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Othering, micro-aggressions and subtle prejudice: growing up black and British

Afua Hirsch’s memoir Brit(ish) adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK

As every economic or political immigrant knows, the real enigma of arrival is to look in two directions. Immigrants gaze back at the homelands and family they have left behind; and they look anxiously at the customs, language and laws of the country they have adopted. Making sense of both can take a lifetime.

Afua Hirsch, the author of Brit(ish), who has worked at Sky News and the Guardian, was born in Norway to a British father and Ghanaian mother and grew up in prosperous Wimbledon, south-west London. She studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford before graduating in law. Her experience of violent racism seems to be limited, but she writes of the cumulative toll of regular infractions while studying and working as a lawyer and journalist, described as acts of “othering”, “micro-aggressions” and “subtle prejudice”.

Of visiting a shop near her home, she writes: “The harshest lessons came in my late teens, visiting my best friend at work at a boutique in Wimbledon Village. The manager told her I could not come in. ‘It’s off-putting to the other customers,’ she said, ‘and the black girls are thieves. Tell her she’s not welcome.’” On another occasion, a man on the Underground threatened to beat Hirsch with his belt because “you people are out of control”. The incidents coincided with a growing curiosity about her mother’s homeland, which is common to many second-generation children. Hirsch first visited Accra with her mother in 1995: “I don’t think I had realised that there was a world in which black people could be in charge.” In the early 2000s, she worked for a development organisation and was based in Senegal for two years. A decade later, as recession and austerity gripped Europe, she returned to Accra as the Guardian’s West Africa correspondent.

Half a century ago, Hirsch would have been described as a “returnee”; in 2012, the changing nature of global wealth and identity saw the brief rise of a more assertive term, “Afropolitan”.

But Ghana failed to provide Hirsch with an enduring sense of arrival. “For someone like me, Britishness contains the threat of exclusion,” she writes. “An exclusion only made more sinister by discovering – after so many years of searching – that there is nowhere else to go.” Like Filipinos returning home after decades in the Arabian Gulf, Hirsch felt like a privileged outsider who ostensibly viewed a poor country from the safety of a guarded community.

This section of Brit(ish) provides some of the memoir’s most valuable insights. It also could have benefited from more detail; I would have liked to have learned if, like expat Indians who have returned to Mumbai or Bangalore over the last 20 years, Hirsch considered immersing herself in Ghana’s roaring economy by opening a business. She is currently collaborating on a clothing line inspired by Ghanaian culture.

In the end, personal safety prompted an abrupt withdrawal from Accra. Hirsch and her partner returned to the UK after they were attacked on a beach on the outskirts of the Ghanaian capital. In the harrowing incident, her earrings were ripped from her earlobes and her ring was stolen. The attack also marked an introduction to an under-resourced and inept justice system. On the day of the first court appearance of the assailants, Hirsch’s partner was asked to pick them up and drive them to the hearing.

The most interesting segments of the book aren’t those that dwell on racial theory; Hirsch has yet to coalesce her views on her British and Ghanaian heritage into a unified argument. That usually takes most writers a lifetime. Brit(ish) has more in common with memoirs by other immigrants and their children whose search for education and prosperity transitions to a longer quest for identity. ER Braithwaite, the author of To Sir, With Love, wrote about what it felt like to be a second-class citizen in the UK, despite decades of service to the education sector:

In spite of my years of residence in Britain, any service I might render the community in times of war or peace, any contribution I might make or wish to make, or any feeling of identity I might entertain towards Britain and the British, I – like all other coloured persons in Britain – am considered an “immigrant”.

Hirsch’s book is also less sure about how other immigrant groups view their British experience. For instance, she cites the return of present-day South Asians to the subcontinent as being partly due to racism, but a departing diaspora, resettling in India and Pakistan for reasons such as accumulated wealth or community, has been a fixture of British life since the 1950s. A more interesting detour would have seen an exploration of British Muslims, often wrongly charged with disloyalty to the UK by commentators who selectively pick out the most extreme views on integration and religion.

Instead, the memoir offers clearer ideas on how the UK could do more to acknowledge its role in the slave trade and colonialism. In the book’s most searing sections, Hirsch rightly suggests there is more to be achieved in correcting Britain’s memorials to empire – those permanent exhibitions in museums, statues and plaques that fail to acknowledge the sins of colonialism.

For instance, for 300 years, every British monarch gave direct or indirect support to the transatlantic slave trade until it was abolished in 1833. Of the 12 million slaves abducted from Africa, 40 per cent were transported on British ships. We are told slavery was outlawed on humanitarian grounds in a campaign fought by abolitionists. In reality, an overproduction of sugar crops led to reduced profits.

In Capitalism and Slavery, published in 1944, Eric Williams, the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, described the idea that slavery was abolished because of an appeal to humanitarian principles as “one of the greatest propaganda movements of all time”.

Hirsch argues these old ideas continue to hinder diversity. In 2013, only 23 students of black British African heritage were given paces to study at Oxford University. In 2016, one third of all people stopped by the police in England and Wales under “stop and search” laws were from ethnic minority backgrounds. Hirsch also highlights the worrying uptick in violence after the Brexit vote in June 2016. In the four months after the referendum, there was a 41 per cent increase in racially and religiously motivated crimes.

British public life is full of the talented children of Ghanaians who have written about racism and the push for acceptance, including rappers such as Tinchy Stryder, Dizzee Rascal and Sway. Just as Peter Fryer’s groundbreaking book, Staying Power: the History of Black People in Britain, did in 1984, Afua Hirsch’s memoir adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK. As she writes, an island nation that has benefited from centuries of immigration should reframe the question it asks some of its citizens: “I can’t be British, can I, if British people keep asking me where I’m from?” 

Burhan Wazir is an editor at WikiTribune and former head of opinion at Al Jazeera. Afua Hirsch will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Sunday 15th April.

Brit(ish): on Race, Identity and Belonging
Afua Hirsch
Jonathan Cape, 384pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist

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Robin Ince: Stephen Hawking made science relatable – why is it still so misunderstood?

We need more science and scientists in popular culture, so that children don’t give up on it as only for “boffins”.

I was 18 when A Brief History of Time was published. I had grown uninterested in science during the latter half of my secondary education, but I bought it anyway. I had fallen into the trap that Schopenhauer warned of, the failure to recognise that buying a book is not the same as reading it or indeed understanding it.

I read a little, then it went on a shelf. I read more of it than the surprise publishing hit of the previous year, Spycatcher. That book remains pristine in the shed, unlike A Brief History of Time, which is now pencil-marked, question-marked and annotated, if not fully understood.

The chuckled aside of “but no one’s actually read it” is really just another version of “what are those boffins on about, eh?”

The problem with popular physics books is that they are unlikely to be easy, especially if the last time you thought about physics was when you were using a bunsen burner as a weapon while distracted from discovering the energy of a peanut in class 3B.

Contemporary physics is counter-instinctual and eager to refute common sense. It takes time. If time exists, obviously.

As thrilling as it can be, you cannot read it at the speed of a thriller because it’s introducing you to a reality that appears so different to your reality.

It is easier to understand the actions of international spies in a Robert Ludlum novel than it is to understand the behaviour of particles and the curvature of space-time because we observe human fear and desire every day, even if we are not a rogue CIA agent.

Good physics books require frequent rest breaks – after all, they may well be turning your universe upside down, inside out or surrounding it with infinite other universes. There is no shame in being flummoxed by quantum indeterminacy and spending a while in a cool, dark room as you contemplate.

Carl Sagan, who wrote the original introduction to A Brief History of Time, wrote that children were born scientists, but they had it beaten out of them.

We are all curious, but with adulthood, our fear of embarrassment grows, and we temper our curiosity. Some close it down all together and embrace dogma and tribalism. At the time of birth, we all have potential to be scientists. Then culture, encouragement or lack of it, and expectations shape what we become. We do not have to give up on it; we just have to find the way in.

The connection with Stephen Hawking for many began with the peculiarity of his story. Here was a man who was physically immobile while his mind traversed the universe. Before you even tried to approach his science, there was a story.

People need stories to engage, facts are not enough.

Visiting schools during Science Week, I hear the frustration from teachers that they do not have time to tell the stories of science, just the information that came from them. They have to deliver the facts at a speed that reaches the target required for the next assessment. The lessons that show the passions and drives  and intrigue, the stories that can inspire, are a rare possibility. The curriculum needs space to enthuse.

Despite living in a world powered by scientific and technological innovation and in a civilisation whose future will be secured and enhanced by these innovations, mass media still treats the subject of “how the universe and everything in it from tadpoles to supermassive black holes came to be and where it is all going” as a niche subject.

We need more science and scientists in popular culture, more daily coverage so it does not become some otherness created by strange people who are not like us.

Let’s have more scientists with cameos on The Simpsons and Star Trek. Let’s not just have Benedict Cumberbatch on the chat show couch because he’s playing a scientist in a movie – let’s have the scientists on there, too.

It seems a pity to ignore the universe when there is so much of it.

It seems a pity to have a brain that has evolved to be curious, but not feed it questions – even if it does make it hurt sometimes.

Guinness World Records: Science & Stuff is out now.

Robin Ince is a writer and comedian. With Brian Cox, he guest edited the 2012 Christmas double issue of the New Statesman. He's on Twitter as @RobinInce.