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On Race, Identity and Belonging

By Afua Hirsch
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Brit(ish) by Afua Hirsch

Published in 2018, Brit(ish) is a wide-ranging exploration of the relationships between British national identity, racial identity and immigration. Combining history, journalism, social analysis, cultural commentary and personal memoir, it aims to help jumpstart a long-overdue conversation about the roles that people’s races and origins play in modern British society. 

Key idea 1 of 14

Identity is complicated. 

“Who are you?” 

As we move through our lives, each of us carries around a multifaceted answer to that question in our minds. Think of the nouns and adjectives you use to describe yourself. Think of the stories you tell to make sense of your life. For example, one of those nouns might be your profession, and one of those stories might be the tale of how you chose your career. 

These answers form our identities – the ways in which we define ourselves as human beings. Now, as human beings, we are both separate individuals and social creatures at the same time. We therefore define our identities on both an individual and a social level. For instance, individually, you might define yourself as having certain personality traits, hobbies and interests. Socially, you might define yourself as belonging to a particular political party or ethnic group. 

Each of our identities represents an intricate blend of both types of characteristics. This makes identity a complicated phenomenon. On top of that, the social groups to which we belong also have identities of their own and unique ways of defining themselves. And to make things even more complex, those definitions are often contested and contestable. 

The identity of Britishness provides a case in point. Insofar as people identify themselves as being British, they’re confronted with a whole slew of thorny questions. What does it mean to be British? What sort of values does British society uphold? What is the national story of Britain? Who belongs to that story? Who counts as being British? 

In short, British people have to answer the same basic question with which we began – only now the pronoun has shifted. It’s no longer “who are you?” Now it’s “who are we?”

But while it might be unifying on a grammatical level, the question of British national identity can be pretty divisive on an ideological level. Bring it up with two different British people, and you might receive two very different answers – especially if one of them voted Leave and the other voted Remain in the 2016 referendum on whether the UK should leave or remain in the European Union. 

This “Brexit” referendum brought to the surface a host of simmering social tensions, which we’ll look at in the next blink. 

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