Thoughts On Race & Britishness

Following up on the recent release of 'No Problem Here', Conter is looking to publish articles about racism on the left, issues of racism in Scotland, and hear perspectives from black and POC writers. Poet, writer, artist and playwright Raman Mundair reviews another recent text in this long read: Afua Hirsch's 'Brit(Ish)'. In an age of fast moving identity politics, what does it mean to be British?

At one point in Afua Hirsch's book, Brit(ish), she references the 1981 Toxteth, Liverpool riots that took place during the Thatcher years. A recently released government report on the riots viewed by Hirsch contained a handwritten note at the front. This brief, succinct memo summed up the contents for the Prime Minister: “ethnic minorities are the likeliest flashpoint.” In many ways, it's the perceived disruption or 'flashpoints' that these communities create within British society and how that contextualises her own identity, that Hirsch sets out to explore in her book.

In the last few days, knife crime in Britain's capital has been a constant in the BBC news cycle. Renewed refrains for the strong implementation of stop and search have been sounded. The thought being that the strong arm of the law will remedy the current state of affairs. Talks of gangs abound without much investigation into the contexts for the growth of such a culture: poverty, disenfranchisement, lack of opportunity and a lack of social mobility. Nor is much time given to the fact that evidence and history highlights that such conditions disproportionately affect people of colour, that this inevitably leads to racial profiling specifically impacting young British, black and brown men.

On July 13 2016, Mzee Mohammad, a black Liverpudlian teenager, with autism and ADHD, died whilst being aggressively restrained in a Liverpool shopping centre by eight security guards and 18 members of the police and a police dog. Mzee had not placed anyone in danger and had in fact been experiencing mental distress. This boy was racially profiled, seen as a threat, cornered, 'restrained', at which point he lost consciousness and died. His unexplained death sparked Black Lives Matter protests in the UK. His family, still struggling to come to terms with their loss, buried Mzee in Jamaica. Hirsch, who attended the funeral as a reporter, writes about his death in a restrained, dignified manner. She notes that Mzee is buried on the land where his great-grandfather, who was a slave, is buried and that as the coffin was carried, a strong smell was evident to all. It transpired that the body had been improperly stored by the police authorities and had been returned to the family in a decomposing state.

There is a heart-wrenching, tragic poetry here. The black body of a British boy left to rot and then lovingly carried to his final destination in a land where his ancestors were slaves. Hirsch notes that mourners were dressed primarily in black and red clothes, something she recognises as Ashanti-Ghanaian tradition. When she queried its significance in Jamaica, no-one could tell her. Hirsch does not say it but the reader is left to join the dots – that the colours are an echo from ancient traditions and culture that was stolen. The boy they buried was also stolen from them. The circle of (British) history loops around the story, making it achingly and suffocatingly poignant.

Mzee Mohammed's death is one of many black British lives lost to state violence. Yet, other than a few Black Lives Matter protests, a smattering of articles, this narrative does not dominate our cultural discourse. It's not recognised as a feature of Britishness, yet for many British citizens, people of colour, this is part of the daily context of their lives in Britain. It is their experience of being British.

Hirsch (below) is a middle class, private schooled, Oxford educated, woman of mixed heritage. She has a knighted uncle (Sir Peter Hirsch). She recognises her privilege, the head start she received in life and at the same time she makes clear her position that “being half black is not a neutral place” (p160). Her investigation into her own identity as a woman of mixed heritage was sparked early in her childhood and she identifies as Black British, an identity that she fully came to embrace after time spent working and living in Africa. Before travelling to Africa she had considered herself African, in part due to her experiences of racism and her right to belong in Britain (despite being born here and having a white, English father) being challenged in subtle and overt ways. Her complex experiences in Ghana (the land of her fore-mothers), which she narrates in the beginning of the book, reflected back her Britishness.

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I should point out here that Hirsh's definition of black 'Brit-ish-ness' doesn't include me. Although a lot of what she writes echoes my experience as a woman of colour, of Indian heritage, growing up and living in the Britain she narrates, Hirsh's blackness is not inclusive. She has embraced the recent redefinition of 'Black' from an inclusive and embracive experience of racism and colonial history by non-white communities, to a definition that is limited to people from the African and Caribbean communities. This redefinition is an attempt to honour the specific experiences of these communities. Interestingly, the trade union Unison on their official website still refer to the political definition of black:

"Black is used to indicate people with a shared history. Black with a capital ‘B’ is used in its broad political and inclusive sense to describe people in Britain that have suffered colonialism and enslavement in the past and continue to experience racism and diminished opportunities in today’s society … Language changes and evolves but terminology is always important in terms of intention and direction. Using Black is about creating unity in our fight against deep-rooted racism that sees Black people disadvantaged in housing, education, employment and the criminal justice and health systems."

Hirsch recognises that both black and white identities are shifting and that there's a degree of fluidity. She points to the fact that historically the British viewed their French neighbours as 'an indulgent and effeminate race inferior to the robust and logical British – and the Mediterranean nations of Southern Europe, have become white” (p161).

There's a nod to Scotland and Scottish identity politics. Hirsch observes that Scottish people of colour are more likely to call themselves as 'Scottish' than their counterparts in England, who are likely to see themselves as British rather than English. As someone living in rural Scotland, I wonder how this really fits in with the national identity politics of Scotland. For instance, is a Glaswegian Sikh considered representative of a true Scot? Or does another image entirely come to mind?

Hirsch asserts: "If it weren't for the strongly held belief that 'indigenous' Brits are a white race, with a pristine culture stemming from time immemorial, then the debate around immigration could conceivably be a rational one, based on economic needs, public resources, historical facts and geopolitical realities. Instead what we have is an emotional, and emotive, story of threat and invasion, the undertones as old and as global as Britain itself – a delicate, white nation facing a black, brown, Muslim, Eastern and African swarm" (p298).

It's the fear of that 'swarm' which nicely hops, skips and segues us Brits into Brexit. It's become an attempt to make Britain 'Great Again' – an attempt to conflate a Britain out of Europe with the 'glory days of Empire'. Even our popular art reflects that narrative, look at the sudden surge of popularity of films like 'Victoria and Abdul,' 'Churchill' and the television series 'Victoria'. All guilt-free visual feasts of white Britishness.

Hirsch suggests that: "The facts about immigration in the UK have become increasingly irrelevant – views about immigration and its benefits are highly subjective. As the Brexit vote made clear – with areas with relatively little immigration most concerned about its impact – it's the perception of immigration that matters" (p288).

She isn't wrong there. If the narrative is immersed in these falsehoods, is it any wonder that we find ourselves in this retrograde era? It doesn't matter that science tells us that ancient Britons were Cheddar Man with dark to black skin, not when there is an uncritical attachment to whiteness and all that comes with it. The current conversation is never balanced or rarely factually accurate.

Hirsch writes that: “The problem is, we don't seem politically mature enough to grapple with this debate. Just as there has never been an apartheid system of segregation in the UK, so there has never been a British civil rights movement to end it” (p296).

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This is a useful point as it highlights there isn't a cohesive voice, movement or a coherent language to deal with complexities of the identity politics at play in the UK. Nor is there an acknowledgement that Britain and Britishness is far from post-racial and in fact is a deeply racial society in many aspects.

The inevitable answer to any race-induced cracks in Britishness is either a clamp down on immigration or a call for more integration or often, both. But as Hirsch documents, integration isn't always the answer: “African and Caribbean communities, which are regarded as better performing when it come to integration, still suffer from the highest rates of young unemployment and household poverty” (p292).

Even the 'good immigrant,' the one who has dutifully integrated, fails to be rewarded: "The mixed-race children of Caribbean men and white women – products of ethnic integration – suffer […] an 'ethnic penalty', placing them further down the socio- economic ladder than their parents. 'Integration' has not been the answer to the barriers they face" (p292). 

The intersectionality of the issues at hand are acknowledged by Hirsch and she recognises for example, that class functions along side race as a mechanism to restrict social mobility and access to resources: "Fifty per cent of families from black African backgrounds live in low-income households, compared to 20 per cent of white households. Twenty-five percent of young black people and 28 per cent of young Bangladeshi and Pakistani young people are unemployed, more than double white jobseekers of the same age” (p290).

Even more sobering are the figures that Hirsch presents on franchisement. The number of black British people not registered to vote is significant: “...more than one-quarter of British Africans, compared with 7 per cent of white people – before counting those who actually show up on polling day” (p290).

She points out that “...politicians don't speak about ethnic minority people in terms of 'good' and 'bad' immigrants. The language they use is more subtle and coded” (p286). A broad portrait of a 'bad immigrant' could be summed up as “too many immigrants crowded into one place together, with shops selling their food, and churches and mosques offering their versions of faith...” (p290). A 'bad immigrant' is visible in their 'otherness' – they are unapologetic about their distance from whiteness (as defined by whom exactly? That is another investigation entirely). A 'bad immigrant' fails to toe the line. They will speak loudly in their non English, Scots, Welsh, Irish, traditional European language or American voices in public spaces. They will wear their bright, mismatched hues of colours and fabrics. A 'bad immigrant' takes up visual, mental and physical space. The 'bad immigrant' can be found all over Europe and the USA.

Equally, but perhaps less visibly, as that is the whole point, the 'good immigrant' toils away silently and diligently under the false mantle that this required performance will deliver rewards. Simple things, for example, the right to live without fear, the right to equal pay and good housing – the basics. Hirsch suggests that winning Olympic medals makes Mo Farah and Jessica Ennis-Hill 'good immigrants'. British Bake Off winner Nadiya Hussain is also on that list, but is now being reassessed (in Hirsch's opinion) since she spoke openly about her experiences of racism on the bastion of white middle class-ness that is R4's Desert Island Discs. Hussain's honesty has seen her targeted by the right as evidence that despite being a talented cake maker, she is in fact, not one of us, not really. Only last month the recently knighted Mo Farah (below) posted a video of his experience of being racially profiled at an airport. It would seem that being a black British knight doesn't open as many doors as one would think.

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The fact is being a 'good immigrant' doesn't inoculate you from racism nor does it secure safe passage into 'club Britain.' The goalposts are constantly shifting. You may have lived here all or most of your life but ultimately this counts for nothing. This is evident in the rise of recent cases of black British people who, having worked and paid taxes all their lives, are facing deportation. Individuals who work in places like the NHS or for the local council and contribute positively to our society, who have been 'good immigrants' yet, unbelievably, still find themselves denied Britishness. It begs the question, what does it actually take to be recognised as British? A question that Hirsch doesn't overtly ask but comes quickly to mind whilst reading her book.

Afua recounts her surprise at being racially profiled and targetted at a small local boutique in London. She was asked to leave and it made her see her locality, Wimbledon, in a fresh light. Her story reminded me of my mother, a woman that many white people who have met her have referred to as 'poised' and 'elegant'. My mother has lived in Britain longer than she lived in India and is a woman who has worked hard all her life and done her utmost to be a 'good immigrant'. My mother was shopping at her local branch of Boots the chemists – something she has done for many, many years – and had a rare moment of looking at the cosmetics.

My mother rarely makes unnecessary purchases and it was a moment of unusual self indulgence. She was looking at a modest, budget line of lipsticks displayed adjacent to the glass shopfront. Her eyesight failing, she took the tester nearer towards the store front in order to view the colour in natural daylight. Two store detectives swooped in on her and, in front of her local community, she was taken to their upstairs offices, cross-examined and had her body, clothes and bag searched. Later, with hot tears of anger and humiliation she described how vulnerable she felt. How belittled and offended she felt.

She particularly found it bizarre that if she were to decide to steal something, why would she take a lipstick tester and one of a cheap brand at that? She was processing the fact that to these white men she was indiscernible. She was and always would be 'other'. It didn't matter that she was in her fifties and a well presented, elegant Indian woman. It didn't matter that she had worked hard to be a 'good immigrant'. She had kept her end of the bargain and was reminded in that moment how little that meant. It made her see her home town and Britain in a new light.

I've not had the luxury for one moment to feel that I'm accepted or be under the illusion that I'm perceived as a 'good immigrant'. This is evident in the racial profiling I experience on a daily basis. On the micro aggressions I encounter. By the fact that I've never managed to make it through passport control without creating a backlog in the queue behind me as the official at the desk checks my face and documents repeatedly. This despite the fact that I am listed on the British Council website as a British writer – I'm faintly amused but not enough to not register the subtext.

A particular rabbit hole regarding my claim to Britishness arose when I applied to study for university. To my astonishment, despite being schooled entirely in the UK from the age of three, I was required to sit an English language test. Furthermore, bizarrely, my application was viewed as an overseas student application. I had applied as a domestic student under the usual UCAS channels. When I queried the situation, it came to light that my 'un-British' name and the fact that I was born in India had triggered this. The fact I'm a British Citizen, hold a British passport, have worked and paid taxes in the UK and have a national insurance number, bore no significance to the situation.

In order to remedy the situation, I had to track down teachers from my primary and secondary schools who wrote and signed witness statements to verify that I had in fact been taught by them. I also had to enlist the help of my local MP in order to take on a tone deaf system that had set in motion a bewildering set of arbitrary obstacles. Goodness knows how much public time and money is spent vetting individuals like myself who are clearly British and have the right to study and live in the UK. It was a frustrating and stressful situation which went from the Kafka-esque to a Lewis Carroll weltanschauung. During one of my university interviews I was interviewed by senior lecturer, who was lounging practically horizontally in his distressed leather chair. I was asked in relation to history (I had applied for a history course) which side I was on. He referenced the Tebbit test – Britain's Asian population largely fail to pass the cricket test, he stated. 'Which side are you on?'

When I questioned the relevance of the question he told me that he was merely trying to ascertain if I had an interest in British history. It was a situation I found extraordinary yet unsurprising. It's something I haven't talked much about as even as the words form in my mouth I begin to feel as if there is an air of fiction to them – that the scenario is so far out of the ordinary: and, of course, it is - for some people. Needless to say, every word is true. Afua Hirsch's book is important because it offers a context for real life stories like mine. It sets aside the gaslighting that has happened to date and Hirsch's very reasonable and believable voice and testimony states that it if it can happen to a 'good immigrant', a middle class, upwardly mobile person with strong media connections and a knighted Uncle, well, it can happen to anyone. Or more accurately, any person of colour.

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Hirsch refers to historian David Starkey's bizarre outburst on Newsnight in 2011, of which Enoch Powell (above) would have been proud, as further proof of the fascination with the 'good immigrant' trope: "'The whites have become black!' declared Starkey. 'A particular sort of violent, destructive , nihilistic gangster culture has become the fashion...Black and white, boy and girl, operate in this language together. This language, which is wholly false, which is this Jamaican patois that has intruded in England. This is why so many of us have this sense of literally a foreign country.' Starkey concluded ... by praising the black MP David Lammy, a Good Immigrant, an 'archetypal successful black man,' as Starkey called him, because, 'if you turn the screen off, so you were listening to him on radio, you would think he was white'" (p287).

Hirsch's contextualisation of the 'Good Immigrant' brings to mind Macaulay's 1835 minute on education in India, where he sets out a basic blueprint for education as a tool for colonisation. To create desirable colonial subjects who were “a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect”. It's an objective I imagine Starkey, Gove, Johnson et al would no doubt believe admirable today. The over-arching tone of the book is careful and measured. This is by no means a polemical text. The calm, at times distanced, reserved, prose struck me as very 'English' and middle class in style and tone. I am sure that Afua Hirsch would recognise the irony of that or perhaps embrace it as as being as much part of her identity as her African heritage.

Hirsch is a reliable narrator. There's no doubt she approached her subject matter with integrity and honesty but what is lacking here is arguably emotion. Hirsch's intelligence and thoughtfulness shines through, but I wanted her to engage more with the issues she maps out so diligently. Hirsch herself states she hopes her book is an opening of a conversation. So in some senses Brit(ish) is perhaps an important marker of what needs to be laid out on the table and discussed.

I look forward to reading and hearing more radical and necessarily confrontational voices that must come and engage with this dialogue – to my mind there has been too much investment in the 'good immigrant' trope and the 'good immigrant' approach to this conversation and it hasn't led to any of me or mine feeling any safer or securer in Albion. This is an ongoing and ever-evolving conversation of what and who we are and perhaps the current state of affairs points to the need for a change in how we approach that. That may involve less gently placed words and steps.

The heart of Hirsch's book can be summed up in a quote by one of her interviewees, a young Black man. He says: “I feel that I am British in the sense that I have the citizenship, I live here, this is who I know, but when I think about it critically, and see how I am accepted as a British person, as a black British person, it makes me question how British I feel” (p281).