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Balancing Identities: Being Irish-Ghanaian in Brexit Britain

Tadhg Kwasi looks at his African-via-Ireland heritage through the lens of Johny Pitts’ concept of the Afropean.

The sunset Dublin Ireland Cityscape photography

Dublin, Ireland.

Giuseppe Milo (Wikimedia Commons)

Discovering Johny Pitts’ concept of the Afropean has been transformational for me. It’s a word for the unspoken experience of living between two worlds but not belonging to either – on one hand African, the other hand English.

The Sheffield-born writer and photographer developed the idea through a book and project of the same name. In the intro to Afropean: Notes from Black Europe, he writes:

When I first heard it, it encouraged me to think of myself as whole and unhyphenated.

It suggested the possibility of living in and with more than one idea: Africa and Europe, or, by extension, the Global South and the West, without being mixed-this, half-that or black-other. That being black in Europe didn't necessarily mean being an immigrant.

The last part is particularly important because being an ‘immigrant’ in today’s Europe, particularly in Brexit Britain, is a deeply negative experience. It’s the most potent form of othering, with the dehumanisation at extreme levels costing many lives, including weekly deaths in the Channel.

Cultural theorist Stuart Halls puts forward the idea that all people’s cultural and national identity will increasingly be this complex hybridity. In the 20th century, with all its turbulence, he said of the transient nature of identity:

When you ask someone where you’re from, it’s going to be a long, complicated answer. The 21st century person is going to be so mixed up.

Tadhg Kwasis dad

Tadhg Kwasi's dad in the Netherlands, shortly after moving to Europe from Ghana.

Hall’s idea of identity as an unfinished conversation – that we are in dialogue with the external world asking who we are, what we are and what we would become – links closely with the concept of being an Afropean.

I am of obvious African heritage via Ghanaian parents and birth, alongside skin, but possess neither the tongue or culture, which renders that inheritance null. Being undoubtedly European in language, education and outlook via my upbringing since a baby in Dublin and my teenage years until recently in London, I had to balance both identities and all the contradictions that brings.

It’s undeniable that being in Europe, you lean towards an identity and worldview which neglects the African in you. The worst case scenario is that you absorb the view of your fellow Europeans and British, that Africa is a primitive wasteland in constant need of aid. Best case scenario you know your mother tongue, but feel uncomfortable in a culture that’s familiar but half-forgotten, like that ‘uncle’ who insists he changed your nappy and took care of you.

If you’ve retraced your roots even the tiniest bit, it’s hard not to develop a deep disillusionment with Britain, and by extension Europe. Learning about colonialism and why you’re in Europe, eyeing the buildings built with wealth extracted from your ancestors is painful. That’s all if racism hasn’t already broken your optimism and sense of self. Gone is any question of being English.

Ultimately, even if you’re proud of your heritage and culture, you still have an ingrained European worldview niggling at your African pride. Superior is the underlying feeling in the European overriding your Africanness – cuisine, culture, art, philosophy, the Enlightenment, the scientific revolution. I shouldn’t have been shocked Picasso developed Cubism from observing looted African artefacts – but I was.

So how do we reconcile the African-European divide and become wholly Afropean?

Being an Irish-Ghanaian in Brexit Britain is surreal. Considering the double colonisation of Ghana and Ireland, and the deeply isolationist atmosphere of present-day UK, being English, let alone British, is out of the question. A staunch pride in all things African is my only nationalistic urge, but it feels like an uphill battle trying to connect with and defend something you barely grasp.

Ireland in the early 2000s, when I was there, was encouraging of these contradictions, making you feel welcome for your differences but also making you feel Irish. I was able to share Ghanaian culture and in exchange received tales of Cú Chulainn, Gaelic football and the Irish language. It made me proud to feel Irish – so the recent rise of the anti-immigrant far right in Ireland is a pain most acute.

In stark contrast, England was harsh and unwelcoming. Most people refused to acknowledge my African background beyond ‘primitive’. No interest shown, I was handed an identity of merely ‘black’. Not made to feel British, beyond the fact that I‘spoke well for someone like me.’ So I took pride in my Irishness, despite the oddity that made me. When I lost my accent I became another black in Britain. Not entirely human, not welcome.

But getting closer to both my heritages, I found grounding as an Afropean. We Afropeans are united in being neither immigrant or native, with two worlds on our shoulders, embracing the spirit of being lost in the journey, with no weight on the destination or the goal.

by Tadhg Kwasi (he/him)

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