Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging, by Afua Hirsch, Jonathan Cape, 367 pp, €23.79, ISBN 978-1911214281
On October 2nd, 1992, Dalian Atkinson scores one of the very greatest of Premier-League goals. Atkinson is one of the strikers in an Aston Villa team that is pushing for the title, facing Wimbledon at Selhurst Park. With less than a quarter of an hour to go, Villa are leading by two goals to one, but Wimbledon are pressing for the equaliser. A looping ball pings high in the air, deep in Atkinson’s own half, and he uses his positional intelligence to evade a Wimbledon player and win possession. Then, at least sixty-five yards from his opponents’ goal, Atkinson does something extraordinary. Having held off a first man, he then skips past the despairing lunge of a second, jinks to the half-way line to avoid a third opponent, and cuts back inside. At this point, one of the Wimbledon players comes back for another go, and Atkinson evades him with almost impossible grace and skill. If you watch the video of the sequence, at this moment he looks almost like water rolling over a stone: Atkinson running at speed actually appears to flow over his opponent. He slows slightly to consider passing to a teammate, but then cleverly realigns himself, sprints faster towards the goal, and from outside the Wimbledon box, chips the ball so perfectly that it floats over the goalkeeper and kisses the back of the net. Justifiably, this almost impossible goal was voted the premier league’s first ever “Goal of the Season” by viewers of Match of the Day and Atkinson was described by the Daily Mirror as “the Premier League’s first superstar”.
Almost a quarter of a century later, on August 15th, 2016, Dalian Atkinson appeared in the British press for very different reasons. He had been suffering from manic depression and was at his father’s house in Mount Close, Telford, the same area where he had learned to play football as a child. At 1.39am, police officers were called to the home after Atkinson was believed to have argued with and assaulted his father. He then apparently advanced towards the officers. Reportedly, their response was to fire on him with a Taser: a stun gun that produces a 50,000-volt shock. Atkinson’s family claim that such a gun was used three times on him. One witness claims that he was then hit by the police and kicked while on the ground.
The family accused the police of “legalised murder”, and two West Mercia Police officers have since been charged with gross misconduct and placed under criminal investigation. His sister said that the family “do not know what happened nor understand why such force was used on him”. His nephew commented: “If the police are turning up to a scene where someone is having an argument, they have to be prepared to calm that person and not just go straight for the Taser.” The Independent Police Complaints Commission is now investigating the death, and a pre-inquest review of the case is due in June.
But even before the commission reports, there are certain things that we do know. We know that black people in the UK are three times more likely than white people to have a Taser gun used on them. Although black people are only 4 per cent of the UK population, they make up 12 per cent of the 36,000 cases of Taser use between 2010 and 2015. Black people are also twice as likely to die in police custody as their white counterparts. And of course, 67 per cent of people who find the police using a Taser on them are suffering from a mental illness, and we know that black men are sevventeen times more likely to suffer from psychotic illness in the UK. In this light, Dalian Atkinson’s death looks like less of a case of bad luck and more like the entirely predictable operation of a racist society. Afua Hirsch, in her new book, Brit(ish), states that various campaign groups have found that “when black men are vulnerable and in need of some kind of intervention, they are much more likely to be seen instead as a threat that needs to be put down with a massive show of force”.
Quite aside from the specific case of Dalian Atkinson, football has long been an important index of racial attitudes in Britain. In 1988, the Liverpool player John Barnes was famously caught on camera at Everton’s Goodison Park, kicking away a banana that had been thrown by the crowd. At times, Barnes faced a similar greeting from supporters of his own team. Nick Hornby, in his book Fever Pitch, recalls the monkey noises and banana-throwing that accompanied Barnes’s debut at Liverpool in 1987, writing:
[…] maybe the bananas were not intended as an expression of racial hatred, but as a grotesque form of welcome – maybe these Liverpudlians, with their famous quick and ready wit, merely wanted to welcome Barnes in a way that they thought he could understand, just as the Spurs supporters gave [Ossie] Ardiles and [Ricky] Villa an Argentinian tickertape welcome in ’78. (This latter theory is hard to believe, but it is no harder than believing that so many fans could be so poisonously angry about the arrival at their club of one of the best players in the world.)
In the face of such horrifying behaviour, black players have consistently acted with remarkable restraint. In 1995 the white Frenchman who played for Manchester United, Eric Cantona, was famously goaded by racial abuse from a spectator, who yelled to Cantona that his mother was a “French whore”. Cantona responded by literally leaping – feet first – to kick at the crowd. But in the face of similar and often far worse provocation, those pioneering black footballers of the 1980s (players like Laurie Cunningham, Brendon Batson, and particularly Cyrille Regis) responded by playing their sport with skill and determination. When Regis won his first cap for England in 1978 (only the third black player to do so), he opened his mail to find that someone had also posted him a bullet, attached to the message: “If you put your foot on our Wembley turf you’ll get one of these through your knees.” But again and again, the physical and social grace of these players highlighted the absurdity of the thugs and banana-throwers.
In the 1990s, the sight of black footballers in the top flight of English football became increasingly common, and many of us white boys lionised these figures. At Aston Villa, the Irish player Paul McGrath remains perhaps the club’s most enduring hero. Although McGrath finished his playing career at the club in 1996, his name is still regularly chanted at Villa Park to this day. Those of us who admire McGrath of course loved watching him play football, but we also loved the way he could dominate the pitch despite the hostility of opposing fans, despite his crumbling knees, and despite his well-publicised struggles with alcohol. Many of us fans also felt fascinated by McGrath’s hinterland, a man who was Irish-born and raised partly in Dublin orphanages, the son of an Irish mother and Nigerian father, and by the witty, soft-voiced, intelligently modest way that he presented himself.
Theo Dorgan writes of how, after McGrath’s Irish team exceeded all expectations at the World Cup in 1990, the Irish plane was returning to Dublin airport at the same time as a plane bringing Nelson Mandela for an official visit. As Dorgan writes, Mandela’s plane taxied up first:
[…] the doors open, the band strikes up, and Mandela steps out, accompanied by Kader Asmal, minister in his government and, until his return home, the heart and soul of the Irish Anti-Apartheid Movement. The huge crowd is taken aback for an instant, then an enormous roar: ‘Ooh, Aah, Paul McGrath’s Da!’ Utterly spontaneous, followed by long volleys of heartfelt, deafening applause. Mandela, taken aback, bends down to Kader for an explanation. He straightens, looks around him, beaming, then slowly raises a triumphant fist in the air. He just about dances at the top of the steps. I have never heard a crowd roar as they roared then.
The story soon reached a very wide audience in the UK by being recounted on the Wogan television show. And today it can be seen as a defining moment for a more multicultural Ireland, as Dorgan’s upbeat rendering of the story shows. But of course there is considerable ambivalence in the tribute. Despite the crowd’s evident joy in both McGrath and Mandela, the punchline still revolves around that old racist idea that “they all look the same. I can’t tell one from the other.”
English football helps teach us about that kind of ambivalence. Ron Atkinson, Dalian Atkinson’s manager at the time of his 1992 wonder-goal, once had a terrific record of supporting black footballers such as Cyrille Regis, Laurie Cunningham and Dwight Yorke. But today he languishes in disgrace: in 2004 he was commentating for ITV when a studio microphone picked up his description of the black French defender Marcel Desailly: “He’s what is known in some schools as a fucking lazy thick nigger.”
Atkinson has been publicly shamed for these comments, and largely banished from television. Yet such ugly sentiments continue to simmer close to the surface in the UK. Two weeks before I wrote this review, at the end of March 2018, the current England manager, Gareth Southgate, felt moved to criticise the racism of England fans. The former player Steven Gerrard had posted a photograph of the England under-16 side on Instagram, and some supporters had responded with comments including “Is this England or Senegal?”, “Looks more like Nigeria”, and “Seven black players, ha ha ha.” Southgate responded by saying “I don’t think we should just talk about racism in Russia. We’ve got to get our own house in order. There are things going on in our own country that aren’t correct.”
One of the most intelligent responses to the racism generated by top-flight football in the UK has been that of the black playwright Roy Williams, who in his 2002 play Sing Yer Heart Out for the Lads, explores what happens in a London pub during a 2000 World Cup match between England and Germany. The play unfolds over ninety minutes, with each act the real length of a half of a football match; and Williams shows how, through sporting enthusiasm, the patriotic sentiment of the white spectators might morph into obvious racial hatred. If you have ever seen a Roy Williams play in the UK you will also know that one of the key things that he seeks to do is to defamiliarise the theatre space for the comfortable white middle classes who usually go there: the language and social codes explored on the stage (and often the composition of the audience itself) mean that the venue suddenly begins to look like a place where white dominance might be opened to questioning and interrogation.
Unlike Roy Williams, Afua Hirsch doesn’t make football central to her analysis of, and challenge to, racial attitudes in modern Britain. In fact her book. Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging, doesn’t mention soccer at all, staying largely instead in the kinds of cultural areas where she herself has prospered. As she openly acknowledges, Hirsch is a well-heeled product of enormous privilege. She was educated at a private, single-sex girls’ school in leafy Wimbledon; studied the same course (PPE) at Oxford University as an astonishing number of the British elite (politicians like David Cameron and Ed Miliband, journalists like Robert Peston and Nick Robinson); became a London barrister; became the social affairs and education editor at Sky News; became a Guardian correspondent and columnist. She now sends her own daughter to a posh London school, and remains (surely comically?) appalled at schools that do not send fifteen-year-old work-experience students to places such as the Houses of Parliament or to the best London law firms. Yet nonetheless, even from this pinnacle of society, she cannot escape the question “where are you from?” This disconcerting, and racially loaded, line of inquiry (“The Question”, as she labels it) has long made her feel that Britain cannot really be regarded as her home, and the book recounts the investigations into black British identity that she has conducted as a result of feeling such alienation.
The main negative point of this book is that, because it is so heavily dependent upon anecdote and personal experience, its full promise is never really fulfilled. Although the title, Brit(ish), purports to tell us something about Britain as a whole, the book’s view can feel rather circumscribed. In geographical terms – until very near the end –its engagement with Britain really goes no further than London and occasionally Oxford (she is good on the social distinctions between London boroughs, for example, and is alive to the distinctions in wealth between Oxford colleges). There are also some contradictory impulses at play: notably the question of whether Hirsch can really be the champion of wider “meritocracy” that she claims to be at the same time as being such an evident admirer of private schooling, which in the UK plays an odious role in embedding privilege and existing advantage.
I also of course think that Hirsch missed a trick by deciding not to talk about soccer. Association football tells us much about racial attitudes in the UK because of the game’s geographical span, its manifest popularity, and – most importantly of all – the relative lack of barriers to participation. In order to become a successful lawyer or journalist or television presenter, say, one must have access to the right networks of privilege, including often access to the funds to pay for expensive education. To become a successful footballer, one must only have access to a ball and two jumpers for goalposts. As Nick Hornby writes:
One of the great things about sport is its cruel clarity: there is no such thing, for example, as a bad one-hundred-metre runner, or a hopeless centre-half who got lucky; in sport, you get found out. Nor is there such a thing as an unknown genius striker starving in a garret somewhere, because the scouting system is foolproof. (Everyone gets watched.) There are, however, plenty of bad actors or musicians or writers making a decent living, people who happened to be in the right place at the right time, or knew the right people, or whose talents have been misunderstood or overestimated.
With football, the scouting system is transparent in searching for the best, most skilful players, and modern fans are consequently faced with both multiculturalism and manifest black success. The adulation and excoriation faced by black players during the live stadium event can often be relatively unfiltered. But elsewhere, in the kind of media and professional world that Hirsch knows so well, and where she focuses her analysis, racism can be more coded and hidden. So it can be more difficult to locate what exactly is going wrong, and why black people are so underrepresented in many fields. Is it the school system that is failing? Are the unconscious biases of employers to blame? What about the absence of black role models, or the interpenetration of prejudicial ideas about race and class? Or is it really all about the effects of austerity upon the life chances of those in poorer communities, or about the unstated legacies of colonialism?
Whatever the reasons, it is certainly true that there exists genuine racial inequality in the United Kingdom today, and this is why Hirsch’s study is so important, because she repeatedly draws our attention to the operations and assumptions of day-to-day racism, and highlights the absurdity of the notions of those white people who claim that they “don’t see race”. Take, for instance, the problem of diversity in British higher education, to which Hirsch devotes attention via her focus on the University of Oxford. Disgracefully, in 2009/10, out of 14,000 professors in the UK, only fifty were black. Only the University of Birmingham had more than two black British professors on the books. In 2015-16, for the third year in a row, no British university recorded a black academic as working in a senior management position. At the same time, 1,805 black people were recorded as working in secretarial roles, and another 1,410 in “elementary occupations” such as security guards and cleaners. A system that claims to educate and enlighten, yet keeps black people scrubbing the toilets rather than speaking in the management suite is beyond shameful: indeed, it looks very much like an apartheid system.
The racial inequalities of the sector encourage not only daily micro-aggressions but also physical acts of aggression. Near where I live, in mid-March 2018, a female university student, Rufaro Chisango, had to take shelter from a group of men in a Nottingham-Trent hall of residence chanting racist abuse such as “we hate the blacks”. Chisango had to lock herself in her room in order to protect herself, and the incident subsequently became a short-lived national news story when video footage of the incident was released online.
Thankfully, there are signs of resistance. In 2017, the Cambridge students’ union officer, Lola Olufemi, wrote an open letter to the Cambridge English faculty, pointing out
that the [Cambridge English] curriculum, taken as a whole, risks perpetuating institutional racism. The history of the canon is a history that has wilfully ignored, misrepresented and sidelined authors from the global south. Sadly, the current syllabus is a result of this history; it is far too easy to complete an English degree without noticing the absence of authors who are not white.
The letter went viral when posted online, but provoked a furious backlash in some quarters: the Daily Telegraph, for example, published a large picture of Olufemi on its front cover under the caption “Student forces Cambridge to drop white authors”. The newspaper later printed a retraction and admitted that the caption was inaccurate. Olufemi received a predictable torrent of online abuse, but nonetheless her work has provoked a great deal of discussion and soul-searching across the UK’s higher-education establishment. Hirsch has many intelligent things to say about what might lie behind this movement to “decolonise the curriculum”. Her memoir is fascinating for her insight into the way that even successful and intelligent women like herself who have attended elite universities in the UK are forced into a daily navigation around the ugliest assumptions of white superiority.
Hirsch writes admiringly about the “Rhodes Must Fall” protest movement in Oxford, which seeks to pull down the architectural signifiers that endorse colonial attitudes and that adorn many impressive university buildings. And she explains exactly why such a movement is necessary: it isn’t simply a bizarre historical fixation, but a response to a British society in which, as she points out, a Yougov poll in 2016 found that 44 per cent of the British population still thinks British colonialism was a good thing. In a country where a large part of the national myth depends upon celebrating the fact that Britain was not overrun by Germany in the twentieth century, there is something more than obtuse in this refusal to imagine oneself into the minds of others, and to see what British imperial adventurism might look like from the other end of the gun. Hirsch writes compellingly about whether Norman Tebbit’s “cricket test” for immigration might ever be viewed in reverse: in the British tabloids, those moving from England to the Costa del Sol are usually viewed as somewhat roguish “British expats” rather than migrants who are stubbornly refusing to assimilate and who should really be cheering on the Spanish national sports teams.
Hirsch also writes movingly about her own family heritage and how it affects her thinking. She is the daughter of a black Ghanaian woman and a white English Jewish man, and has found herself consistently encountering “The Question” about where she is from. As a result, she has repeatedly tried to explore her “broken identity”. After graduation from Oxford, she opted to search for this identity in Africa, where some of her experiences are disappointing and some terrifying. In Kenya the staff at a restaurant frequented by expats refused to find a table for her because of her black skin. In Senegal she found herself assaulted by a lunatic in a market, and was upset to find that the people around her didn’t particularly worry about her plight – here she proved simply “another foreigner enjoying a lifestyle that for most people was far out of reach”. And in her ancestral land of Ghana she found herself robbed at knifepoint and had her earrings ripped from her ears, after which began to see the same expression that the robbers wore on the faces of the poor all around her: “a wild hunger, full of hate – I began to see everywhere. It had always been there.” Eventually she realises that Britain must be her home because “there is nowhere else to go”.
Yet in this place from where there is nowhere else to go, she observes the way that members of black communities are nonetheless compelled to moderate and change their behaviour. She remembers how, as a teenager, a local shop-owner in the genteel and generally white area of Wimbledon ushered her from his premises, pronouncing that “the black girls are thieves”. She describes how, when she now goes into such shops, she takes care, to “keep my hands visible at all times”. In one of the most fascinating parts of the book, she describes her visit to a swingers’ group, “the Black Man’s Fan Club” in Hertfordshire, which caters for white women who want to have sex with black men. Through her description of this visit, Hirsch takes apart the lazy assumptions about black sexuality, tracing modern stereotypes back to the racial ideas of Elizabethan England.
Of course, many people of Irish descent in the UK will recognise what the game is here. We must know, when we see strong, clever black men like Lenny Henry, Ainsley Harriot or Richard Ayoade cavorting on television, that they have to disguise that threat conveyed in age-old stereotyping, and instead establish their presence through defanged comedy in order to avoid scaring the white English. The Irish have long been adept at doing this: throughout the Troubles, on British television we saw Terry Wogan, Val Doonican and Henry Kelly all conveying the message look, don’t be scared of us …we’re not going to attack you. But of course the Irish have tended to be white, they could blend in, could pick up the English intonation and social mores and become effectively invisible. Those of African or Caribbean descent do not have this option: they remain obviously “other” in a majority white country.
By the end of Hirsch’s book she reaches the conclusion that there isn’t so much a crisis in her own sense of identity ‑ although that is the assumption with which she began. Rather there is a crisis in British identity itself. Britain, as she sees it, remains in denial about the racial element of its own history, and the Brexit vote is, in this reading, powered by a national sense of confusion and lack of confidence (what is “English” anyway? How is it different from “British”? How can collective self-identity be reasserted in the face of globalisation?). In this context then we find the dangerous siren call of “Empire 2.0”, with all of its selective amnesias, fixed identities, and nostalgic certainties.
Hirsch’s book went to press before the moment this year when researchers from London’s Natural History Museum announced the results of a new DNA analysis of Cheddar Man. Cheddar Man lived ten thousand years ago, and now provides Britain’s oldest complete skeleton. The museum’s recent genetic research suggests a 76 per cent likelihood that he had dark curly hair, and that he had black skin. In some places of course that research has been met with derision. The Daily Mail assured readers “There’s no way to know that the first Briton had ‘dark to black skin’’’, whilst the i-newspaper reported on a slew of inane Twitter postings, such as:
If another stupid twit of a so called ‘researcher’ tries to tell me that the first humans in Britain were black. I will personally hunt him/her down. I am sick of listening to these thick so called academics.
The latest academic research suggests, then, that black men and women haven’t been invading the UK in the twentieth century. Quite the contrary. Those with black skin were the initial residents of the country in the first place. The hostile reaction to such information tells us much about the current predicament of a nation that has had “enough of experts”. Such a reaction will not have surprised Afua Hirsch. On the day after the Brexit vote in 2016, on her way to work at Sky News, she was asked by a stranger: “You’ll be going home soon then?”. “That evening, I saw an African man, sweeping the road outside Wimbledon station in his Merton council uniform and high-vis vest, shoved by a young white man, flanked by his two friends, beer cans in hand. ‘Time for your lot to fuck off!’ he shouted.”
James Moran is head of drama at the University of Nottingham. He is the author of The Theatre of Sean O’Casey (2013) and Irish Birmingham: A History (2010).