Having expended over 7000 words on my review of The Strange Death of Europe I’m hoping my somewhat more concise examination of Brit(ish) doesn’t leave Ms Hirsch feeling too short changed. Though she may not have payed me to write this review nevertheless the incongruent word counts may give rise to the impression that I have afforded her book less attention and care. I can assure her that I have not.
If Murray’s book is the record of White supremacy’s lament for its rapidly waning power and prestige then Hirsch’s forms possibly its perfect antipode. Oxford educated, like Murray, a debate between the two on the shared theme of their two books would, I’m sure, be as enlightening as it would entertaining. Perhaps even a little explosive. Vocal and compelling yet bereft of the shrillness associated with treatises of this genre Hirsch’s narrative voice resonates with passion, in stark contrast to the cold monotone of Murray’s phlegmatic (if wonderfully crafted) prose.
How deep does racial prejudice and white supremacy run in our society and how much of our history in that respect has been (pardon the pun) whitewashed or glossed over? Has the British identity untangled itself from its historic roots in Whiteness so that black and ethnic minority citizens feel comfortable embracing it as their own? These are the questions Brit(ish) seeks to examine, in no small part through the experiences of the author: “For that reason, I have used my own experience of identity to form this book.” Yet, as mainsprings go this proves a rather odd choice for as a mixed-race woman brought up in the lap of leafy suburban (Wimbledon) middle-class privilege, the beneficiary of a private education and alumnus of one of the nation’s (and world’s) elite universities there is precious little in her backstory that fits the narrative of ‘excluded person of colour’. By contrast her partner, Sam, grew up in the surroundings of Tottenham’s concrete estates and having to contend with the full gamut of poverty and racism’s debilitating handicaps. Anticipating the obvious, Hirsch concedes that her book might well have been better off being written by Sam who for his part finds the idea of writing on what it means to be black rather amusing, if not patently absurd. For him racism, discrimination and interminable reminders of “otherness”, appear to be accepted realities for a black man living in a white nation, roadblocks that with the necessary determination and resilience can be maneuvered but which are themselves immovable and permanent features of Britain’s social landscape. Depressing as such an outlook undoubtedly is, it reflects a certain equanimity when it comes to the question of identity; one which seems signally absent from Hirsch. The longing for a fixed identity free from the uncertainty of competing cultural claims clearly weighs heavy on her and is evident at multiple points.
“One is that, as a mixed-race person, you feel lost between worlds that seem…miles apart…That spawns a desire, deep rooted, subconscious sometimes, to have an ethnic and cultural identity that you can really, authentically, claim as your own.”
Her observation, made as a teenager to the distress of her mother, that she identified as black because white societies have traditionally viewed mixed race as such, is uncontroversial; her passing over of her Jewish heritage rather less so. Though white by outward appearance the treatment meted out to Jewish diaspora communities (both here in the UK and in Europe as a whole) over the centuries is surely comparable to the suffering of Africans at the hands of the Empire. Curiously though in the chapter titled Heritage she dedicates scant column space to this aspect of her identity as in her opinion her father’s (and most Jews’) white complexion shielded him from the daily aggressions experienced by those of visibly non-European extraction. How Hirsch chooses to identify is, of course, a matter for her to decide upon yet in choosing to ignore the suffering of one half of her heritage it skews the perspective of the book somewhat, focussing it solely on colour when racial prejudice is far more multi-faceted. One only has to look at the swingeing abuses perpetrated against the Irish and the stigmatization – as habitual drunkards and dullards fit only for manual labour, much like the blacks – they faced both in England and across the Atlantic to appreciate this. In the United States (Hirsch often flits between both sides of the Pond in her discussions) the experiences of Italian American immigrants also attests to this and it may surprise some to learn that the biggest mass lynching in US history was not of African-Americans but of Italians – the infamous 1891 New Orleans lynchings. A New York Times editiorial penned in the immediate aftermath of this savage act of mob justice vilified Sicilians thusly:
“These sneaking and cowardly Sicilians, the descendants of bandits and assassins, who have transported to this country the lawless passions, the cut-throat practices, and the oath-bound societies of their native country, are to us a pest without mitigation. Our own rattlesnakes are as good citizens as they…Lynch law was the only course open to the people of New Orleans.”
It would be utterly dishonest to imply that people of colour have not been especially disadvantaged by what is sometimes termed as “white anglo-saxon” racism and in citing the above that’s not my intent. However, in a book dedicated to exploring “race, identity and belonging” it is pertinent to point out the lack of such nuance and disinterest in engaging with the full depth of the subject’s complexities. To be fair Hirsch does pay a perfunctory nod to the differences within the umbrella of white ethnicities albeit contending in the process that the British once regarded the French as non-white. Effeminate, arrogant and rococo – exuding a blameworthy preference for flamboyance over practicality, for sure. Non-white? No.
The ramifications of slavery and colonialism in shaping European (and white American) attitudes towards people of African descent and non-Europeans in general is undeniable and widely written about. Hirsch’s agglomeration of slavery era anecdotes of cruelty (rape, murder, beatings and assorted humiliations) and European contemptuousness towards other races (but especially Africans), uncomfortable as it will no doubt prove to the average Cotswold reader, adds little new to the debate. By contemporary standards such behaviour is utterly depraved and unequivocally condemnable. But, as others have pointed out, it did not occur in the contemporary period. When Europeans encountered Africans, and native Americans tribes, they faced peoples who were simply not as advanced as them – neither in respect of science and technology nor, somewhat more contentiously, economically and socially. The fact that they prevailed over them and subjugated them with relative ease is, as much as it will undoubtedly anger some, the greatest proof of this. Greed, not racism was the impetus for slavery – a desire for the luxuries and trinkets of an expanding international market and thereafter for the manufactured products of the industrial revolution’s factories. As Murray points out in The Strange Death of Europe, and it is a common refrain from people on the far right of the political spectrum, the history of man has been one primarily of war, conquest and exploitation (including slavery and indentured servitude). The Europeans crime was that they did it with the apparatus (and efficiency) of the industrial revolution – itself a product of European civilisation. While there is undoubtedly a certain grotesqueness in the industrialisation of human trafficking and the keeping of accounting ledgers and p/l sheets thereof it needs reminding that Europeans were neither sui generis in their practise of slavery, nor were they completely immune from being victims of it themselves. They were simply better at it. Unfortunate a fact as that proved for the millions that had their lives ruined as a result. Where Murray and most decent people diverge is the recognition that much of past human behaviour was execrable and not worth of emulation, even if one is in a position to do so.
Where Hirsch provides a more useful insight is in her elucidation of the role of black intellectuals and activists in the struggle for emancipation and the termination of slavery. Their tales have, no doubt deliberately, been (quite literally) whitewashed out of most history books and are rarely known outside of the academic circles dedicated to the studying of these historic episodes. Along with this she rightly draws attention to the self-serving, self-congratulatory narrative surrounding abolition, pointing to economic rather than altruistic drivers as well as the fact that upon its realisation the slaves were not freed immediately but rather had their statuses transformed to indentured servants as part of the compensation package payed out to their owners. And while Britain may not have practised slavery within its own shores (several legal rulings confirmed that while on British soil a man could not be treated as a slave owing to the inalienable rights the law accorded every resident, temporary or permanent) it certainly benefitted handsomely from the global trade in human chattel.
Exposing British establishment sanctimony over slavery and abolition is a laudable endeavour yet if in the process one elides the central role Africans themselves played in this terrible trade then it does rather lay one open to a counter-claim of hypocrisy. Though precise figures are obviously difficult to come by, some historians estimate that 90 percent of Africans shipped to the New World were originally enslaved by other Africans before being sold on to Europeans. Regardless the precise figure, it’s not in dispute that this horrendous industry relied upon the acquiescence of African tribal elites to sustain itself. These same elites, like their European counterparts, benefitted handsomely from it and amongst the most prodigious purveyors of their fellow Africans was the Ashanti empire of Ghana – who occasionally engaged in human sacrifice, a grotesque ritual outlawed by the British under the terms of the Treaty of Fomena. As the black Harvard professor, Henry Louis Gates Jr. stated in his 2010 op-ed: “slavery was a business, highly organized and lucrative for European buyers and African sellers alike.” Why she declines to discuss this aspect of the transatlantic slave trade can we can only speculate upon but if you expect your readers to face up to uncomfortable facts it’s probably best that you’re also prepared to do the same.
It is a similar story when it comes to her assessment of modern-day Africa and Ghana, where she attempts to create a new life with her partner and daughter. Acknowledging the rampant corruption and ineptitude embedded at all levels of officialdom she quickly goes on to exculpate the ‘fledgling nation’ (it has been free for almost 63 years) from all responsibility – it’s supposedly not their fault but rather of the British colonialist project that leaves them singularly incapable of eschewing graft and erecting the apparatus of a functional state. There are glimpses that despite this at some level she recognises the culpability of her own people in this all but it is no more than that – feint acknowledgements that perhaps it isn’t entirely the fault of the white man that Ghana isn’t a 15 degrees warmer version of England. It is a realisation enforced by her experience of knifepoint robbery on a secluded section of beachfront.
“For me, living in Ghana ultimately created more problems of belonging than it was able to solve…Britishness has not yet fully rejected its roots in ideological whiteness, and the pain that has inflicted on blackness.”
The fetishizing of black bodies, the invidious treatment of black sports personalities, typecasting of black actors and the confinement of black journalists to lesser roles, disparities in sentencing and incarceration rates, the ingrained deference so many black people – both in the West and in Africa – have towards whites; all speak to the lasting effects of white supremacy and its ubiquity: “White supremacy is ever-present in British society”. The problem with Hirsch’s disquisition, and it is one she shares with many others who write on such topics, is that it fails to grasp the simple truth that every society favours “its own” and that over the past 1500 years of “our own” has for reasons of simple demographics equalled white. African tribes have historically discriminated against and abused one another according to regional power dynamics. South Asians and Lebanese who set up shop in West and East Africa sometimes up to four generations ago, still find themselves denied full equality with “indigenous” peoples (recall Idi Amin’s expulsion of the entire Indian community). That white people still receive preferential treatment in Africa as Hirsch laments in her book, is for the simple reason that they are still associated in the minds of Africans (correctly albeit to a diminishing extent) with power. And therein lies the nub of the matter; for if there is a single inescapable conclusion to be drawn from all the voluminous books, treatises and research papers that have been written on the subject of race and identity it would be that expectations and demands of respect and equality absent the requisite trappings of power are not only hopelessly naive but actually counterproductive. They lock the holder into a self-defeating mentality whereby their own failures, lack of ambition and perseverance are excused based upon the discrimination (real or perceived) they experience. Respect is not something doled out gratis, it is earned (or imposed). And power is never relinquished voluntarily but only through the exercise of equal or greater power.
All BAME communities started at a similar disadvantage under the same system of white supremacy. One only has to look at the success of some, most notably the Ugandan South Asian community who came here, often penniless, almost two and a half decades after the Windrush docked, to realise that perennial self-pity and a stubborn focus on past injustices is not the pathway to emancipation. I’m reminded of the ending of JG Ballard’s Empire of the Sun and its depiction of a group of drunken British and American sailors on shore leave in Shanghai urinating down a flight of steps towards a watching crowd of Chinese.
“When it reached the pavement the Chinese stepped back, their faces expressionless. Jim glanced at the people around him, the clerks and coolies and peasant women, well aware of what they were thinking. One day China would punish the rest of the world and take a frightening revenge.”
The Chinese’ defeat of white supremacy both on the international stage and amongst their diaspora communities came about through a single-minded focus on the acquisition of power – economic, technological and then military. The humiliations the Chinese had suffered at the hands of white supremacy both at home and abroad (one can read the accounts of Chinese indentured labourers in California to get a flavour of just how severe they were) are avenged by the fact that the same nations responsible today have no choice but to kowtow to every Chinese dictate while obsequiously pitching for access to their investment and loans. Japan, devastated by atomic (and conventional) bombing and Western occupation, in the space of 40 years became an economic superpower. The rape of some 2 million German women and girls in the aftermath of the Second World War is unknown to most people to this day – the Germans were far more preoccupied in reindustrialising and becoming the world’s biggest export economy (a status they lost at the dawn of this decade to the Chinese). A perennial focus on wringing meaningless apologies from one’s oppressors is the preoccupation of those doomed to remain upon the path of subjugation.
That nations – and the peoples that comprise them – look down upon weaker nations is a verity as inescapable as the disdain the rich feel for the poor or the educated for the illiterate. Or as Thucydides sagaciously observed, millennia ago:
“…right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”
In short, power respects only power. While Europeans certainly despised South Asians, the Chinese and Japanese, the animus they exhibited towards these peoples was commensurately less than the unmitigated contempt they reserved for black Africans and reflective of the fact while they were not as powerful they viewed them, nonetheless, as possessed of some of the accoutrements of civilisation that elevated them above the status of primeval barbarians. It also undoubtedly helped that they did not deign to sell their own en masse into slavery.
It would perhaps better serve the interests of the black community if instead of defending the stultifying, violent, misogynistic rhymes of grime (and its latest incarnation ‘drill’ is even worse) music, Ms Hirsch focussed more on why such high numbers of Afro-Caribbean and mixed-race children are being raised in single-parent households. Family stability is the bedrock of communal achievement and is no small part the reason why those minority communities with a strong attachment to traditional family values fare better than their ‘black’ counterparts. Sadly, too much of Brit(ish) is outward looking when the truth is to be found closer to home.
The anecdotes of more recent racism Hirsch relates are all too familiar to most second-generation immigrant from the Gen X cohort and have already been widely catalogued. The experiences of African-Americans in the US are peculiar to that context and of limited benefit when discussing British identity. The unequal access to opportunity and the resultant stifling of social mobility is a handicap shared with the white working class – a fact she does acknowledge. The blind spot so many upper- and middle- class white people have for structural racism, expounded in a desultory manner with scattered anecdotes, are unlikely to prove persuasive (a far more sophisticated and comprehensive analysis is to be found in Robin Diangelo’s “White Fragility”). The latent bigotry many “white British” still hold for ‘foreigners’ (of all hues) that as a result of the Brexit referendum has suddenly found release, she rightly points out in the penultimate chapter and if her objective in writing British was to demonstrate that Britain is not yet a point where “race does not matter” then she does an adequate enough job – even if it could have been accomplished in a tenth of the word count. And while we may not have arrived at our post-racial nirvana only the most inexorable race equality activists would deny that the trajectory is certainly in that direction even if the pace of travel might be a little slower than desired. As for what is black or mixed-race identity then we are left no clearer about it except that braids, grime music and a long history of humiliation, brutalisation and racism at the hands of Europeans is clearly central to it.
But returning to the question of British identity and its current lack of inclusiveness? What does a true post-racial Britain look like? What possible amalgam of South Asian (itself a broad umbrella), Black African, Black Caribbean, Chinese, Turkish, Somali, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Atheist etc. identities would serve as something fully inclusive and capable of dissipating the competing claims and desiderata of these communities? The process of disparate peoples forging a common identity is inevitably a protracted one and triply so when their racial differences are so visible. The Norman invasion of England in 1066 overturned the established Anglo-Saxon societal order and imposed a new language and legal system. Under the new hierarchy the English were made second- class citizens in their own land (which they in turn had centuries earlier dispossessed the original Celtic inhabitants of). Norman rule was solidified often through acts of wanton cruelty (e.g. “the harrying of the north”). To this day research indicates that those with Norman surnames tend to be economically more advantaged than those with traditionally Anglo-Saxon ones. Yet over a process of centuries the two identities fused, the differences gradually dissipating away until a rich, unique synthesis emerged around which all the Kingdom’s inhabitants could cohere. When the English fought the French at Agincourt – they did so without thought to Norman heritage and despite Henry V being only the second King to speak English as his first language. As desirable as it may be, it is nonetheless fanciful to suppose that such a process might have already been accomplished in the 71 years since the Windrush docked.
Ultimately what is identity? If we view it in its most tribal terms – which side you would line up with in the event of conflict – then the problem becomes even more intractable. Is it realistic to expect British Muslims and British Jews who regard their religious/ethnic identity as superseding any other to, if so called upon, fight against their co-religionists at the behest of Her Majesty’s Government? Could British-Ghanians/Kenyans/Nigerians etc. see themselves as British and favour Britain’s strategic and economic interests above those of their ancestral nations, regardless of any compunctions around their moral probity? In the quest for dominance over limited global resources how much of a role can ethics and morality play in foreign policy? Is there a viable alternative to zero-sum capitalism? Perhaps these are the questions that first need resolving and which will then provide a more adequate departure point from which to work backwards to sketch out the lineaments of a new British identity.
“Identities are not becoming less important in our globalised world, they are becoming more important than ever.”
In the end I suppose it comes back to Murray’s musing on whether a Europe populate by vast numbers of, ethnically, non-Europeans can ever be like the Europe of old? The answer, as he well knows, is no. But what will it be and how will it function is anybody’s guess.
Much like Murray and The Strange Death of Europe, it is doubtful whether Ms Hirsch’s pastiche of vignettes and sophistry will prove persuasive to those not already so predisposed. As passionately and sincerely (an adjective I would hesitate to use in Muray’s case) as she articulates her arguments they nonetheless strike me as the unfortunate cross-pollination of middle-class guilt and mixed-race identity angst. Combined these seems to have inspired a sense of victimhood longing – that in order to be authentically black one must first be a victim of white racism. As a historical disquisition it is woefully inadequate and clearly parti pris a criticism equally as valid if you take it as a work of Kulturkritik. I have no doubt it will elicit many tuts and shakes of heads from its middle England readers as they are confronted with some of the more unsavoury aspects of slavery and in the struggle to extirpate structural white privilege I’m sure it will play a small part but on the central question of how Britishness can be redefined for the demographic realities of the 21st century I’m afraid it is hugely disappointing.
May the peace and blessing of Allah (swt) be upon sayyidina Muhammad. Ameen.