On Identity

On Identity

In 2018, we commissioned 51 authors from 25 countries to write essays exploring ideas about freedom for The Freedom Papers, a publication produced in partnership with Gutter Magazine. Read on for Afua Hirsch's essay, and visit guttermag.co.uk to purchase a copy of The Freedom Papers.

“Freeing yourself,” wrote the author Toni Morrison in her book Beloved, “was one thing. Claiming ownership of that freed self was another.” And as with so many of Morrison’s words, although this novel set amidst the enslavement of the American South could not have been further away from my own experience, it revealed to me profound truths that transcended the divide. Reading Morrison helped me understand what I instinctively knew from my own life to be true; that fundamental rights are essential to physical and psychological survival. But the freedom to define your identity is essential to be able to thrive.

Identity is a concept that lurks in our thoughts about freedom. Many of our basic liberties - family life, expression, religion and collective action - have the right to live according to one’s identity at their core. How we self-identify informs how we act. And at the same time, as Sartre pointed out, the relationship is inverted too. The way we act informs how our identities come into being.

But do most of us even think about identity? It has preoccupied me, as a consequence of being born into a country where I am a visible minority. To be half white and half black in a society that once invented both blackness and whiteness, as oppositional identities intended from the outset to be pitted against each other, is to have a very real sense of the perils that exist in defining one’s own identity. In some respects, navigating these hazards is a pre-requisite to doing anything else.

In my case, this struggle has been a rich source of experience in the obstacles that hinder freedom in discovering and expressing one’s identity. In my book Brit(ish) I recount an incident, when I was a teenager at school, sitting under a tree with four white school friends, in which they said to me, “don’t worry Afua - we don’t see you as black.” It was a well-intentioned comment, designed to show that they both distanced themselves from racism, and me from blackness. The reasons for that are easy to understand. Black identities have been loaded with messages of poverty, threatening physicality, criminality and backwardness; legacies of slavery and empire that we have internalised so comprehensively we do not even notice they are there.

For much of my life, my sense of black identity was under threat from peers and colleagues whose discomfort with the history underpinning it made them prefer not to see it at all. “We don’t see you as black,” has also been “I don’t see race”, or “we are all the same anyway.” The desire to reject identities that trigger discomfort, rather than unpick the source and consequence of that discomfort, is enduring and strong.

Threatened identities do not disappear, they harden. My perception that my identity was being denied only inspired me to delve into it more deeply. In this, I can relate - perhaps surprisingly - to the root causes of the populism, nationalism and fascism sweeping across the western world. Globalisation, unprecedented gaps in wealth between rich and poor, migration and the bewildering movement of goods and capital across borders - managed by the few but affecting the many - have placed white identities under threat in the same way that black identities have long been made insecure. These threatened, white identities, bolstered by a nostalgia for an imagined, monocultural past, are vulnerable to those offering quick fixes.

It’s a phenomenon that is nothing new. In the year that marks the fiftieth anniversary of Enoch Powell’s Rivers of Blood speech, the fascist former shadow Defence Secretary’s ghost looms large. It’s often forgotten that Powell served as an imperial officer in the British Empire, where he said that he “fell hopelessly and helplessly in love with India.” He studied Urdu at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. He saw the Raj as part of his destiny, and its loss, on Indian Independence in 1947, hit him particularly hard.

Powell is one of many striking examples of how a longing for lost imperial grandeur can be one of the most powerful drivers of fascism, with all its consequent assaults on the freedom to self-identify. Imperial nostalgia feeds racism in the most direct way, as it did with Powell, who went on to say that his beliefs overrode black British people’s sense of themselves. “The West Indian does not by being born in England, become an Englishman,” Powell, notoriously, said. “In law, he becomes a United Kingdom citizen by birth; in fact, he is a West Indian or an Asian still’. 

Those with a Powell-esque perspective appear to be more numerous and powerful now than they were in his own day, where he was disgraced and ejected from his own party. News that Windrush-era British people, born in the Empire and invited to Britain sixty years ago, have now been threatened with deportation, just shows how fragile the freedom to choose a British identity can be for a person of colour in Britain. Even when such a person is widely regarded as a legitimate citizen of the nation.

For political leaders, or the apparatus of the state, to override both the external and internal claims of a persons’ identity - as Britain did in threatening to deport members of the Windrush generation to countries they do not know - is one of the most serious violations of freedom imaginable. But more subtle micro aggressions against the freedom to self-identify take place every day. Political leaders have spoken of history as a “celebratory subject”, denying those whose personal relationship with British history is one of oppression and criminal wrongdoing a space in which to own their lived, and inherited truth. Claims that our world is post-racial - most often made by a majority who have the luxury of not thinking about identity in racial terms - deny a minority whose lived experience is the opposite, the freedom to have a voice.

As the post-war consensus around fundamental rights and freedoms matures, identities are the new battleground. The unresolved ghosts of the twentieth century; the collapse of empires, the diminishing of borders, the pace of technological change, have left contesting claims about who has the right to express their identity, and growing resentment at social norms that discourage us from embracing the cultural and historical heritage that is ours. We can’t shy away from this; it’s the struggle of the two on which all our other freedoms and rights depend.


Copyright © 2018, Afua Hirsch. All rights reserved.

Supported by the Scottish Government’s Edinburgh Festivals Expo Fund through Creative Scotland.

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