Brit(ish) On Race, Identity and Belonging

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Racism, as we know, is a long-contested debate, issue and argument that has morphed throughout the centuries in Britain. Hirsch, who is of mix-race heritage, uses this as a starting point to open up dialogue around the subject of identity, exploring themes of origins, bodies and class which are some of the main chapters in the book.

Discussing a variety of topics from dating, education and police brutality to the EU referendum and the rise in Islamophobia, she dissects her personal experiences, comparing them against official statistics and historical facts.

She hones in on the institutionalised racism that inhabits the very fabric of British society. For instance, the criminal justice system: “there’s no such thing as white-on-white crime, even though crime by white perpetrators against white victims accounts for by far the greatest majority of cases”.

On education: “even middle-class Africans are far, far more likely to be cleaning the toilets in a financial institution than running it.” And on the Eurocentric beauty standards and sexual stereotypes that black women are continually scrutinised against: “seventeenth century accounts described African women as sexual predators; if they meet with a man they immediately strip his lower parts, and throw themselves on him.”

Hirsch’s analysis confidently highlights the “colour-blindness” syndrome that so many liberal Brits adopt and the disadvantages and damning effects that this has on people who are visually in the minority or of an immigrant background: “Just because one individual chooses not to see race, it doesn’t mean that the racialised nature of poverty, discrimination and prejudice in society at large disappears.”

She quotes the American academic Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, “we’re in an era of racism without racists” — a statement that succinctly sums up where we are at the moment, as a nation and worldwide, if you take into account the rise of the far-right across Europe and Trump’s election.

She addresses the way immigration has become politically weaponised, particularly during the EU referendum, where it was used to incite feelings of animosity among the section of the British public who feel they are exclusively entitled to reside in the UK, unless those demonised people assimilate or integrate.

Hirsch shines a light on the double standards that encourage these ideologies, “White British people who live abroad are expatriates, a lovely word that allows the bearer to retain their British nationality and identity while settling.”

This point about how language is used to promote racism and intolerance is made throughout the book and is something to be acknowledged.

Ultimately Brit(ish) allows us to examine our fixed ideologies about race, what it means to be British in every realm, from the depths of our personal to professional lives.

Hirsch draws the conclusion that there are undoubtedly socioeconomic factors that heavily restrict the opportunities on offer for those who have an immigrant background, leading to those people feeling alienated, othered and neglected from the mainstream of British society, as class and race intersect.

Hirsch’s aim to open up this discussion is not only noble but necessary and, as she rounds off her book, establishes that we are still at the beginning of this essential conversation.