COMMUNITY | Afua Hirsch DARE Liberty Lecture

Young, Brit(ish) and Black – Afua Hirsch (public domain)

In her bestselling book Brit(ish), AFUA HIRSCH reveals some uncomfortable truths about race and identity in Britain today. Her recent DARE Liberty Lecture at Howard Assembly Room in Leeds was a passionate call for change. Words: VANESSA MUDD

Women are judged on their appearance and frequently introduced with a mention of their outfit, in spite of their intellect and talents. So when Professor Iyiola Solanke’s seamless précis and appreciation of tonight’s guest, journalist and presenter Afua Hirsch, mentions ‘the dress,’ it’s a surprise, but it grants me permission to do so too! Hirsch is indeed a multi-tasker – one half of fashion collaboration Afua x Sika – and yes, it is a strikingly beautiful dress.

I consumed Hirsch’s provocative and personal bestseller Brit (ish) [Vintage] in two days, annotating and tabbing key parts; recommending it to all. I confess though I’d been secretly worrying she might be too much of an over achiever. I needn’t have fretted. She’s warm, engaging and down to earth, reflecting her Yorkshire credentials, via Bradford farmers. Her grandmother was the first in her family to go to University and become a History teacher.

In Brit (ish) Hirsch challenges Britain’s current status quo; an unequal and blasé attitude where white is ‘normal’ and colour blindness is used to ignore awkwardness. She has been rightly congratulated for posing difficult questions and opening a debate about Britain’s identity. Integral is the discussion of race, empire and the press.

The feverish backlash in some quarters has come weighted with the attitudes of colonialism and otherness Hirsch book discusses. Predictably The Daily Mail completely missed the point when it asked if she couldn’t ‘summon a smidgen of gratitude.’ Hirsch does not hate Britain. She takes issue – as should we all – with the increasing numbers of people who feel excluded.

The established narrative of British history plays a key role, Hirsch says, framing Empire as benevolent and ignoring the plentiful positive contributions of anyone else. Its celebration of white male figures as unflawed heroes – excusing or ignoring their racism, sexism and exploitation – alienates and excludes swathes of British people.    

Brit(ish) explores ideas of individual and collective identity, getting to grips with how it is shaped and how convincingly we feel a part of it. At its core is the universal need of knowing that we belong. For Hirsch this is a personal story about her own mixed heritage and sense of ‘otherness,’ yet within that lies a far wider exploration – that of Britain’s identity in the 21st century.

Her talk is engaging and accessible, developing key elements from her book, so that if you’ve read it you don’t feel short changed. Hearing each story directly adds a connection which resonates with the reassuringly mixed audience. People here tonight cut across the more visible aspects of identity, namely age, race and class.

As we move into questions from the audience layers of identity unfurl and the magic truly begins. Hirsch is gentle and kind in all her answers, full of optimism. For someone who has been on the receiving end of so much racism and misogyny, she conveys hope for younger audience members in their quest for identity.

Her honesty and warmth are reassuring. That she’s such an important part of the debate in forcing these ideas to be heard is evident. You can feel the impact of her determination on others, a gathering sense that we can enact some change.  

There are questions from the floor around Judaism and the author’s Jewish heritage. Hirsch highlights the Jewish community’s declaration of support and empathy for Syrian refugees against a rising political rhetoric around numbers.

She is thanked for talking openly about being asked ‘THE question’ (about where someone is from because they aren’t white). Hirsch may tackle this with humour – “Yes, but where are you really from?” – but the pain is evident. It’s food for thought. How many white people have unthinkingly asked this question?

Brit(ish) explores racial stereotypes, the negative portrayal of Africa and the literal whitewashing of the history curriculum. Hirsch highlights the normalisation of racism, one that most people aren’t even aware of.  While the days of physical and overt racism have mainly abated, there exists a subtle, pervasive form, highlighted by a plethora of Public Inquiries (sadly usually preceded by a tragic loss of life) which continue to exclude and limit opportunities for so many. 

Hirsch has been knocked for having had a privileged upbringing. Commentators suggest she hasn’t suffered enough to be able to write about these issues. This is rubbish. She is exactly the kind of role model our society needs, articulate, generous and determined. She is trailblazing a better future for the next generation of Britons, one which tackles racism and finally acknowledges the positive roles of non-white people in shaping our history. A future which might finally allow Britain to recover openly with honesty and unity from its colonial hangover.

Afua Hirsch – DARE Liberty Lecture in association with the University of Leeds

Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging by Afua Hirsch is published in paperback by Vintage. Support your local independent bookshop!