks like you but you are still tied to the cultural markings of where you grew up. It is truly challenging, yet very accessible and enjoyable. It has inspired me to add more books about Britain’s relationship with race to my reading list.

As accessible as Brit(ish) is, one aspect of the writing style makes it less so. Crammed full of different topics, often covering three or four in a single chapter, the book regularly jumps between them without an obvious bridge. I often found myself thinking ‘Hang on, how did we get here?!’ When you go back and trace the gap there is always a link, but it is sometimes tenuous so you have to pay really close attention to piece it all together!

Afua does an excellent job of examining how class and gender interlink with race in shaping an individual’s life story. She fully acknowledges the privileges of being born into the ultimate white middle class neighbourhood and getting to study at Oxford, contrasting hers with the typical working class black experience. Similarly, there is a lengthy discussion on the multiple discrimination black women have to endure, which is very well written and so necessary.

However, as is the case with most contemporary liberal/left social commentaries I have read in recent years, I was disappointed to see that little or no space was devoted to the experiences of disabled and LGBT black people. I feel it was a real missed opportunity not to bring in the voices of black disabled people when discussing beauty ideals and eugenics. Afua writes about being ‘disabled and handicapped by blackness’, of having ‘beauty special needs’ and of seemingly non-disabled black children being placed in special needs classes because of their race. I don’t necessarily disagree with the metaphors used and I have often wondered myself whether it is right to conflate the barriers faced by black and disabled people. However, I can’t help but feel uncomfortable that she uses the language of being ‘disabled’ whilst making barely any reference to the experiences of actual black disabled people. There is a small section that refers to the police violence inflicted on disabled young men but even that doesn’t centre them and uses inappropriate language like ‘suffers from autism.’ I know that most of the discussions stem in some way from Afua’s personal experiences and that she is not disabled or LGBT herself, but neither is she a care leaver nor a hypersexualised black man, yet those stories do get told. I also know that the experiences of black disabled and black LGBT people don’t get a lot of media attention, so they may not have been seen as ‘current issues’ worth addressing in the book, but that won’t change unless writers like Afua make an effort to bring them to the forefront.

Frustrations aside, I’m so glad I read this book! It is a rich, (mostly) comprehensive and critical analysis of where we are with racism in Britain. It’s not an academic argument, but a passionate, personal and entertaining illustration of just how far we have to go before we eradicate racial prejudice in the UK. I think everyone who reads this book (especially white people) will learn something from it, no matter their background or interests and I would recommend it as an important text for all.

8/10

Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging is out now.

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