What does it mean to be Brit(ish)?
Megan Jackson - MA Journalism, University of Roehampton
What is Britishness? How is it defined and who does it exclude? Afua Hirsch discusses how her own experiences of being questioned about her identity led her to look for a sense of belonging.
Afua’s book Brit(ish) explores how race and identity intersect. Her experiences of feeling ‘other’ as a teen, and her realisation that society wanted to put her in a box because of the colour of her skin, inspired her to unpick why British people of colour are excluded from the notion of Britishness.
From a young age Afua has been constantly confronted with the same question- where are you from? Born to an English father and Ashanti mother, raised in Wimbledon and educated at Oxford, the obvious answer was Britain but that, she found, was not a satisfactory answer. No, where are you really from?
Afua explains that she is critical of this question within her book because of the “gentle othering” it made her feel. She says: “The people who ask this are very well meaning…they maybe don’t realise that they’ve internalised this idea that people who look like me are not just British like other British people.”
Being asked to essentially explain her existence on a regular basis had an enormous effect on Afua. She felt like an imposter in the only country she had known to be home. “When you’re constantly asked where you’re from, from a young age, you feel the need to provide an answer…what I realised was people really wanted an answer to why are you brown. And so I would say because I’m from Ghana. The more you say something, the more you start to believe it.”
She felt her Ghanaian heritage defined her. She felt different to the white majority from her home town because “in popular imagination Britishness is an identity which is linked to whiteness”. She thought if growing up and being educated in Britain wasn’t enough to make her British then maybe her Ghanaian heritage would be the key to understanding her identity.
When Afua lived in Ghana during her 30s it came as a surprise when she didn’t discover the sense of belonging she had expected to. She recalls: “There’s nothing to make you realise how British you are more than going to an African country when you’re not from there. I had this sense in Wimbledon of being the other, because I was so Ghanaian…It was a rude awakening that Ghanaians didn’t see me as Ghanaian at all. There was no where I could just go and be. There was no where I could go without having to explain where I came from. And I think that’s something that can be quite difficult to come to terms with. Identity is not a place, there is not this magical promise land where you suddenly overcome all of your questions about who you are. It really is a state of mind, and an acceptance.”
She believes Britain needs to move away from the idea that Britishness and whiteness are synonymous. Her critique of, as she calls it, “the huge fragility around Britishness” ignites a conversation about identity which is long overdue.