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Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging

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Afua Hirsch is British. Her parents are British. She was raised, educated and socialised in Britain. Her partner, daughter, sister and the vast majority of her friends are British. So why is her identity and sense of belonging a subject of debate? The reason is simply because of the colour of her skin.

Blending history, memoir and individual experiences, Afua Hirsch reveals the identity crisis at the heart of Britain today. Far from affecting only minority people, Britain is a nation in denial about its past and its present. We believe we are the nation of abolition, but forget we are the nation of slavery. We sit proudly at the apex of the Commonwealth, but we flinch from the legacy of the Empire. We are convinced that fairness is one of our values, but that immigration is one of our problems.

Brit(ish) is the story of how and why this came to be, and an urgent call for change.

367 pages, Kindle Edition

First published February 1, 2018

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Afua Hirsch

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Profile Image for Melanie.
556 reviews289 followers
January 17, 2018
Afua Hirsch has in opinion written the most important book I ever read on the race divide in Britain, that should be read not just by those that are already singing in the choir but by everyone. If you know me, you may well get this book for your next birthday.

She explores in great detail "The Question" (as in: where are you from), origins of racism, how non-white bodies are seen, heritage, class and what it means to not be white in British society today. It is detailed and personal, but objective at the same time and it is oh so accessible, but that does not mean this is an easy book to read. Accessible in a way that she wants you to understand and explains everything in detail, but Afua Hirsch does also ask you to look in the mirror. I had many moments of confronting my own colour blindness, stupid and thoughtless things I have said to Black or Asian people.

Like her, I hope that this book is a start of a conversation. Reading it will certainly give you food for thought and also plenty of arguments for dealing with people who keep telling you "we are overrun with immigrants." or "in Britain we see no colour, there is a black chap at my workplace and he is a nice guy".

Please read this. Let's talk.
Profile Image for Paul Fulcher.
Author 2 books1,304 followers
April 1, 2023
From one of the judges of the 2019 Booker Prize

In Britain, we are taught not to see race. We are told that race does not matter. We have convinced ourselves that if we can contort ourselves into a form of blindness, then issues of identity will quietly disappear.
We want to be post-racial, without having ever admitted how racial a society we have been.

Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging is an important and well written contribution to the debate in Britain alongside Why I'm No Longer Talking to White People About Race and The Good Immigrant.

I was initially drawn to the book for two reasons.

Firstly, and perhaps the best general recommendation of this book, because it provoked a critical review from David Goodhart, cheerleader for the neo-liberal Powellites, Prospect Magazine editor turned Daily Mail polemicist. If his passions are aroused in opposition then it is likely Hirsch has made some telling points.

Secondly, and to declare a personal interest, while I don't know the the author, I live in the same Wimbledon that she portrays so effectively (and critically), my daughter's attend the same school that Hirsch herself attended and her daughter now attends. And I myself am white but my children have dual British-Korean nationality and ethnicity. So in many respect I and my family and both part of the problem of British 'blindness' to race and subject to the same issues about identity and belonging.

Hirsch is a barrister by training and a journalist by current profession, and her writing style benefits from both: this is both a forensic and well-argued thesis, supported by multiple references (one advantage of reading this on the Kindle being the ease of accessing them) and at the same time highly readable, the facts and statistics illustrated with personal anecdote from Hirsch, her friends and family and interviewees.

It is also a very personal account, and all the better for it, and Hirsch is honest about her own privileged upbringing and her own struggles to come to terms with her identity, for example her unsuccessful attempts to move from her middle-class Wimbledon background and live in Africa:

As I practised my Twi exercises, sitting on the sofa, my legs crossed, saying ‘wo firi hen?’– which means ‘where do you come from?’– he accused me of speaking in exactly the same way I would enquire after a neighbouring mum’s origins in the middle of a London NCT class.

It must be said that Hirsch does focus, although she herself has other ethnic identities (born in Norway, her paternal grandfather a German Jew who fled to the UK in 1938) on the black british experience as being particularly challenging. For example quoting the work of Professor Miri Song, author of Multiracial Parents: Mixed Families, Generational Change, and the Future of Race and one of the UK's leading researchers on mixed-race studies:

People who are classified as South Asian white, East Asian white and Arab white, for example, have been found to place little emphasis on their ethnic minority heritage, often describing their identity as ‘British’ or ‘white’, regarding ‘British’ as a term which is ‘inclusive’, ‘race neutral’, or denoting ‘cultural belonging’. And another survey of mixed-race people from a wide range of backgrounds found that only 17 per cent ranked their skin colour as an important factor in their lives. But for mixed-race people with black heritage, the picture is completely different – 63 per cent of them chose skin colour as an important factor in their lives. Hardly any of them chose ‘British’ as a term that describes their identity.

Hirsch's rejects the BAME label precisely because it muddles up the experience of different groups:

The concept of BAME has a lot to answer for, creating as it has the impression that as long as the minority box can be ticked, the job of improving diversity is done. But BAME encompasses people of Chinese or black African heritage, who are outperforming others in school exam results for example, as well as those of black Caribbean backgrounds, who – for a complex assortment of race- and class-based reasons – are more likely to be significantly behind. It includes Indian doctors, considerably over-represented at consultant level in the NHS, as well as Africans and Eastern Europeans, who make up a disproportionate number of hospital cleaners, in some cases paid below the living wage.

Hirsch's specific focus on Britain highlights the particular issues we have here that result from an odd combination of politeness and pride:

We have tied ourselves in knots attempting to become a post-racial society without ever truly understanding racialised identities. A deep-seated belief in whiteness, in the racial, intellectual and cultural superiority of white Britain, a sense that there is some inherent conflict between white British values and accomplishments and those of everyone else, remains in so many forms. These distortions are so ingrained in our historical narrative, so tangled up in our culture, that it’s a challenge to tease them out, let alone hold them up to the light and examine them for what they are. The true failure of our nation is not the things that have happened in the past, but our failure to acknowledge this past, the prejudices, problems and hypocrisy that have – as a result – become woven into the fabric of everyday British life, everywhere.

She actually shares Goodhart's focus on identity as key to people's self-worth but correctly diagnoses an attachment to nostalgic visions of a Britain that never existed as a key part of the problem, and rejects his suggestion that reducing immigration is the solution:

Why can’t their identity and heritage be acknowledged, without it compromising their belonging in Britain, which is, after all, their country too?

Goodhart in his review and his own writings comes dangerously close to the 'they should be grateful' line of thinking and endorsing what Nikesh Shukla memorably described as Good Immigrant syndrome. For example he says:
It is to the more creative parts of the minority elite — black and Asian conservatives and free-thinkers such as ... Kemi Badenoch MP ... — that one must look for direction.
Had he read the book more closely, rather than simply seeks for passages that confirmed his prejudices, he may have seen that Kemi Badenoch is actually featured in the book, not particularly well disguised, based on her unsuccessful 2010 run for Teresa Jowell's Dulwich and West Norwood seat:

A friend of mine, let’s call her Femi, ran as a Conservative parliamentary candidate in a staunchly Labour part of London. It was an ambitious first foray into politics for a young black woman, who has found since migrating here from Nigeria as a teenager that the Tories speak most to the pull-yourself-up-by-the-boot-straps, socially conservative and Republican values that have such resonance in West Africa.

What Femi found was that Conservative voters expressed surprise at the appearance of a young black woman, with her long braids and faint Nigerian accent, on their doorsteps. They were taken aback, but would quickly collect themselves and wish her well. But the Labour supporters were furious. ‘How dare you!’ they would say to her, their faces contorted by the spectacle of a betrayal. ‘After everything we’ve done for your people! This is how you repay us?’ Femi was shocked. ‘It was as if, because I am an immigrant, they own me,’ she said. ‘I have never experienced that kind of racism from Conservatives.’

Hirsch doesn't have easy answers - but then that isn't her intention. What she wants to do is prompt an honest debate:

Any sensible person would, I think, like to see a post-racial future. In my particular version, heritage would be preserved and identity recognised as an emotional bedrock for all the members of our species, and we would have the right to self-define our personal identities, and yet not be defined by them.

But we cannot achieve this, or any post-racial future, until we confront the fact that this is a racial present.

What’s the solution? Overcoming the uniquely British combination of convenient ignorance and awkward squeamishness that prevents us from confronting the past. Facing up to the fact that whiteness is not the only civilisation, letting go of intractable ideas of white superiority and genuinely embracing the meritocracy we claim to already stand for.

Highly recommended.


I highlighted numerous passages while reading the book - a selection below:

The muting of the conversation in the UK:

The confusion I experienced, as a mixed-race girl descended from Jewish and African immigrants in a European country in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, is no different from those that have gone before. It’s not the muddled inheritance itself that is the problem. There is no such thing as racial purity in any event. It’s the muting of the conversation – the fact that we cannot in Britain today cope with exploring and accommodating these identities in a healthy way – that is the issue. This failure is capable of turning both our individual and our national heritage from a rich and complex asset into an identity crisis of epic proportions.

Perhaps Hirsch's most controversial view (the one that particularly irked Goodhart and also The Daily Mail):

White supremacy is ever-present in British society. I’m not talking about hooded hillbillies in the Deep South burning crosses, or skinheads with Nazi tattoos – although they do exist – but the underlying ideology for a system where generations of people were conditioned to believe in the inferiority of non-white, non-Christian, non-Europeans. An empire was built on this idea; the enduring concept of ‘Western civilisation’ is an expression of this idea. It is not something that disappears overnight, especially when it has never actually been defeated or overthrown. You cannot get over a wrong without the wrong having been named, owned and acknowledged. You cannot change without articulating what needs changing.

The Question:

If I were to single out the most persistent reminder of that sense of not belonging, it would be The Question. The Question is: where are you from? Although I have lived in five different countries as an adult, nowhere have I been asked The Question more than right here where I started, where I am from, in Britain. It can be difficult to communicate to British people who innocently ask The Question, usually out of a harmless, well-meaning curiosity, what is wrong with it.

Note she distinguishes this from a genuine curiosity about anyone - irrespective of skin colour - as to their family history and origins, one she herself is curious about ... "but that's a question, not The Question".

The false nostalgia we often have (there were Africans in the British Isles before Anglo-Saxons):

As well as being wrong, the idea that there were no immigrants in the nostalgic Britain of old is also irrelevant, because while it claims to be about foreigners coming to the UK, it’s really about something else. The true purpose of modern claims about immigration is to create a scapegoat for society’s deeper, more intractable problems.

And on my and her Wimbledon (contrasting to her husband's home town of Tottenham) and our daughters' school:

My childhood world was very, very different. Wimbledon: a plane- and oak-tree-lined London borough, with Edwardian houses, laid out methodically on the steep streets of this patch of high suburbia famous for the tennis championships, an annual celebration of typically British stoicism in the face of summer rain, strawberries and cream, and the ever-elusive fantasy of national triumph in global sport. My memories are filed under the botanical English seasons that thread through them; berry-stained rambles on Wimbledon Common, gathering crumble fillings for autumn puddings, sledging on snow days, nature trails in spring and picnics in summer. It was a soft and silky childhood, with treats, adventures, absorbing schoolwork and intense friendships, challenges that I embraced and seasons that I loved; tossing in bed on long summer evenings, listening to the sounds of older children still playing on the street, kicking up the leaves on the walk home as the autumn nights drew in, hot chocolate on stormy nights, fires in the hearth in winter, school uniform bulking and shedding as the planet turned away from and back towards the sun.

It was the perfect place to raise a family, in all but one respect. I had brown skin, an African name, hair that coiled tightly, knotted and frizzed when brushed, and never flopped around my face.
Most of the well-heeled residents of my home suburb prefer to say they do not see race at all. And because race allegedly did not exist, in this all-white world, the whiteness that made me so self-conscious was regarded as completely normal. It was I who was at odds with my environment – I did not conform. But, since there was no such thing as race, there was no space in which it could matter. But it did matter to me. Even before I had a vocabulary to express it, race began to manifest itself in my life.
I already knew that I looked different – kids work that out for themselves – but that there was something bad about my difference, something inherently undesirable about being black: that, I had to be taught. The first teachers were my peers at school. From the age of seven to the age of eighteen, I went to the same school, where I was one of a minuscule number of children with brown skin. In primary school, my classmates’ favourite name for me was ‘troll’– more a reference to my hair than my skin colour. In the 1980s, the days before social media, high-budget Dreamworks movies or Justin Timberlake songs, ‘troll’ described unglamorous little plastic key-ring toys with Day-Glo, gravity-defying hair.
Profile Image for K.J. Charles.
Author 59 books8,604 followers
June 10, 2020
A strong look at British racism--both the overt manifestations and grotesque history, but also the way many Brits try to pretend racism doesn't exist--summed up well in our national self-congratulation for 'abolishing' the slave trade that we invented, supported, and still profit from in the case of many organisations, families, and big houses.

We want to be post-racial, without having ever admitted how racial a society we have been.

The author is solidly upper middle class, so a lot of the focus is on the microaggressions, 'innocent' questions, 'well-meaning' assumptions, and other manifestations of the 'polite' hatefulness at which this country excels. And there's a lot on the particular manifestations of racism addressed to black women. It makes a very interesting pair with Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire, which also combines history, personal accounts and current politics, but which comes from a very different class background and is almost entirely male-focused.
Profile Image for R..
31 reviews49 followers
April 23, 2023
First and foremost, I need to say that this book is extremely relevant to understand the contemporaneous British context, especially amid the whole Brexit catastrophe. That being said, I believe there is room for improvement.

Firstly, it tends to feel repetitive. I understand that the whole point of the author is that she *feels* neither British nor Ghananian. I just think that after the first chapter that was clear to me, a person who has been living out of her country for two years now and that also feels split up between two nations and two languages. That is something, however, that really strikes me, how can she feel so Ghananian, when she doesn’t even speak the language? How could she think she wouldn’t be seen as British by the eyes of natives Ghanaians? She speaks English to her husband and child; when she lived there, she chose to live in a gated community where (I guess) all the fancy ex-pats live; she is a rich, Oxford-educated person who was brought up in Wimbledon and still resides there. What’s Ghananian about that? It seems to me very naive to move there and then cry when you are perceived as an ‘Other’. And let’s not mention when she moves to Senegal and she explains that she doesn’t feel "at home”. This is simply just absurd, I am Spanish, if I move to Portugal to look for my “Iberian” roots, of course I am not going to feel at home. It just amazes me that she thought that moving to “Mama Africa” was going to be such a life-changing experience, she went full on Orientalism here...

Secondly, I appreciate that the author acknowledges her incredibly amount of privilege. After all, she has been brought up in Wimbledon, went to fancy, private schools and then to Oxford; that is why at times the book feels like the whining of a spoiled woman who is used to having all the privileges that an extremely comfortable economic position can buy. Yes, people ask you where you are from but otherwise, your ‘existence’ seems pretty White to me.

And this leads to point three. She could have used all that Oxbrigde critical thinking to include another category in her -arguably weak- analysis of several social aspect such as race and class. Where is gender in this book? Nowhere to be found. She even goes as far as to say that “ever since whiteness was invented, we have not had a free market. What we have had is a massive intervention in the market in favour of white people”. Excuse me? Is the market biased in favour of white women? Maybe for the Oxbridge-educated ones, perhaps, and I’m pretty sure the gender pay gap affects them too. But from working class white women, who didn’t go to fancy schools, nor to Oxford, and who couldn’t study to become a barrister in London, I can assure you that it is not. Her blindness towards gender and intersectionality in general is astonishing to me. I believe this to be the main weakness of the book.

My fourth and last point is that, although I liked the mixing of personal stories with interviews, the methodology doesn’t look very clear to me. How many people did she interview? What was the age range? What is her sample supposed to show? Was it a significant amount of subjects? I acknowledge that I may be biased in this point because as a PhD candidate who interviews people on a regular basis, I have my sample extremely well defined, and in a non-academic book this aspect is less relevant.

In conclusion, I still believe that the books makes very good points about race in Britain, especially about the refusal of (mainly) English people to accept that ‘Britishness’ is as much tea at five as battered chicken. However, I think if somebody would ask me to recommend her a book about race in Britain, I would rather mention Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I Am No Longer Talking To White People About Race, it feels less whiny, more real, and more rage-infused.
Profile Image for Trevor.
1,301 reviews22k followers
April 22, 2019
If you are a particularly busy person and only have time to read one book on this subject, then you should read Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire by Akala. It is better written and packs in more information per page. This provides more of a look at the genteel version of racism that nice middle class people specialise in. You’ll come away knowing why saying ‘I don’t see race’ or ‘I’m colour-blind’ makes you part of the problem. As the author says somewhere, a particularly horrible life-moment for her was when her white friends said to her in confidence that they didn’t see her as black. The amusing thing about that, of course, is that they would hardly have needed to say that if it was true, and it also tells you exactly how they perceived the people they did see as black. Something of a total nightmare. I guess they were also expecting to be thanked for not seeing her in that way.

Recently, I read the Autobiography of Malcolm X – and I was surprised by how often he spoke about his hair. Then I read an article that said that New York city had, in 2019, made it illegal to discriminate against people (read: African Americans) on the basis of the way their hair grows naturally out of their head. Did I mention this happened in 2019. You know, this year. Basically, now. I guess it is a matter of the greatest privilege (totally unacknowledged by me) that I haven’t really had to think about my hair since I went one step further than David Crosby and actually did cut my hair. This book speaks of the branding that natural hair brings and the lengths people will go to so as to tame (read: make white) their hair.

This wasn’t a bad book, it was actually very interesting in places, but Akala’s is much better, which is odd, since the author of this one is a journalist.
Profile Image for Roman Clodia.
2,490 reviews2,712 followers
December 19, 2017
Britishness is an identity that is excluding a growing number of people who, like me, should be among its core constituents.

There are serious and important discussions to be had around the topic of race, colour and British identities that Hirsch is dealing with and it's good that she has set out her stall so firmly - however, this is a messy book in lots of ways that seems to suffer from its own identity crisis (is it a personal memoir of an individual's experience? a history of race relations in Britain? an analysis of the systemic constructs which create 'race'?)

At times Hirsch speaks for herself - at others she seems to take it upon herself to speak for all those 'others', whether black, brown-skinned, Asian, mixed race... which seems a tad patronising, assuming that you can voice someone else's experience, tell their story, articulate their problems, on their behalf.

There are moments when Hirsch falls back into mindless simplicity: in speaking of Islamic terrorism, for example:

'The problem, to me, is the reason they choose an extreme version of their faith and use it to craft all-encompassing identities. In many cases, it seems less like the result of a proactive decision, and more the result of finding doors to other identities in Britain closed in their face.'

Well, gosh! How insulting! That anyone who finds themselves the object of racism will fall into terrorism! As if you can't be the victim of racism and still maintain a moral integrity and self-identity that excludes extremism and violence!

To be fair, Hirsch isn't usually this simplistic. Her stories of her own experiences of racism as a mixed-race girl in middle-class Wimbledon are shocking. All the same, I was interested in the fact that she identifies so strongly with being black (or 'black') when she's half Ghanaian, a quarter Yorkshire English, and a quarter Jewish. Rather than embracing her own 'multiculturalism', she seems to have narrowed down her own identity, notwithstanding her self-confessed privilege (private school, Oxford, Inns of Court).

At times this is perhaps too strident, at others too subjective and polemical - all the same, it's worth reading, even if you disagree, as a way of finding your own stance on what it means to be British in today's world. 3.5 stars.

Thanks to Random House, Vintage for an ARC via NetGalley.

Profile Image for Dannii Elle.
2,063 reviews1,474 followers
September 30, 2022
Actual rating 4.5/5 stars.

This wonderfully insightful book reads as part-memoir, part historical text. It focuses on the history of British slavery and colonialism as well as the trials faced by different ethnic groups in Britain today. It also focuses on Hirsch's personal experiences as a black woman residing in London and the struggles over her own identity she has continually faced. The book is split into sections that each focus on one topic, although experiences and historical time periods are shared over each.

This incorporated as many new ideas for me to contemplate, as it did provide a new or enhanced perspective on issues I was already aware those of different ethnicities faced. The purpose of this book was not to provide instruction on white allyship - although it certainly, albeit inadvertently, succeeded in this for me - but to educate its readers on issues so rarely raised or purposefully overlooked in mainstream media and to highlight the rampant prejudice and inequality faced in both historical and contemporary times.
Profile Image for Aoife - Bookish_Babbling.
316 reviews324 followers
May 4, 2021
Another wonderfully author narrated audiobook addition to the growing and permanently evolving conversation.

Afua shines a light on life in the UK by looking back, around and forward combining history, culture, memoir & current events to educate and probe further questioning of what we are taught.
Profile Image for Eleanor.
683 reviews180 followers
January 11, 2018
Afua Hirsch's memoir/work of cultural analysis, Brit(ish) (can we talk about the genius of that title?), is out on the 1st of February. Hirsch's heritage is mixed: her mother is Ghanaian and her father the child of German Jewish refugees. Both her parents had a strong cultural identity of their own, but for Hirsch and her sister, being mixed-race in Wimbledon in the '90s meant they didn't belong anywhere. Hirsch is never less than willing to cop to her own privilege as a lighter-skinned black person in Britain: her account of meeting her boyfriend (now husband) Sam, a black man of Ghanaian descent from Tottenham, brilliantly dissects the differences in their upbringings, with Sam constantly focused on achieving professional success because the slightest lapse in concentration might drive him off-course forever, whereas Afua's achievements at school, university, and the world of work feel like something she's almost sleepwalked into. But her primary thesis is that, although Britain likes to call itself a "post-racial" or "multicultural" society, this is a national self-image built on a lie: the absolute refusal of white British people to acknowledge a history of deep and terrible institutional racism. She makes an extremely compelling case, citing the American civil rights movement and Black Lives Matter as upheavals that could only occur because American society has been forthright about the fact that it was founded on racism and slavery. By contrast, British society lauds the abolition of the slave trade, but history curricula and national days of observance rarely, if ever, acknowledge the fact that for Britain to have abolished a trade in the first place, it first had to participate in that trade; in this case, for over four centuries. Hirsch is also a fantastically engaging writer, leavening rage-inducing statistics with personal anecdote and investigative journalism. Her book ought to help kickstart the conversation Britain so badly needs to have with itself.
Profile Image for Teleseparatist.
1,028 reviews125 followers
February 8, 2018
I read this book courtesy of NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

I enjoyed most of this book: I found it informative and fascinating when general and interesting and even poignant when occasionally personal (Afua Hirsch's discussion of her own name was particularly great). The subject was not precisely new and fresh for me, but my knowledge of race/racism/anti-racist discourse is, for many reasons, influenced largely by American approaches and sources. I found it interesting to see the similarities, some largely unknown to me (more information about riots in the UK, police brutality, beauty / fetishisation / commodification of Black cool) - but also the differences and their analysis. I knew very, very little about Ghana prior to reading this book, and now I certainly feel less ignorant (or at least my ignorance has a more concrete shape). It did what it promised to do, and was never boring (though transitions and some asides felt very journalistic - which is not bad in itself, but I wouldn't have minded shorter essays with more narrow themes instead of fairly general broad topics. I thought the part about body and sex was a very mixed bag, for instance - occasionally great, occasionally almost prurient if not clickbaity; the opening made me roll my eyes - felt like very by-the-numbers newspaper article).

One of my favourite parts concerned whiteness and the way in which Britishness (Englishness) perceives itself as a threatened identity (for reasons altogether separate from migration) and reacts by exclusion and harkening back to (in)glorious imperial past - while so ignorant of what that past was actually like (thanks to heritage industry). As Hirsch argues, a more stable and conscious national identity can lend itself to openness, to building community based on shared values and positive features, on feeling a part of society rather than on excluding others to feel better and forget one's insecurity.

All the same, I wish the analysis had at times gone a little deeper, and with a little less repetition / occasional contradiction or misstep (I sort of think she misstates what the American brown paper bag test was (purported to be), and I disagree with her suggestion that it took the Brexit vote for *European* migrants in the UK to feel that they're facing discrimination - right after mentioning Eastern Europeans killed in the UK for speaking their first language; these extreme examples didn't suddenly sprout fully-formed out of nowhere. Hirsch is much more at home and convincing talking Black British experience than trying to extrapolate or compare with American racism or Eastern European migrant life).

Now I'm going to sit and wish someone would write a book like this about being ethnically marginalised identity and European, about how different things being European (white?) and being European (EU citizen) can mean, and maybe also what it says about the UK that Brexit happens just as EU becomes less white / its whiteness ~feels~ threatened.
Profile Image for Inderjit Sanghera.
450 reviews89 followers
September 12, 2020
In many ways the ideas propagated by Afua Hirsch in ‘Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging’ can be encapsulated in the debate she took part in around the importance of having a more complete view of British icons like Churchill by making people aware of their racist views and policies as well as the things they are venerated for. Hirsch was harangued by the panel members and her views misconstrued, with Nick Ferrari asking her why she chose to remain in the U.K. British history and colonialism is so often seen through a myopic lens as being a benign force whose sole aim was to civilise the world that the concept of Britishness itself ends up becoming a single story, one which only really reflects your life if you are white, male and economically privileged and on which discounts other narratives, particularity if you are an ethnic minority.

This monopolization of peoples identities along very narrow lines inevitably leads to a feeling of otherness and alienation amongst people who don’t fit into the norm and Hirsch’s book dissects the different ways this is done, whether it be the lack of representation of different historical narratives in education, the difficulties in navigated the workplace in various fields from law to the media, the sexual fetishisation of people of colour, the lack of diversity in films and television and the widespread socio-economic disparity for people for different ethnic minorities.

All of this contributes to an identity crisis and a sense of otherness amongst many ethnic minorities, whereby mainstream concepts of Britishness feel alien to them as they are too often conflated with whiteness which does not reflect the diversity of British history and society, both of which have been shaped and transformed by the cultures which immigrant communities have brought with them.
Profile Image for Claire.
Author 3 books145 followers
February 10, 2018
How I wish this book had been around when I was growing up. Afua Hirsch's Brit(ish) is a combination of memoir and cultural criticism, connecting the personal with the political as she explores themes of race, place, and identity. Her research is meticulous, and Hirsch draws on her experience as a journalist to intersperse her own reflections with interviews that give great insight into the realities - for there are multiple realities - of Black British identity.

Hirsch also considers what she describes as the "everyday racism" of life in modern day Britain, from overt to covert, and the implications for the psyche of anyone who absorbs it. Having the abuse and microaggressions I experience named and acknowledged, their root cause analysed in unsparing detail, was such a relief. There was something cathartic about reading this book - it made me feel less alone as a Black biracial woman.

Brit(ish) is an introspective book, beautifully written and very well-reasoned. There were a couple of points when it felt a bit slow, but otherwise it was wonderful to read. I particularly enjoyed Hirsch's reflections on identity, and the story of her grandfather - Paul Kofi - who worked alongside Kwame Nkrumah. There was a kind of magic in the epistemology of Brit(ish), in that the oral tradition of stories passed through families and communities were treated as legitimate sources of knowledge in a "serious" text, connected with and valued alongside "hard" research & history. Also, the title is genius.

I'd recommend this book to anyone who enjoys reading about history, culture, or politics. I'd also strongly recommend it to Black women who are grappling with British identity.
Profile Image for Mary Adeson.
149 reviews6 followers
February 20, 2018
I get really excited when I come across a British author boldly speaking about race and identity, as I've often felt the UK treats the matter as an American issue, or a dirty word.

Hirsch makes an excellent observation by using both Prince Harry's and Colin Firth's experiences to demonstrate that often we are blinded to issues of identity until it affects us personally.

I know first hand that society today is not colour blind. Hirsch's and the experiences of her friends and colleagues are all too familiar. But irrespective of the colour of your skin, everyone will be able to relate to the shared stories as everyone seeks a sense of belonging.

This is an essential read.
Profile Image for Ryan.
270 reviews63 followers
March 15, 2021
A good book that needed to be written, but unfortunately little was new to me. Would hate to think anyone melanated aged over 30 would need to read this.
Profile Image for Nailya.
102 reviews14 followers
September 4, 2021
This is an important book and I think anyone who lives in the UK and who hasn't thought about race should read it. However, I had some major issues with it. As a disclaimer: I am not black, but I'm a non-EU immigrant to the UK. I also am a member of an ethnic minority in my country of birth, I live on a low income in the UK and I'm queer.

As some of the other reviewers pointed out, Afua Hirsch has an enormous amount of privilege. Middle class upbringing, private school, Oxford, working in very competitive and eventually well paid jobs, the lot. Although I could relate to many of her discussions of Oxford and Oxbridge, that it precisely why I think this 'Oxbridge perspective' actually does a disservice to the book. I've met many people like Hirsch. In many ways, I am a person like her - someone who has some structural limitations on my life, but ultimately someone who also has the framework, the apparatus and the cultural environment of an Oxbridge education. Maybe it's what the right-wing press calls the 'Metropolitan elite' thinking. Either way, it is precisely in my comfort zone, but that is exactly why I found it limiting: I've learned very little from this book in terms of perspective or ideas. The first chapter explained exactly why it wouldn't have happened, but I would very much rather read a book written by Hirsch's husband.

Something I liked about the book and the author is the insistance that immigrants do not owe anyone to be of a particular political persuasion. This idea deserves a whole other essay, if not a book, but, in short, I have a lot of sympathy for it. However, I felt like Hirsch's own political views affected what she wrote quite a bit. I don't know what they are, but she came across as a Tory/Conservative. She painted quite a sympathetic portrait of Theresa May - probably the most positive representation of a politician in the book. However, even Hirsch's chapter on immigration completely ignored the Hostile Environment and who was responsible for it. Although it is true that Labour, or most other parties, have not been brilliant on immigrants' rights in the 2000s and have certainly been hostile in the 2010s, immigration is the one issue which cannot be brushed under the carpet of political whataboutism. Theresa May is personally responsible for what has happened to immigrants, people like me, since 2012. Atrocious family reunion rights, retroactive application of immigration law changes, a mental health crisis, countless broken lives. And, most importantly in relation to this book, the Windrush Scandal. Which is not mentioned at all. Fair enough, the book could have been written just before it became a major news story. However, the Windrush Scandal was a direct result of 2012 policies, which Hirsch, as a journalist and a reporter, has to have known about. Either she deliberately choose not to look/hear/bother about the Hostile Environment before 2016, or she is a subpar reporter. Either of these doesn't bode well for her as an author about a book about British blackness.

Another major issue with the book is that Hirsch seems to alternate between talking about black and BIPOC issues, slightly patronisingly assuming expertise on South Asian, Eastern European and other immigration issues. At the same time, there are quite a few parts of the Black community and experience she doesn't talk about. All the Muslims in this book are South Asian - even though a large number of Black British people are Muslim. She doesn't talk much about gender, or sexuality, within the Black community, and the effects those have on identity and belonging in the Black community (she mentions queerness in passing in one sentence - that would have been a very interesting and much needed CHAPTER!). Even though the book is supposedly about Black Britishness, it is primarily if not exclusively about England - she mentions that the situation is different in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but she doesn't include any stories or interviews to highlight some of those issues. Is Black Britishness in Scotland different? How? Why? Basically, large parts of the book don't seem relevant, whereas many key issues are not covered.

Finally, some of her generalised references to passing subjects are subpar. For example, she talks a lot about history, but some of the specifics she mentions are dodgy. She claims that thousands of Africans were brought to England during the reign of Elizabeth I, which is simply not true, even though she had previously mentioned the work of Miranda Kauffman (Black Tudors), which clearly shows that there were around 300 documented Africans in Tudor and early Stuart England. I agree with her larger argument - there were many people from different cultures in early modern England and early modern England was responsible for the beginnings of the slave trade - but sloppy errors like this actually reduce the credibility of what she is saying more broadly. I happen to know about this specific example, but how many other instances are there where Hirsch makes a passing remark and the reader takes her at her word?

Overall, a good and important book, but there are several caveats to keep in mind.
Profile Image for Chris Chapman.
Author 3 books27 followers
March 9, 2019
Both a memoir and a history / sociology of diversity in the UK. This is a country which has so much going for it, as Hirsch again and again emphasises; despite the lambasting she gets on social media and in the tabloid press, she is not on a Britain-bashing mission. Instead, this is a beautifully written, humane, and generous plea for the country to do better at accommodating and being proud of its many cultures.

i found the discussion of multiculturalism fascinating. The way she describes it, it's like an informal version of consociationalism - or power-sharing - a useful but highly problematic model used to help countries emerge from ethnic conflict. Consociationalism means dividing power between monolithic ethnic blocks - the most extreme example being Bosnia Herzegovina, whose government was taken to the European Court of Human Rights by two politicians, a Jew and a Roma, because the constitution said they couldn't stand for President, due to their ethnicity. In Bosnia, only Serbs, Bosnians and Croats can stand for a whole range of political positions. In Hirsch's description, multiculturalism is quite similar - you're a Hindu, a Pakistani Muslim or a Jamaican, and the government will promote your culture - essentially saris, samosas or steel bands - accordingly. Furthermore, self-appointed elites of your communities will be consulted when it needs to design new policies, programmes or laws. The system struggles to deal with more complex multiple identities - as in Bosnia, where, if you had a Bosnian father and a Croat mother, you'd have to choose one of those identities if you wanted to stand for parliament.

How is this problematic? Well consider the debate about whether to include caste in the UK's race discrimination legislation. The government initially consulted community elites about it. Guess what? They said there was no problem of caste in the UK and it shouldn't be included. Might that have had something to do with the fact that those same elites were from elite castes? Unfortunately, as an employment tribunal found in the case of Tirkey vs. Chandok, caste discrimination is alive and well in the UK.

In Hirsch's view, multiculturalism is now universally discredited. One potential criticism of the book is that she is not crystal clear about what should replace it. But maybe she doesn't want to set herself up as having all the answers. And who would blame her.
Profile Image for Katia N.
585 reviews705 followers
April 11, 2018
This book seems to divide the reading audience - many very low and very high ratings. I put a 3 stars because I do not want to add to the division on such a difficult issue as a race. However, I do not think this book is profound enough.

For various reasons, I am interested in the questions of identity and different aspects of it. I thought this book would be good to find out more. It is specifically focused on the race and the black part of her heritage. But I would be more interested to find out how she balances all the richness of her heritage (she is half black, quarter jewish and quarter english). But her Jewish ancestry is mentioned only once, while her white heritage is not considered at all.

The part when she writes about her personal experience is the most successful part of the book. But her historical investigations deserve to be much more deep than it is presented in the book.

Also her consideration of the class impact on the race is very shallow. It is understandable as she has got a very privileged background by any standards. But it would be more revealing if she would base her investigations on interviewing less privileged black people from around the country instead of a couple of rich black swingers (It would be fair to mention that it is not the only anecdotal story she mentions in the book. There are others, but the majority with her friends or acquaintances).

I have a few issues with the logic of her conclusions as well. They sometime just do not follow from her observations. For example, the most banal one: she meets with the black man in an adult club who confirm to her that they believe in the stereotype of black male being super powerful in bed. And they are proud of it. She concludes that they have a low self-esteem if they are proud of such things. It might be or might be not, but it is the conclusion which she needs and which automatically does not follow from her observation. Just not good enough for a PPE Oxford graduate, imho.

I might beef up this review with the examples at later stage. But for now, I just post a link to the review which I think is more useful as it is written by a man who is married to a black lady:


Profile Image for Floor Flawless .
492 reviews61 followers
August 19, 2020
This book is important and I actually learned a lot from it. I totally get the anger now because I got angry quite a lot at the white people with their racist comments both from history and really recent... I kept yelling about all those freaking white privilaged rich dumb people to someone I know and we actually had great discussions about it... Oof.. And yes I'm for sure going to read more about this topic. High on my priority list is a book that is about racism in The Netherlands as I live there, but really I will not stop educating myself and I will keep discussions going because yes I'm fcking ashamed that we live in freaking 2020 and racism is still a thing...

Okay so before I start a whole rant and spoil the book; Just read it okay? Thank you.

Animals > People
Profile Image for Martha.
394 reviews39 followers
February 2, 2018
“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, Afua Hirsch explores our 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.
Profile Image for Sian.
80 reviews
July 17, 2018
An interesting book that covers serious historical and sociological issues, which, as a fellow mixed race middle class woman, I resonated with. But this book ties in memoir with critical thinking and it becomes convoluted at points. A lot of her stories about seeking her blackness in Africa trail off into dead ends. An important read, but I feel that there are better books out there to educate yourself on the matters this book touches upon, I didn't feel that the arguments in BRIT(ish) brought much new material to the surface that The Good Immigrant, Citizen or Why I'm No Longer Talking To White People About Race perhaps does. It took me 5 months to finish this book because it just didn't have enough momentum to make a lasting point.
Profile Image for Jasmine.
1,148 reviews42 followers
January 24, 2021
DNF @ p60

I liked certain parts of this, but it felt a bit too infodump-y for me. I went into this expecting more of an anecdotal tone, but I think this needed better editing as I don’t quite know what the tone was meant to be. It jumped from anecdotal to statistical to a report very often which I just couldn’t get into. A shame, as I love reading Hirsch’s articles!
Profile Image for Esme Kemp.
217 reviews13 followers
May 6, 2021
Five FREEKIN STARS. Boy does she know how to write. I cried nearly the entire way through. Then I again I am VERY dramatic.
So refreshing to have someone so perfectly encapsulate the specific polite awkwardness that is British racism.
So much anti-racism literature is saturated with and dominated by American voices and American civil rights liberation struggles that it made a welcome change to dive into the unique history of Britain and its specific colonial legacy. Beautiful and poignant commentary on identity and what it means to be Black British in this time.
Profile Image for Molly.
129 reviews9 followers
June 14, 2020
A perfect mixture between memoir and research, Afua talks about her own experiences of racism and identity within Britian. I found the whole book eye opening and utterly heartbreaking - once I stated couldn't stop! Would highly recommend!
Profile Image for Leire L.
14 reviews1 follower
February 6, 2021
I would strongly recommend this book to anyone, especially if you live in the UK! It has taught me so much about being black in Britain. This book is captivating because it doesn't merely state historical and sociological facts; it pairs them with the author's personal experiences and those of people she interviewed. I also plan to read books recommended by the author, like The Good Immigrant and Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire.

I have noticed reviews complaining about her not engaging with her white heritage as much as with her black heritage, which is missing the point. People focus on what makes her 'other', so people in Britain see her as black and people in Senegal see her as white. Seeing as she's lived in Britain for most of her life, it seems obvious she would engage more with her black heritage.

Chapter 7 discusses the impacts of Brexit on racist attitudes in Britain. I found this fascinating, and it described feelings that as an EU citizen living in post-Brexit Britain, I hadn't entirely found the words to describe. There's no question that white privilege exists. Still, I've found that my British peers overlook the discrimination towards people of other countries regardless of whether they are white, like the 40-year-old man beaten to death by teenagers for speaking in Polish.
Profile Image for Laura | What's Hot?.
290 reviews233 followers
October 25, 2020
Brit(ish) is a brilliant book about race and prejudice in Britain and it should be required reading in the UK.

I found large parts of this incredibly relatable as a mixed race British person with a similar educational background to Afua Hirsch. Whilst Hirsch is now a journalist and writer, she initially trained to be a barrister after she graduated from Oxford. She did a non-law degree there before going on to do the law conversion course, just like I did a few years ago. She describes in great detail her experiences growing up and attending these institutions as a mixed race person. Although she herself is half Ghanaian, half English, the passages about identity and being mixed race will be relatable to all mixed race people. I found myself nodding along to many parts and it was both surprising and comforting to know that all mixed race people, no matter what mix of cultures that is, have some things in common.

Of course the bulk of this book is specifically about the Black British experience and I found this hugely enlightening. She conveyed the history of Britain that has so often been swept under the carpet in a digestible format and revealed many shocking truths about Britain that most in power would choose to forget or ignore. She shares personal anecdotes from her life and those she is close to as well as some general history lessons. This is the kind of stuff that should be taught in schools, but isn’t.
Profile Image for Theophina Gabriel.
49 reviews7 followers
December 20, 2020
The most god-awful trite I’ve ever read. I usually power through books no matter how bad but when she said she ‘fell into blackness’ when getting braids for the first time I simply had to put this book down. Her blatant self-entitlement (telling her dark-skinned boyfriend ‘perhaps’ when he tries to communicate the difference with which he is treated) and lack of any critical analysis or nuance left me dumbfounded. This is a class-A guide in privileged navel gazing and how to romanticise, commodify and objectify being a Black person. I am positively appalled.
Profile Image for Tasha.
427 reviews40 followers
July 31, 2020
What makes us feel British? Is it drinking tea? Our love of queueing? Perhaps it's how much we complain about the weather? Whatever it is, most of us know it is our home and feel it is our home. 

Now imagine you're constantly asked where you are from, no not London, where are you REALLY from? Like originally? Even though you were born in the UK. Imagine being one of the only people in your school who looked the way you did. And having your friends tell you that it was ok, they don't really see you as Black, you're just one of them.

Afua Hirsch explores this and more in Brit(ish), a book about race, identity and racism. This book is incredibly written, full of fascinating information, filled with tons of footnotes containing links to resources such as articles and books for further reading if you choose. I chose to read as much of the linked information as I could and let me tell you, my eyes have been opened to the world around me.

Mixing personal experience with facts and figures and a bit of history thrown in, this is a brilliant book to begin learning about racism and the Black British experience. There are just so many points I've taken away from this book. At the end of the book Hirsch says she hopes this book is the start of a conversation of race, identity and colour blindness and it's certainly made me start several conversations with people whilst I've been reading it. 

Highly recommend to everyone. It may not be for everyone but everyone should read it regardless because you will definitely learn something!
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