Ian Thomson

Time to lighten up

Her much-hyped Brit(ish) is in many ways an admirable guide to our mixed-race nation. But it’s a penance to read

In parts of Africa and the West Indies women are so anxious to ‘whiten up’ that they use skin-lightening creams. The British writer and broadcaster Afua Hirsch sees this as a regrettable consequence of the aristocracy of skin colour as instituted by British merchant-capitalists during slavery. (Skin must first be bleached before it can be considered beautiful.) Of mixed Jewish-African parentage, the 36-year-old Hirsch is proud to call herself black. In this much-hyped book she sets out to question lingering obeisance to the idea of colonial Britain and to that ghost of the British Empire, the Commonwealth. Why does it persist so?

Affection for Britain remains surprisingly strong in Commonwealth countries. West Indian pseudo-colonials of the sort portrayed by Sam Selvon in his 1956 novel The Lonely Londoners survive in the colonial-era law courts of India, in the Sandhust-educated echelons of the Jamaican army and in the Nigerian civil service. Black and mixed-race British people, if they are not themselves to be fatally hidebound by the imperial past, must abandon their streak of self-hatred and the colonially induced dark area of self-denial in their African slave heritage. So says Hirsch, a self-confessedly ‘privileged’, Oxford-educated woman raised in suburban Wimbledon back in the Thatcherite 1980s. Just as the Jamaican nationalist Marcus Garvey banned adverts for skin-bleaching chemicals from his ‘black pride’ newspaper Negro World, so Hirsch calls on black women to chuck out their straight hair wigs and bottles of skin bleaches and go Afro-natural. Even Meghan Markle had tight-curled hair as a child. It is only a shame that her hair is now so straight (or ‘tall’ as they say in Jamaica).

An amalgam of autobiography and polemic, Brit(ish) scorns all perceived nostalgia for the imperial past. To Hirsch it seems surprising — shocking, even — that some older Commonwealth citizens should hold romantic opinions of empire or display a pious Anglo-patriotism.

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