Afua Hirch’s Brit(ish) has got me wondering – am I now Brit(ish) too?

10 May
Afua Hirsch

Afua Hirsch

The mark of a good literature festival event, I reckon, is that you’re still thinking about it long after you’ve left the auditorium.

More than 36 hours after I left a talk by Afua Hirsch, my cogs are still whirring.

But why? As a white, painfully liberal male of working class stock, Brit(ish) tells me things I already know, and accept, even if I recognise that some of my compatriots struggle with it. We’ve had over half a century to get used to multiculturalism – hey, I grew up with it. I’ve checked my bones, and I’m pretty sure not one of them is even unintentionally racist.

Afua was born British, but says she still feels like an outsider. Her paternal grandfather was a Jewish refugee who fled the Nazis in 1939. Her mother’s family came from Ghana in the 1960s. Both families worked hard to assimilate into British culture. But, says Afua, when people ask her where she’s from, they’re referring to the colour of her skin, not her Jewish surname.

Her parents sent her to a private girls’ school where, as the only pupil of colour, she was “very conscious of my blackness.” From there she studied PPE at Oxford. Growing up, she was asked so many times – “not by racists, who just tell you to fuck off, but by well-meaning people” – where she was from that she decided she must be Ghanaian. Surely she would feel at home in the West African country? She visited at the age of 15, and was greeted at the plane door by calls of “hey, white girl.”

She had some interesting things to say about race, class, privilege, and opportunity, our colonial past, the slave trade, and the removal of statues and monuments to slavers (I was disappointed not to get my question about Bristol’s most divisive son, Edward Colston, in before someone else did – the schools and concert hall that bear his name were paid for by the displacement and suffering of others. He wasn’t one of the good guys, and I won’t be sad if his name – along with that stupid statue – disappear from my city of birth forever).

Her book, though, is as much about a search for identity and sense of belonging as it is about racism. Despite her many successes – both domestically and professionally – she’s still struggling to ‘find her place’.

She says she wants to start a debate – or at least keep one going. It’s frustrating that in 2018 we still need to be having a discussion about racism, but whether it’s the charm offensive to get Britons to accept Meghan Markle as the next fresh conscript to the Royal Family, or around the immigration policy that sparked the Windrush scandal, or the political decisions that led to the Grenfell Tower tragedy, here we still are.

So what’s still got my synapses firing? Well, until a couple of years ago, I felt immensely proud of my membership of Cool Britannia. We’d given the world Blur and Oasis; The Prodigy and Massive Attack; Damien Hirst and Banksy; Irvine Welsh and Iain Banks; Danny Boyle and Guy Ritchie; Tim Berners-Lee and Stephen Hawking.

We were a little island, but we were punching above our weight. The world envied the NHS and the BBC. We’d ‘Kicked Racism Out of Football’ (even if we still weren’t winning any trophies). We were a tolerant, welcoming melting pot of cultures, all rubbing along.

And from gender equality to gay rights, and opportunities for disabled people, if we’d not completely cracked society’s problems, we were certainly heading in the right direction to solve them.

On 24 June 2016 I woke up in a country that seemed, suddenly, more hostile. A slim majority of voters had opted to leave the European Union. The value of the pound plummeted overnight, as did my country’s international reputation. I felt like I had been robbed of part of my identity – the European part. I took to Facebook to register my dismay and was told – by someone I didn’t know, but on a thread of someone I knew well – “if you like Europe so much, fuck off and live there.”

What’s more the racists and the bigots, the homophobes, the misogynists, and the ableists, were all empowered by the result. Cheered on by a poisonous press, Britain – they figured – was theirs for the re-taking.

I hate to be the guy that appropriates the #MeToo hashtag, but for the first time ever I felt I didn’t quite belong here.

The people who wanted us to Take Back Control (by which they did not mean wrestle legislative powers from Brussels, but rather stop any more immigrants coming here, and if possible repatriate the ones we have) are now steering the Good Ship Albion to what they insist are the Sunny Uplands, but look – through my telescope, at least – more like The Badlands.

A rabid right wing press is blowing wind into the sails of our leaking, creaking craft, and even my beloved Labour Party does not seem keen to grab the rudder and plot a new course.

As a dissenter, I’m at best guilty of the arrogance that would defy The Will of the People, at worst a traitor. I, along with many wishy-washy liberal elite snowflakes like me, are struggling to recognise the country we once loved, and are wondering what our place in this new insular, protectionist, isolated Britain is.

And I’m left wondering – am I now Brit(ish) too?

Words by Peter Davison, who is now wondering whether that headline would look out of place in capital letters under the masthead of the Daily Mail, and is having a liberal crisis of conscience about it.

Afua Hirsch appeared at Swindon Festival of Literature, 9 May 2018, at Swindon Arts Centre.

Image © Fernando Bagué

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