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I recently finished listening to the audiobook of Brit(ish) by Afua Hirsch, an exploration of what it means to be mixed-race in Britain that is both broad and deeply personal. A traditional, analytical review felt as though it would somehow detract from the invaluable messages that are at the core of this book. With that in mind, I am instead going to list the 5 most important lessons that I took away from reading Brit(ish).
These are the lessons that were most impactful to me personally, but the experience of reading this thought-provoking book is very individual. Other readers are likely to find their own resonances, so I would highly recommend taking a look for yourself!
1. There is no single ‘black experience’.
One of the most fascinating elements in the early chapters of Brit(ish) is Hirsch’s comparison of her own childhood with that of her boyfriend Sam’s. She grew up in the affluent area of Wimbledon, was privately educated and had no shortage of opportunities – but was plagued by identity crisis and a sense of Otherness drawn from being the only Black girl in the room.
By contrast, Sam is raised in Tottenham, where he must work twice as hard to break free from poverty and low expectations, but is surrounded by family who act as constant reminders of his Ghanaian heritage. The author expresses her shock at the hardship Sam faced in his youth, alongside a complex feeling of envy that he could access cultural belonging in a way that she found difficult.
Hirsch makes it clear from the beginning that she is speaking from her own experiences and can’t articulate a universal analysis of what it means to be Black and British – because such a universal doesn’t exist.
2. POC are more self-censoring than those complaining about ‘political correctness’.
This point made by Hirsch really hit home for me as a powerful counterargument to the narrow-minded people who complain that ‘political correctness has gone mad’.
If a white person is feeling uncomfortable or worried about saying the right thing, then, as the author argues, they are simply experiencing what people of colour must deal with on a daily basis as they navigate systemic injustice and microaggressions. Adding some unfamiliar terms to your vocabulary or having to learn about another culture is nothing compared to the discomfort of constant self-censoring in a society that implicitly views your cultural heritage as inferior.
3. There is no such thing as ‘white history’.
Brit(ish) takes issue with how ‘Black history’ is always taught as a kind of sub-genre of history, an add-on that fulfils the box ticking exercise of curriculum diversity. The problem with this approach, Hirsch explains, is that it assumes a separate, neutral ‘white history’ that in reality does not exist.
Everything from the quintessentially British Scouts movement (started by Robert Baden-Powell, an army general enforcing British rule in the Empire) to the Suffragettes (Emmeline Pankhurst, while radical in her views on women’s rights, nevertheless propagated ideas of pseudo-scientific racism) are irrevocably entangled with the history of imperialism, violence, colonial extraction, enslavement, and encounters with people of other races.
4. We should switch the term ‘diversity’ with ‘normalising’.
This point was raised by Shonda Rhimes, a television producer most well-known for Grey’s Anatomy, in an interview. Rhimes explained how she hates the term ‘diversity’ because it implies that there is something Other or unusual about including women, people of colour, and LGBT+ people in media. She prefers the term ‘normalising’, used when media actually begins to reflect the people it is created for.
From now on, I won’t be ‘diversifying’ my reading – I will be ‘normalising’ it!
5. Sex is colonised, beauty is colonised, sport is colonised… everything is colonised.
I have never been a follower of sport and was shocked to discover the outright racism directed at Black women athletes, notably tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams. It’s not just sport either – Hirsch finds the shadows of imperialism in all areas of our society, from the sex industry to beauty ideals.
Once you start looking, you will see the signs of colonisation and structural racism everywhere – and noticing is the first step to action.
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You may also like: Most Important Lessons from It’s Not About the Burqa.
Have you read Brit(ish)? What other non-fiction books by authors of colour would you recommend? Take care of each other X x x