Afua Hirsch: ‘We have the freedom to self assign. No-one can take that away from me’

Afua Hirsch. Picture: Urszula Soltys

Afua Hirsch. Picture: Urszula Soltys - Credit: Archant

Afua Hirsch talks about her new book Brit(ish) at Jewish Book Week at King’s Place on March 7


British - Credit: Archant

Afua Hirsch says she didn’t set out to create “a difficult conversation” about race and identity, but that is exactly what she has done.

The barrister turned journalist wrote Brit(ish); On Race Identity and Belonging as “the book that the younger me would have liked to read growing up”.

In it the 37-year-old describes her struggle to find an identity as a woman with a mother from Ghana, and a Jewish grandfather who escaped Berlin in 1938.

But along the way she questions British complacency “that discrimination is a thing of the past,” and the subtle ways people of colour are made to feel they don’t belong, with questions like; ‘where are you really from?’

Afua Hirsch

Afua Hirsch - Credit: Archant

“People say ‘you are so brave’, but I am not trying to be brave,” says Hirsch who appears at Jewish Book Week on March 7.

“I am trying to tell my story and report what I am interested in. Growing up I was so confused about who I was, why I felt different and where I belonged, and there was nothing out there that described me. I felt I needed to reach my younger self, and other people, I think, could just benefit from it. There are still people going through that.”

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Hirsch’s anecdotes range from being treated as white in Ghana, to growing up a privately-educated teenager who was once turned away from a Wimbledon boutique because “black girls are thieves”.

“It makes you feel a bit alarmed, there’s something about yourself and your existence that you constantly have to explain. My mum can go to Ghana and blend in, and my dad can blend in here, but there is no place where I get that whole experience.”

Afua Hirsch

Afua Hirsch - Credit: Archant

There’s a lot of “toxic messaging” she says around defining what is normal and casting everything different as other.

“All young people want to fit in but because of that question: ‘where are you from’ you never get the option of just blending in. It made it all that much harder to embrace who I really was and that really affected my sense of self and self-confidence.”

Hirsch tells how her grandfather Hans changed his name to John when he moved to Kent, and didn’t tell her father he was Jewish until years later.

She doesn’t feel she can own her Jewish identity, yet she’s followed by it anyway. “I am never what people are expecting. Having a Jewish surname, Jewish people are expecting a Jew, I learned at an early age I will always get a double take when I show up.”

After Oxford University, Hirsch trained as a defence barrister before working at Sky News and the Guardian. Recently invited as Naomie Harris’ plus one to the BAFTAS, she’s increasingly vocal as an activist, raising knotty issues around British nostalgia and our colonial history, and calling out the structural ways that people are still discriminated against, and those who deny it.

“My book is very personal. I wasn’t sure if people would relate to it. But it’s about identity and belonging and everyone can relate to a place where they feel most at home. People are becoming more aware of the fact that we live in a society where you can be disadvantaged not just along class or gender, but racial lines, and that those things affect people’s life outcomes.”

Racism, she says has become “much more insidious” and therefore harder to challenge.

“People were chased down the street by Teddy Boys scared for their lives because of their skin colour. Not many experience that nowadays, but those outcomes haven’t changed. There are still the same people at the top of society, and the complacency that discrimination is a thing of the past means people are much less likely to be invested in what’s going wrong.”

She knows it’s human nature to categorise people, but wants to send a message that “identity is complicated”.

“What I have learned is you can’t police it from the outside, you can’t tell people what they are. If I listened to what people thought of me I wouldn’t exist. White people tell me I am black and Ghanaian people tell me I am not black. We have the freedom to self assign. No-one can take that away from me.”

Ultimately, it’s more a nuanced, honest conversation that Hirsch hopes to stir up; empowering others to go beyond superficial debates. But after kickstarting the difficult chat, she hopes to move on from “talking about the fact that I exist”.

“I don’t want to be resigned to talk about race and identity forever - I want to do other things. I believe in diversity, you need people of different perspectives bringing their story.

“On the other hand I feel I have to do justice to the opportunity that I have to communicate with people, it’s a responsibility I am really proud to carry, but it’s important not to let these issues define us.”

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