Where are you really from?
Born of Ghanaian and Jewish German descent, writer and broadcaster Afua Hirsch is British through and through. But from a young age through to the present day she struggled to fit in in a nation that purported to be inclusive and multicultural.
In her new book Brit(ish), Hirsch narrates her search for identity and belonging – from lying at school to working in the public eye – in the process discussing Britain's colonial past, the problem with claiming 'not to see race', the intersection of class and race, and the ubiquituous question 'Where are you really from?'
I’ve spent almost all my life in England; there is no other culture with which I can claim anything like as much familiarity. I’ve spoken its language all my life – correct, middle-class, Thames Estuary English – have studied at Oxford, been called to the Bar, and at this moment, I am still a correspondent for one of its best-known newspapers. I’ve both aspired to be part of its institutions, and been institutionalised by its aspirations. And yet this country of mine has never allowed me to feel that it is where I belong.
If I were to single out the most persistent reminder of that sense of not belonging, it would be The Question. The Question is: where are you from? Although I have lived in five different countries as an adult, nowhere have I been asked The Question more than right here where I started, where I am from, in Britain.
It can be difficult to communicate to British people who innocently ask The Question, usually out of a harmless, well-meaning curiosity, what is wrong with it. It’s rarely posed out of malice or with any ill will. In fact when I have met people who do actually feel hostile towards me because of the colour of my skin, or my ‘foreign’-sounding name, they never bother asking The Question – they already know the answer, which in their imagination is a mythical ‘darkie country’. When they tell you to ‘Go back to where you came from!’ they couldn’t care less whether such a place actually exists. The Question is usually asked by a different kind of person altogether – the interested, curious, polite and open-minded.
But being asked where you’re from in your own country is a daily ritual of unsettling. This is not to say there is anything wrong with getting to know people and their heritage, of course there isn’t. I’m unfailingly curious about people’s backgrounds and often draw people into conversations about it; some of the most interesting stories I have heard come from white British people, with Irish, Cornish or Celtic lineages, or Eastern European or Mediterranean immigration, or working-class city traditions that are rooted in places whose history we always live with vaguely, but whose family backgrounds paint a human picture behind the names.
But that’s different. That is a question, it’s not The Question. White people often look taken aback when asked about their background, it’s never the first thing they get asked in a regular social encounter, it’s not an upfront demand for information, it’s not requested with such insistence, it becomes almost a condition of further interaction. Even the questions asked of people with foreign accents are not The Question, since The Question, as someone like me experiences it, is often posed before a single word has even been uttered. The Question is reserved for people who look different, and, thanks to it, someone who looks like me is told that they are different, and asked for an explanation, every single day, often multiple times.
The Question is both a symptom and a cause. It’s a symptom of the fact that we don’t really know what it is to be British. Is someone like me included? Don’t know, people think, better ask. And there goes The Question. It’s also the cause. The more you get asked The Question, the more confused you feel about the answer. I can’t be British, can I, if British people keep asking me where I’m from? I must be something else. It could be Norway, where I was born; London, where I live; Ghana, responsible for my blackness; Germany, the reason for my last name – unmistakably that of a German Jew.
There are moments in my early memories that reveal to me the struggle of being brown, sharpened by the all-white background around me. I remember another little child reaching his hand out to my mother’s face, and wiping, to see if the dark, smooth brown came off like paint, or melted chocolate. Even as a four-year-old I remember the child’s mother scooping him up in a mortified panic, but she was not as mortified as me. My mother was different. So different that occasionally a child would reach out to touch, but often they simply stared.
I lied once, at Show and Tell on Monday morning at school, a private school I joined when I was seven, and where out of around one thousand pupils, I was one of only two or three black children. I’d spent the day before at Nana’s house – my mother’s mother Ophelia Joyce, who has helped raise me, and whom I love. But her house was a little dark, and smelt of jollof rice and fried fish. Visits like the one that weekend involved awkwardly greeting a stream of aunties wearing M&S cardigans and wigs, speaking Twi, relaying stories I didn’t understand, then marinading in their own expressions. Mmmmmm. Eh! Ooooo. I told my teacher I had been at my father’s parents’ house instead, Grandma and Grandpa, who lived in a light brown brick house they’d designed themselves, set in half an acre of lovingly tended garden in Sevenoaks. It was so much easier to explain that world to my already critical schoolteacher, and the other little white girls whose houses smelt of high-end potpourri and roast dinners. I drew a picture of Ann, my blonde-haired grandma, standing in a flower-strewn garden, me skipping under the flowery vines that formed an arch over the entrance to their pond. My parents caught me out, having found that picture in my school bag. That’s not what you did this weekend, they confronted me, you were at Nana’s house. Why did you lie?
I remember the lie with the same precision that I remember myself at that moment. Seven years old, a plump little brown girl, a dimple funnelling into a round chin, a smile that came easily, and the alien hair that crowned my difference. My sense of difference plagued me. I tried, and failed, to change my name to Caroline, hoping that might erase the alien in me. It was not enough. Everywhere I went, and everything I did, I stood out, sensing that there was something inherently shameful about the brown skin that set me apart, so much so that people preferred not to talk about it directly, but hinted it was something they were willing to overlook. Burying my blackness was the ultimate goal.
Sometimes, burying my blackness was like burying me. Sometimes it was as if my body didn’t exist. Children had blonde hair and blue eyes, and digressions were permitted in degrees – red hair and freckles, or chubby and brunette. But there were no images in which I saw myself reflected – I was off the scale of acceptability. There were no products to cleanse my scalp and untwine my grasping curls. There were European products, which only made my hair knotty and brittle, and, if a pilgrimage could be undertaken to a poorer, blacker part of London, Afro products for Afro hair – bright blue jellies that smelt of chemicals, and fluorescent yellow oils made of petroleum and lanolin, designed to smooth down hair that was coarser and thicker hair than mine. None were designed for me. My hair type was a fiction, and I was invisible. My friends tried to help by pretending I was the same as them in their imaginations, and that made me, for fleeting moments in which I existed only in their gaze, acceptable.
It’s harder than it looked, as a parent now myself, to live up to the standard set by my own parents in creating a home where my sister and I could experience a family life we did take for granted, could grow our ideas and our friendships, and flourish like the fruit trees in the garden. But both of my parents have identities that are very different to my own. I’ve heard my dad describe himself as ‘mixed race’ before. He is white, but his surname, and mine, is easily identifiable as one of German Jewish origin, and even though he wasn’t raised with Jewish faith or customs, he has a large family of Jewish relatives in Germany and Poland – the Hirsches, Lesses and Irwigs, those who survived the Second World War by fleeing just in time from their homes in Germany and Eastern Europe. When my dad graduated from university, he told me, his degree results were published in the Jewish Chronicle, along with all the other students whose names marked them out as the descendants of Jews. But most of his life has been lived as a white man in a country where that put him in the majority, albeit one who lived with three black women at home – my mother, sister and me. He told me that the first awareness of the prejudice that could be attached to race came as a young adult, visiting some of those Jewish relatives, who had moved to apartheid South Africa. ‘I felt very uncomfortable being treated as a white person, and therefore privileged, in that system,’ my dad says. ‘I couldn’t wait to leave.’
When Dad met Mum, he fell for her right away. From conversations with his younger sisters, I don’t think he appreciated how scandalous it would be for a white boy from Sevenoaks, a smart town in Kent, to bring home a stunning young black woman, with extravagant eyelashes, a miniskirt, Mary Quant make‑up and an Afro, to his parents’ house on the respectable, uneventful street, backing onto a wild forest, evocatively named Brattle Wood. My aunts still enjoy dining out on the shock in the household and the wider neighbourhood that day – everyone was talking about it. My mother was used to causing a sensation, but she had the confidence to pull it off. She was a beautiful, private-school-educated, nineteen-year-old artist with proud Ghanaian heritage and a remarkably enunciated version of the Queen’s English that I’ve come to associate with those born in the British Empire, as she was. She had spent the first years of her childhood in the Gold Coast, as it then was, becoming independent Ghana when she was six. She moved to the UK when she was eleven, but not before those formative years of being black in a country where that put her in the majority. Identity is multifaceted, and shaped by so many factors. In my parents’ case their social and political values– which I would describe as liberal – their belief in fairness and justice, in working hard and living well, are part of who they are, and characteristics they have passed on to my sister Ama and me.
One day, while writing this book, I was speaking to my parents about their identities. I said that it must be nice for them both, to know there is a country where they look like everyone else, blending in unnoticed. My parents froze when I said this, and then looked at each other in astonishment. It had never occurred to them that the experience of blending in was one my sister and I had never had. And it moved them. ‘I wonder if there is something we could have done differently,’ my mother said.
In fact I would say that, as parents, mine did everything right. They did not see things through the prism of race; they saw each other in the context of their loving relationship and regarded their children’s futures with aspiration. They raised me to be British, and there is no reason, from their point of view, why this should have been problematic. English was my first language, Britain was unequivocally my home, I was being educated at a prestigious school and brought up in an affluent area. So why did I feel to the very core of my being that this was not a place I could ever fully belong?
Afua Hirsch is a writer and broadcaster. She has worked as a barrister, as the West Africa correspondent for the Guardian, and as social affairs editor for Sky News. Brit(ish) is her first book and was awarded a RSL Jerwood Prize for Non-Fiction.