I first heard of writer and journalist Afua Hirsch’s book Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging, after reading Michael Henderson’s disparaging review of it in The Times. Far from putting me off, it made me buy a copy.
In his review, Henderson belittles Hirsch, who is part Ghanaian-English-Jewish, for saying she’s always struggled with her identity when she’s had an extremely privileged upbringing. Henderson doesn’t get it and he doesn’t want to get it. Hirsch’s parents worked hard to give her the best education possible. So? Does that mean she can’t have experienced racism, or that she can’t be a voice for other people and their experiences, or can’t observe and research, explore and explain, for example, Britain’s horrific role in creating the slave trade?
Yes the book is part autobiographical, but it also includes detailed research and history that was to me, both eye opening and shocking. Along with the many incredible things the UK has to offer, racism, other-ism and cultural stereotypes remain prevalent in British society today and our history has played its part in that. Hirsch does not deny Henderson’s argument that ‘We are not perfect people, and there are aspects of our national story that are shaming, but we have done far more good than bad.’ She simply offers up a part of British history that is less discussed, certainly not taught at school and more often than not shoved under the carpet, as Henderson attempts to do in his critique.
What has this to do with me? Like Hirsch I share a mixed heritage, my mother who is originally Lebanese immigrated to the UK to marry my father, an Englishman over 40 years ago; like Hirsch I have an awkward name and, while I’m not black, my skin colour is far from white – and when it comes to my acting career, it doesn’t take a genius to guess that I’m rarely put up for roles that are not ethnic minority ones.
One early chapter in Hirsch’s book focuses on ‘The Question’: ‘Where are you from?’ It’s one that I, and every stereotypical non-white Brit, can relate to. If I had a pound the saying goes… Since I was very young my mother always told me to respond that I was English – the immigrant’s natural fall back response based on the desperate urge to fit in and not be considered different. I’d protest “How can I say I am English? You didn’t even give me an English name ” and with my appearance, I knew I’d never pass. I don’t blame her. Orientalist views were prevalent then, and she has since told me that people she met in her first few years expected her to have arrived belly dancing on a camel.
How far have we come since those days? You’d be surprised. I meet people on a daily basis who still think I must have come on a camel, though wearing a burka now and shouting ‘Alla hu-akbar,’ rather than belly dancing.
Hirsch writes that, although often asked without any malice, ‘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 felt that confusion as a child and reading Hirsch’s book has since sparked conversations about race and identity with friends and strangers from different countries of different classes, ages and varying economic status: Caribbean, African, East Asian, South Asian, South American, Arab and others. And all of us have experienced racism, both subtle and aggressive, and all of us – as if in some sort of unspoken pact to be accepted – for the most part have chosen to keep it to ourselves. Not unlike the way women have accepted sexual harassment as if it was normal in the past out of fear and shame or the idea they did something to do deserve it.
One friend, Indian/English actress and filmmaker Yazmin Vigus Joy, who went to school in Cornwall, recounted how a classmate told her that a pop star wouldn’t fancy her because she had dark skin. And how at 18 when she was working in a local pub a disruptive customer responded to her request that he leave by saying because she was Indian he didn’t have to listen to her.
There are numerous examples. A friend of Peruvian heritage explained to me that in response to being teased about her looks and background at school – name-called Osama bin Laden (despite not being Arab) after September 11 – she wanted to change her features to be ‘more white’. The Palestinian/Lebanese American actress and writer Najla Said (pronounced Sy-eeed) in her memoir, ‘Looking for Palestine’ explains that because her surname sounded like those of the South Asian girls at her school in Manhattan, the other students thought she was their sister: “I try to imagine that I might make a similar mistake today if I were to meet say a Danish person and a Dutch person. But… I realise even if I did think that Denmark and Holland were somehow ‘the same’, I would probably still ask questions about each individual’s life and his customs and his language. Ultimately, I would probably figure out that their homelands have very little to do with each other.”
I appreciate that bullying always happens at school and kids will use whatever they can find, but ultimately that shouldn’t be an excuse. Many of the people I speak to have seen these reactions and experiences continue into adult life. In today’s even more polarized Britain, no doubt Polish, Russian and other European kids experience it too.
As Yazmin Vigus Joy says: “No kid thinks they are different to begin with because fundamentally we’re wired to connect with each other. In my experiences, people have used my ‘otherness’ to undermine or hurt me at critical points where I think they felt threatened in some way, which I understand now is ultimately coming from their own pain.” Najla Said also talks about feeling marginalised growing up in her book, and more recently when President Trump used his now infamous ‘shithole countries’ phrase, she wrote in a Facebook post: “I used to have two showers a day growing up for fear people would think I’m a dirty Arab.”
As a younger woman I would often play down my Lebanese side and consciously do subtle things to make those people around me feel more comfortable, like making it ‘totally fine’ when they couldn’t pronounce my name. Or if, after ‘the question’, something else comes up about Lebanon I would respond with something like: “Yeah my mother’s family are kind of Muslim but you know they drink alcohol, I don’t know anything about Islam, there are lots of Christians too there, my dad’s English, women in Lebanon wear bikinis”. I was obsessed, conditioned perhaps, with the wellbeing of others over myself, not wanting them to feel I was different or some kind of threat or even a terrorist. As a kid, I worried that my friends wouldn’t like Lebanese food – When one of my brothers recently told me he was name-called ‘Lebo burger’ by kids at school after they’d eaten a type of Lebanese beef burger at our home it’s no surprise I felt this way. As Hirsch says: “So many of us – of all races – have immigration in our backgrounds, but if it’s manifest in your skin colour, your faith or your name, you are tainted.” She points out how Princes Charles, William and Harry, all second and third generation descendants of immigrants themselves, are exempt from this.
What of how we place such stock on playing ‘the good immigrant’? Says Hirsch, “Legally we are entitled to remain here unconditionally, but psychologically, in the perceptions of others our right to be here is somehow conditional upon good behaviour, gratitude and adequate displays of the intention to assimilate.’” And if you’re not, you should go back to your own country. With the fall out from the Windrush scandal clear for all to see, I wonder whether even being the ‘good immigrant’ is enough.
Myself, like Hirsch and others, have done our best to maintain the ‘good immigrant’ appearance, by playing down our identities and doing out best not to fit negative stereotypes. In the book, Hirsch cites writer Musa Okwonga, who felt he had to counteract the negative stereotypes his white peers had seen of black people by not drinking, not accepting a joint and so on.
In the field of film and television, change has been slow to come and can’t come soon enough. While at Bristol University, I auditioned a few times to be part of the drama society and never did very well, I was probably a terrible actress at that point, but I definitely remember having this niggling feeling that I didn’t fit in physically – though I told myself it was just in my head. But then when I finally got a small role, it was to play a black, male mugger! I just don’t think the people running the drama society in this very white of universities had mixed with people from different ethnicities and didn’t know how to place me. Also there weren’t any black men around to play the part, (I only remember two black students in my entire year). It’s not a generalization to say that often those running the drama clubs go on to work in the film industry and maintain the same patterns, refusing to make space for others to join in. At least that’s been my experience and it’s these patterns that create the stereotypes which then seem to form the public’s idea of what, say, Chinese people are like, or black or Arab and so on….
In a BBC article about the prejudice British East Asians face, author Jingan Young writes: “Representation is important because it shapes your perceptions,” while in a recent piece in The Stage, actor Daniel York Loh says: “East Asian males have been nullified, emasculated, de-sexualised, made to look as ugly and garish as possible ... It’s a very colonial thing, and it lingers on...”
Hearing the experiences of fellow actors is saddening. As a British-Chinese friend of mine recounts, “It’s things like doing a Shakespeare monologue with full emotion, only for the main response from the person judging it to be ‘Where are you from?’ [The Question], followed by ‘you have an accent’ (that isn’t English). I’ve seen this happen with British Chinese who were born here and speak in perfect RP. There is an assumption that our spoken English will be difficult to understand because of our ethnicity. This then feeds an assumption that it will be very difficult for us to do Shakespeare or classical theatre, and only an exclusive chosen few can manage it, which can get pretty depressing if one loves Shakespeare (as I do).”
It gets more absurd. She continues: “Then there’s the flip side to that which is the assumption that we all speak Chinese or another Asian language fluently and can translate at the drop of a hat. It might seem on the surface like a compliment and high expectations, but it feels like being regarded as an eternal foreigner. And a worse variant of this is that Asian languages are interchangeable. I once went to a casting and, having told the person arranging the casting that I wasn’t fluent in an Asian language, was told that was fine and the role I would be seen for would be an American lady. When I arrived at the casting, the person doing the casting explained she wanted me to be a Korean-American mother having a rant, in her native language. I explain, with some embarrassment, that I don’t speak Korean, and was met with a ‘that’s fine – whatever Asian language you speak – have a rant in that’. I explained that I can speak a little Mandarin but am by no means fluent and that wouldn’t be the right language anyway... (panic beginning to set in) and was told just to ‘sound angry’ in whatever it was I spoke. I spoke gibberish with completely ungrammatical Mandarin words and phrases thrown in for her. The response? ‘Well, that sounded authentic to me.’ It was gibberish, and not even the correct Asian language. It just made me feel like a speck of a blob of ‘foreign’.
“Being expected to speak a foreign tongue, having to assert that English is your native language against a prevailing assumption that it must be your second language because of your ethnicity, having your accent scrutinised and dismissed as your foreign-ness (sometimes when there isn’t actually any foreign-ness at all), being seen as an amorphous mass of ‘yellow’ rather than an individual, being excluded from ‘British’ roles and being always presented as the ‘other’.”
My friend is not alone. I’m rarely cast as an English woman, I’ve only spoken English a few times in roles and English without a foreign accent even less. If you have dark skin and an odd sounding name, it’s still not easy to be cast to play someone British. And that’s despite the fact that every day in real life you’ll encounter teachers, doctors, lawyers, architects, builders, chefs, bankers and journalists from immigrant backgrounds or minorities who all speak perfect English. It would be funny if it wasn’t so absurd. So when I wrote and starred in one of my own films, I was adamant that it was just about a mother and daughter, just about people not their ethnicity, no accents.
Acting agencies tend to only have a couple of people from each ethnic background and often say that since they already have one brown skinned person who can play every character from any brown skin country they can’t take on anyone else. A major agent told me to my face that since I have a similar look to the Sri Lankan British actress they have, she couldn’t take me on. There’s no limit on their white British actors…
When it comes to languages though white actors are not expected to speak every European language under the sun, dark skinned actors are expected to speak every oriental or African language as if it’s a given. Not only is it not easy to swot up on random foreign languages for an audition a few days away, it’s so often to play a stereotype, motivation is hard to come by too. But at least they are supporting diversity right? Ahem.
The solution? Writers, executive producers, film investors, directors, casting directors and agents all need to work together to push for more casting anyone of any background in any role – it’s the norm that straight actors get to play gay roles, and vice versa so why not actors of colour? And the creatives must insist to studios and financial backers that it’s possible and trust that audiences won’t run and hide in horror.
As African-American screenwriter Shonda Rhimes tells Hirsch in the book: “I really hate the word diversity… It suggests something other … I have a different word: NORMALISING. I’m normalising TV. I am making TV look like the world looks. Women, people of color, LGBTQ people equal WAY more than 50 per cent of the population. Which means it ain’t out of the ordinary.”
Just because Henderson is happy to accept Britain “with all its imperfections, and prejudice is one of them, [because] it’s a better place [to live] than she thinks,” doesn’t mean Hirsch, or indeed any of us, can’t and shouldn’t call for change to remove such prejudice and imperfections and make Britain better.