Afua Hirsch grew up in a genteel part of southwest London and went on to study at Oxford, but her privileged upbringing and successful career – she's worked as a barrister, and as Sky News' social affairs editor – hasn't prevented her from experiencing racial prejudice. In her brilliant new book Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging, she analyses and exposes the system which led her, as a mixed-race woman of colour, to question the very core of her own identity.
In the book, Hirsch outlines a compelling vision for change, arguing that Britain needs to acknowledge and process the way it profited from colonialism and the slave trade before it can build a new, more honest national identity. She also explains why it's so damaging when people claim not to "see" race, or ask a person of colour: "But where are you from?" Her writing is both intensely personal and incredibly resonant: whatever your background and racial identity, Brit(ish) will make you think. Reading it invites people to question their own behaviour, and the extent to which they've been complicit in a system that makes some people feel out of place in the country where they were born.
What was your aim when you sat down to write this book?
Basically I was trying to reach my younger self. When I was a teenager, I'm not exaggerating, I was in the full-on throes of an identity crisis. Constant othering, not having a space or a language with which to talk about my experience, and that not being an acceptable conversation to have, all compounded to make me feel so confused and alienated in my own world. I literally wrote this book because I wish there'd been a book like this when I was growing up.
In the book, you highlight how selective our version of "British history" is. Do you think we need to change what we teach kids in school, so they don't grow up thinking the UK has always been "in the right"?
Genuinely, one of the things I value about being British is our interest in history. Look at how many people visit National Trust properties on the weekend! And yet, what we teach our children is propaganda – it's an incredibly selective and biased version of the facts. And for me, I think that really jars with what we profess to be as a nation. I think it's really important that we accept we're not really being honest with our young people. It's not about – and this is something people sometimes accuse me of doing – indoctrinating people to think Britain is this terrible place. It's about equipping people to understand that this is a country that has been infinitely interconnected with Africa and Asia for hundreds of years. There's been a two-way flow of people and ideas. There have been these crimes – on a scale of crimes against humanity – that we've never discussed. There's this really complex picture and I think we're underestimating ourselves if we think we can't handle it. We can handle the truth, we can critically analyse it, and we can still create a sense of Britain as a nation that we want to be part of – one that's honest.
The book really made me realise how ludicrous the acronym BAME (Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic) is; it implies there are only two identities: so-called "BAME" or white. And people so often use "diverse" in the same way.
Do you know what, someone asked me the other day, "As a diverse person, how do you feel about this?" I was like, diversity is not an identity! In all seriousness, a big part of the picture is whiteness – people don't understand whiteness. People still believe that whiteness is normal and everything else is other. And as long as that's your starting point, whatever word you're given, you're going to abuse it – often unintentionally because of the ignorance underlying your use of the word. I'm not trying to blame people: this is a society-wide problem, and it's a big issue for all of us, not just white people. A lot of black people have embraced BAME because it's what we've been told that we are. So it affects us in complicated ways and I want us to start interrogating it. I mean, these are intelligent people asking if you're a diverse person or calling you "BAME"! They're not applying any intellectual curiosity to these words because it's easier not to, and they're not expected to.
I think a lot of people who read this book will question the way they think and talk about race. Do you think the first step in breaking down the current system is making sure we, as a society, are more comfortable talking about racial issues?
Definitely. As a person of colour, a big thing in my life has been white approval. There's this idea that you shouldn't be problematic for white people, you should make yourself acceptable to them. So what I'd say to people who've had my experience is: "Don't self-censor to make yourself palatable because that's just perpetuating a problem and a dishonesty." And for people who haven't had that experience of being in a minority, I'd say: "Just be receptive to this conversation." I did a debate on Sky News just last week in which I had to defend the idea that I've had a different experience as a person of colour. There are people who say, "I don't see race, it doesn't matter, I've not experienced this, what are you talking about?" People say they don't see colour because they're deliberately trying to distance themselves from racism and prejudice. Obviously I welcome the sentiment that they're trying to distance themselves from prejudice. But I want them to understand that by saying you don't see colour, you're dismissing race as a system – you're dismissing your whiteness and my blackness and the way it operates in society. You're also insinuating that if you don't see my colour, you're doing me a favour, because it would be better if it just wasn't there.
Do you think having Meghan Markle, a woman of colour, as part of the royal family can have some kind of positive effect?
Personally, I've never been remotely interested in the royal family. My entire life, the only role they played was just to serve as a reminder of how far I felt from being British. They're such a symbol of Britishness, but none of them looks like me or has names or a background like mine. So they were agents of my sense of exclusion, in a way. But now, I'm genuinely interested. I'm interested in Meghan Markle and what her experience going into that family is going to be like – interested and empathetic, I should add. Do you know what, obviously the royal family aren't like us at all. But their function is symbolic and with them the visual is very important. This doesn't make them any more like us, but it makes them look more like the rest of us. It also creates a question about identity which I can relate to.