Why anti-racism work is under threat
Afua Hirsch first worked as a lawyer before turning to journalism. Among other assignments, she was a correspondent for the English daily The Guardian based in the Ghanaian capital, Accra. Hirsch, whose mother is Ghanaian and father is British, has written extensively on the history of migrant Britons and published a book entitled "Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging" in 2018.
When it comes to People of Colour in the UK, what is the status today?
Afua Hirsch: I think that in some ways we've made progress. The conversation is more visible and more people are beginning to self-educate about how they work. But in some ways, we've also gone backwards: on the right, we have unprecedented political hostility towards racial equality. We're actually seeing the demonisation of writers, thinkers and activists who do anti-racism work. It's actually quite a frightening climate. If you want to just report and discuss facts about racial injustice, you face personal persecution in the UK, which is something I don't think I could have imagined happening before in my lifetime.
Have you faced any persecution personally or could you mention some examples?
Hirsch: A memo was leaked from the British government last year saying that I had been banned from Whitehall; I was banned from working with government or civil servants because I'm an "extremist", because of the work I do on anti-racism. And the memo that got leaked also named other prominent anti-racist thinkers, like David Olusoga and Priyamvada Gopal. There have been statements made by government ministers questioning whether critical race theory should be banned and people who write books about anti-racism should be criminalised. We have a Minister for Women and Equalities who said that she doesn't believe in feminism or racism. So yeah, that is really serious. In the past, regardless of your political orientation, I think there was at least pressure to be seen to be taking these issues seriously.
You would expect that things would have changed, especially with the UK having a prime minister who's not white.
Hirsch: We do actually have more People of Colour in government than in the past, but they're all people who have used their own story as someone from an ethnic minority background to disown anti-racism work and to undermine the fact that we have racial inequality. The message you get now, if you look at Britain, is that if you want to be successful as a minority person, you have to publicly disown your own community in their struggle. That's a backwards step.
So, have they become the establishment, in that sense?
Hirsch: And they're willing to use their own heritage as a political weapon to say what they think white voters want to hear.
How does that work?
Hirsch: I think because we're living in a very populist climate in the UK, there's this sense that voters want to hear politicians being racist or xenophobic against immigrants, against the battle for racial equality. And so I think a lot of what they're saying is not necessarily what they believe, but what they think will be electorally successful. And I think that's their interpretation of the message of Brexit. The message of Brexit is that there are a lot of constituencies in the UK that have a legitimate grievance because they've been left behind. There has not been a plan for their communities after de-industrialisation, and the benefits from globalisation have not been distributed equally.
Those are problems that no one political generation can solve and it's very difficult to run an election pledging answers to those big existential problems. So what politicians are doing is they are taking the easy way out and blaming those grievances on immigration, on multiculturalism, hoping that if they blame visible others, it will give the appearance that they have some kind of answer to these much bigger, much more deeply rooted problems.
How is this all playing into the cost of living crisis, especially for People of Colour who are in the lower middle class in the UK?
Hirsch: I think that it has the potential to really expose the dishonesty of this political agenda because the reality is that, you know, Brexit didn't make Britain more prosperous. It didn't create more jobs. It didn't protect Britain from a global cost of living crisis. If anything, it made Britain more vulnerable to all of these problems. And actually, the departure of many immigrant communities has actually harmed their economy in so many ways because now the service sector, the agricultural sector is struggling to find people to do jobs. I think that it's actually making the electorate smarter and better equipped to interrogate the idea that there are quick fixes to any of these solutions.
Globally, authors of colour are gaining visibility. Do you think that that's just in name or has it actually affected how you are being seen as an author from a non-white background?
Hirsch: I think it's a fact that authors, academics and filmmakers with Black heritage have become more visible. That's partly just the backlog of having been squeezed out of having a platform and having no opportunity for so long. I also think it does reflect the fact that people do have access to more information, and they are able to find the stories that they want. It is becoming more of a marketplace, whereas in the past, you know, the information we had access to was so heavily controlled by white gatekeepers.
If you take something like the death of the Queen, the British media would have been able to police the media response to that, whereas now we hear voices from all over the world, from India, from Australia, from Canada. People who have very personal memories of atrocities that were committed in the name of the British Crown were able to speak about their experience and the British media could no longer control all the stories that were being told globally about what that institution meant. And I think in a democracy, we have to celebrate that.
Interview conducted by Manasi Gopalakrishnan
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