Words by Florence Robson
After Afua Hirsch published her book, Brit(ish), she held a book event in Wimbledon, a stone’s throw from where she grew up. As she looked around at the faces of old teachers, neighbours and family members, she was struck by the realisation that she was surrounded by many of the (overwhelmingly white) adults who had shaped her upbringing and subsequent life-long questioning of identity and home: the very subject of the book. “So, you found it easier to write a book, get it published, do a national book tour and have your parents sit at the front row of a launch event than to speak to them directly about your feelings on race?”, her husband pointed out afterwards, amused. She laughed at the time, Afua recounts, but he had a point.
Paul van Zyl, The Conduit’s co-founder, started the conversation with Afua by laying out what he sees as the three core challenges of the next decade: climate change, inequality and identity. The third pillar is at the heart of Brit(ish), a book that tells Afua’s own story of growing up as the daughter of a black Ghanaian woman and white English man in order to interrogate notions of belonging, Britain’s failure to grapple with our own colonial past and the ways in which our historic structures and institutions enable racism in the present. “I wanted to humanise esoteric questions around identity and race”, she explains. “Writing a book in order to do this felt like the most nuclear option – but it forced me to own my blackness and to stop worrying about other people’s reactions.”
One of the UK’s brightest and boldest writers, journalists and broadcasters, Afua Hirsch was already a respected figure in our media landscape before the publication of Brit(ish) in 2016. Since the book’s success, however, she has become increasingly visible as a spokesperson on the complexities of British identity, calling out everything from the Oscars’ exclusion of Nigerian film ‘Lionheart’ from the Best International Picture category to the use of ‘playing the race card’ to shut down the experience of people of colour. Days before coming to speak at The Conduit, Afua had appeared on Good Morning Britain and was drawn into an on-air debate with presenter Piers Morgan about the British press’ racist coverage of Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex. Morgan’s aggressive behaviour prompted InfluencHers, a group of black British women, to demand a boycott of the show. Afua notes that she’s become so numb to treatment of this kind that it wasn’t until she began to receive horrified messages from fellow women of colour that she was shaken into questioning her initial easy acceptance. “It was a good reminder that it’s not okay; that we have the right to demand better”.
“We have the right to demand better”
She admitted that she had become an ‘unlikely’ spokesperson against the racist press coverage of Meghan, often using her column in the Guardian to interrogate the ways in which the tabloids in particular have weaponised the Duchess’ blackness. “[The reporting on Meghan] is another example of how the tabloid press poison public opinion in this country – and create it”, she explained. “As a young journalist, I expected to go out and find a story. In fact, editors tell you what the story is and then you’re expected to go and stand it up.”
Her championing of Meghan is perhaps more unlikely because of her ‘complex’ feelings towards the Royal Family, an institution that’s inextricably linked with Britain’s colonial heritage. Afua has long been vocal about what she terms our “colonialist amnesia” and the “lack of institutional appetite” for practical ways to engage with the uglier chapters of our collective history, such as a UK equivalent of the Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. Our reluctance to recognise our past is particular shame, she points out, for its juxtaposition with what she names as classic British values: intellectual curiosity, an obsession with history and a focus on fairness.
If, as Afua affirms, “we can’t be post-racialised until we understand how far we’ve been racialised”, how do we create meaningful change? She names three important factors: education, storytelling and language. We need publicly available tools to decolonise teaching, particularly in early stages of education, she says, recounting wryly how textbooks often frame the Victorians, for example, “like a benevolent NGO”. Secondly, she explains why we need diverse voices telling their stories, pointing out the impact that drama and fiction can have in waking up repressed parts of our consciousness by distilling nuanced concepts into a powerful narrative. Lastly, we need to evolve our language away from racialised terminology that was in common parlance over 100 years ago. While she’s optimistic about the emergence of new phrases such as ‘privilege’, ‘imposter syndrome’ and ‘triggered’, Afua points out the ways in which even supposedly modern terms like ‘BAME’ inherently other anyone who isn’t white.
Ultimately, there is no magic wand that will dismantle racist structures and build a more equal society: there is only listening, educating ourselves, and continuing to do the work. “You can’t sit here with a clean state and draw up a new idea of Britishness”, she states. “It needs to come from an understanding of where we’ve come from. A collective identity can’t be imposed from the top down.”
About Afua Hirsch
Afua Hirsch is now best known for calling out racism, prejudice and on Sky News’ debate show The Pledge, and for presenting documentary series, such as a 6-part series she is currently co-presenting with Samuel L Jackson, a major BBC series about African art, and another about whiteness, both forthcoming. She regularly writes, reports and speaks on international current affairs in addition to these commitments. In 2016 Afua’s debut book, Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging, was awarded the Royal Society of Literature Jerwood Prize. Her 2019 children’s book Equal To Everything inspires young people to imagine themselves in the UK Supreme Court, and is an Amazon no.1 bestseller. Passionate about education, mentoring, and teaching, Afua is now also a professor and is currently the Wallis Annenberg Chair of Journalism at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.