White Power, Political Correctness and Black Free-Thinkers

I recently had an interesting discussion on race and political correctness with a black friend I shall describe as a political agnostic. A successful banker by day, he called me to complain about a black work colleague who, when recently stopped by a white traffic cop for breaking a driving rule in London, had promptly whipped out the race card: ‘Why did you stop me? Is it because you saw a black man driving an expensive car?’

The policeman became defensive, muttering nervously that it had nothing to do with race, a traffic rule had been broken, etc. The whole affair ended with a caution. My friend who was in the car asked his colleague why he brought up race when he knew he was in the wrong. ‘Dude, when in a tough spot with a white person, bring up racism and there’s a 99% chance they’ll get defensive and back down,’ his colleague responded, laughing.

‘I can’t stand such attitudes’, my friend declared to me, and we launched into a debate on racism in Britain. He fumed at ‘all these black race experts claiming to see racism everywhere, constantly playing the race card. They’re so full of it, you know? They’re encouraging black people to blame racism for all their problems. Me, I’ve never encountered racism in my career, nor can I claim to have worked twice as hard as my white colleagues to get where I am today as the ‘we-blacks-have-it-so-hard narratives’ always suggest. There’s so much BS about race these days.’

I said, yep, that’s why we need to start taking on black thought-leaders who yell ‘racism’ as strategy and leverage political correctness for advantage. At this point, my friend’s tone changed drastically. Well, actually he couldn’t agree with me on that one. ‘Look, personally, I find it beneath me to play the race card but truth is, it’s the only card black people have to play in this country so I wouldn’t support what you are suggesting,’ he said.

I asked what he meant. ‘Think about it,’ he said, ‘if enough blacks started criticizing the victimhood narratives of black leftists who thrive on political correctness, we’d be helping delegitimize PC itself. If PC is delegitimized in mainstream white society, what’s to stop things from going back to how they were in the 70s? Whites still hold the economic, political and demographic power while blacks are still weak as a group. The fear of being called racist is the only thing restraining whites from using their power to dominate us openly. Now imagine that restraint is removed. You know how people behave when given unchecked power? It’s not even about white or black, it’s about human nature. A less PC Britain would be ugly and we’d be helpless to do anything about it. You want people to be able call you nigger without fear of ostracism? Dude, we can complain in private but in public you need to remember the big picture.’

Over the years, I’ve heard similar sentiments expressed by more than a few black people I know who don’t buy the racialist dogmas of the identitarian left but consider them irritants necessary to their survival because they help keep in check what many black folk living in white-majority societies fear most, deep down: unrestrained white power. This is why black folk often discuss race differently in private and in public. In private we can be frank and slay black identity politics but in public we need to remember the ‘big picture’ and never criticize these guys too strongly. Such calculations, driven by instincts of self-preservation, keep many black free-thinkers from decisively criticizing radical and divisive leftists like Kehinde Andrews, the black professor who declared ‘racism is in Britain’s DNA’ and is essentially as prevalent today as it was fifty years ago.

This is way more than fear of the in-group labelling you a ‘coconut’, an ‘apologist for white racism’ or one of those black people who just ‘doesn’t get how structural racism works’. It is a feeling, deep down somewhere, that while these leftist claims of pervasive racism in Britain may be grossly exaggerated and disconnected from prevalent realities, the constant moral and psychological pressure on white Britain to be perpetually proving it is not racist is ultimately in the self-interest of everyone non-white. It is a necessary check-and-balance in the racial equation and it would be an exercise in self-harm to weaken those wielding it. So while we roll our eyes in private at the ridiculous claims that white racists lurking everywhere, we allow the race warriors to keep white folk on the moral defensive.

While some black folk are driven to tolerate the excesses of the radical left by a fear of white power, the latter seem motivated by resentment of it. This resentment is palpable in black writer Reni Eddo-Lodge’s recent popular book on racism in Britain titled Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race. In a revealing passage seeking to distinguish between racism and prejudice, she narrated an incident she once experienced in a Caribbean eatery:

“Years ago, buying myself a lunch of Caribbean food I was greeted by a smiling [black] owner behind the counter who waited until his white customers had left before confiding in me that he saved the best cuts of meat for ‘people like us.’ Yes, that man was prejudiced…but he couldn’t possibly affect the life chances of his white customers with his feelings against them…all he could affect in any terms was their lunch…this is the difference between racism and prejudice. There is an unattributed definition of racism that defines it as prejudice plus power… everyone has the capacity to be nasty to other people, to judge them before they get to know them. But there simply aren’t enough black people in positions of power to enact racism against white people on the kind of grand scale it currently operates at against black people.”

Eddo-Lodge acknowledges that black people can be just as prejudiced as white people but seems to believe black prejudice is harmless and hardly worth moral condemnation since black people don’t have power in Britain. However, in her view, white prejudice (sorry, ‘racism’) is bad because whites have power. While I get the practicality of the logic, this nevertheless strikes me as a strange kind of morality; one where members of weaker groups are not held to the same moral standards as members of stronger groups because they lack power. Thus, the entire onus of responsibility for keeping Britain as unprejudiced as possible lies with the powerful white majority. Minorities like myself are allowed to indulge in our racial prejudices – after all, who can this realistically hurt? But if I were a random white person I could not imagine finding this moral equation fair at all.

Throughout Eddo-Lodge’s book (which I consumed in an evening, it’s that readable), one gets the distinct feeling that the author’s main beef is with the black-white power dynamic rather than the immorality of racial prejudice per se. If the latter were the case, she should have been just as outraged by the Caribbean gentleman’s comments as she would no doubt have been if she heard a white restaurant owner telling a white customer he saved the best cuts for ‘people like us.’ But she wasn’t. Because blacks don’t have power in Britain.

Indeed, the reality is that white people don’t need to care what black people think of them because their life chances are not dependent on black opinion. On the other hand, if you are black in Britain, your life chances, especially with regards to career, are likely to hinge on the opinion of a white person or people somewhere along the line, so you have to care about white opinion, especially if you are ambitious. As you try rising up the ranks of your field, it is very likely those who decide how high you go will be white.

Though they approach the issue with fundamentally different emotions, the common theme running through my friend’s fearful stance and Eddo-Lodge’s resentful one, is the power advantage whites hold over black folk in Britain. When it comes to resentment at white power, I find it somewhat ridiculous to be living in a country that is 87 per cent white and yet be offended white people hold structural and power advantages over a group that constitutes less than 5 per cent of the population. Majority ethnic or racial groups tend to have advantages everywhere.

For instance, in Nigeria, where I was raised, the three largest ethnic groups — Yorubas, Igbos and Hausa-Fulanis – all enjoy huge structural advantages over the smaller ethnic groups in their home regions. In the areas of Nigeria where they constitute a clear majority, these groups (or rather their elites), wield all the political and economic power. Being angry because a group much larger than mine has significantly more power is like being angry that there are people who have more money than me; an ultimately fruitless exercise in resentment.

Perhaps I’m too simple-minded but the way I see it, in this globalized age, if I want to live in a place where people closer to my skin colour have power, I can always move to any of the 60-plus black nations in the world where black people run the whole show. But as long as I choose to live in Britain, I see little benefit in being resentful of demographic realities.

Nor, after giving it some thought, do I think my banker friend’s fears are ultimately justified though I can’t pretend his forebodings about unrestrained white power did not make me pause and wonder whether indeed I was not missing the big picture! I know I haven’t lived in Britain for as long as the people I have criticized here. The son of a Nigerian father and Polish mother, I grew up in Nigeria and then spent my twenties and early thirties in Poland before moving to the UK some three and a half years ago.

However, everything I’ve experienced in that time (and I’ve travelled round a bit) tells me that the overwhelming majority of Britons have internalized racial tolerance and openness towards people of all colours and hues. Britain is certainly a different world compared to the previous countries I lived in – Nigeria and Poland – which are both monoracial. Despite the fact that I’m half-Polish and love many things about Polish society and culture, as a black person I feel incomparably more comfortable and secure here in Britain than I ever did in Poland or any of the numerous other European countries I’ve visited over the years.

Perhaps having this personal experience of other European countries makes it easier for me to appreciate just how open and tolerant Britain is compared to black people who’ve never lived in any white-majority country other than Britain. And no, this doesn’t speak badly of those other countries; it simply speaks well of Britain.
I would tell my banker friend, whose fears I understand, that there is a huge gulf between a society where race is weaponized – to the extent black folk can count on white folk backing down once we claim ‘racism’ – and a society where white people feel free to call us ‘niggers’ in public. To suggest it is an either/or option is to create a classic false dichotomy.

I know there’s black folk out there who feel stuck between supporting an identity politics they often find ludicrous and the fear that criticizing it could one day come back to haunt them; not just anonymously from alt-right social media trolls, but on the streets and in the workplace, hatred and racism spewed right in their faces. The fundamental task thus lies in encouraging black voices who will persuasively make the case that the overwhelming majority of British society has gone way past that and this scary vision is more in the sphere of black paranoia than feasible reality.

Besides, if we keep constantly fretting over which group has how much power, how many of them there are, how many of us there are, how many of ours are billionaires, how many of theirs are billionaires, isn’t this a sure path to building a balkanized society of constantly rivalling and mutually envious tribal groups rather than a national community united by shared values and a common destiny?

Image: ‘Paranoia’ by Mike Boiiii, Flickr

Weaponising victimhood

Trevor Phillips once said to me – only half joking – that newspapers should have identity correspondents, just as they have economics or environment correspondents. Certainly there appears to be an inexhaustible appetite on the part of media outlets for stories that focus on social divisions, real or imagined. Usually these are framed as moral parables featuring virtuous victims, usually female, ethnic minority or gay, and contemptible wrong-doers who are male, white or straight. Sometimes the perpetrator is institutional – often, as with the Windrush generation controversy, the British state itself.

The common denominator with all these stories is the simplistic conclusions that we are supposed to draw. Men are beasts. Whites are oppressors. Britain is bad.

There are many other incidents of mistreatment or conflict in our society that never make headlines because they don’t feed these narratives. A trivial dispute between neighbours; an act of unkindness by a shop keeper; a sick joke by a colleague – all bad but hardly worthy of general concern. Unless there is a ‘social justice’ angle that can be divined (or manufactured), no one else gets involved.

Even where there are genuine problems or injustices worthy of wider attention, the true essence of the issue is often obscured, sometimes willfully, because some politically motivated people are determined to recast it in accordance with their agendas.

Recently there was an awful incident at Nottingham Trent University involving a young black female student called Rufaro Chisango who made a recording, whilst in her bedroom in a hall of residence, of drunken fellow students yelling racist taunts in the corridor. The dormitory manager was initially slow to respond but the University acted swiftly once she posted a video on social media and it went viral. National newspapers got involved and there was a massive outpouring of sympathy.

A lot of people then tried to claim that the incident proved that racism is rife in higher education. But is it?  Even if there were a dozen groups acting like this in universities each year, it would still be a tiny percent of the entire student population. It is not news that people can be really horrible to each other, even well educated university students but it’s certainly not the experience of most ethnic minority Britons or foreign born students that they experience this sort of behaviour regularly, if at all, at university.

By and large, most young people are pretty tolerant and positive about diversity. People do insult each other racially, usually behind each other’s backs (and of course ethnic minorities can be racist in this sense too – I know Asian friends who laugh at ‘goras’) but it’s not commonplace and much of it is jocular, even if in bad taste. The evidence from a recent NatCen survey shows that just one per cent of the country admit to being “very prejudiced” against other groups and most of these are older (24 per cent admit to being “a little prejudiced” but invariably when this survey is mentioned the two figures are rolled together and it is reported that 25 per cent admit to being prejudiced).

I suspect that many young people have become so inured to anti-racist education in schools and colleges, that they have come to see PC as an ironic joke in itself, like calling someone ‘gay’ as an insult. The kind of laddish, offensive comments that young people sometimes make should also been seen in the context of hyper sensitivity around language – a lot of young people rebel against taboos almost as a matter of course. That doesn’t make it right but it suggests something else is going on.

The second story which was framed to make us believe that Britain was a racist cesspit was the Windrush scandal. The Government’s attempt to impose a hostile environment on illegal immigrants inadvertently caught a small group of older people of Caribbean heritage who had not needed papers when they first arrived in Britain as they were deemed citizens in the first place (and all Commonwealth citizens in the UK had been granted indefinite leave to remain in 1971). The state’s bureaucracy didn’t treat them with care or make the presumption of innocence usually afforded to citizens. Their experiences were deeply distressing and were the fault of officials working under a badly designed process; a process that should have been more sensitive to these historic groups who might struggle to prove their status. 

But was this really about race as many commentators have judged? Stories exist of foreign-born white people experiencing a similar level of Kafka-esque misery at the hands of the Home Office, and the top three countries for forced deportation are all white European: Romania, Albania and Poland. The real lesson is not one of racism, as in the deliberate targeting of ethnic minority groups, rather it is that the process of immigration enforcement needs to be improved.

Unless one believes that any constraint on illegal immigration is inherently racist then some kind of ‘hostile environment’ for illegal immigrants is inevitable. Obviously, being an ethnic minority (in the sense of your parents or grandparents originally being from another country) means a greater risk of being affected. But this is a question about citizens and non-citizens, and how the state should police the distinction. 

None of this is morally clear-cut, but there is a lazy instinct on the part of some commentators to put Britain in the stocks and throw rotten fruit. This agenda is not driven by immigrants themselves, most of whom – Windrush nothwithstanding – have a broadly positive story to tell about their experiences of Britain and can at least speak with a sense of balance and perspective.

Rather it is driven by people who are acting according to a political agenda, who want to seek out and seize upon any instance of racism as proof that Britain (and the British people) are stuck in some neo-imperialistic mindset. They claim to act on behalf of the underprivileged and yet despise the attitudes of those working class people (white and ethnic) who express concern about issues like illegal immigration. I don’t doubt that some are well intentioned, but some seem to be more driven by their own prejudices than the reality of people’s lives. 


Portraits of our mothers

I recently visited the newly opened photograph exhibition “Devotion: A Portrait of Loretta” at Autograph ABP in Rivington Place, east London.

Over a number of years, the artist, Franklyn Rodgers, photographed his mother Loretta and her close circle of friends, building up an extraordinary series of large-scale portraits. The size and grandiosity of the works combine with a remarkable intimacy, achieved by the artist’s close relationships with these women. They are portraits which reveal defiance, strength, vulnerability, pleasure and layers of personal history. These are women of the Windrush generation, but they are also a son’s view of them, and that relationship of love, adoration and fear is writ large across the walls.
It is fascinating to see “ordinary” people treated as historic subjects – on the scale of eighteenth century history paintings, and it is powerfully moving. We often think of the Windrush generation as they appeared in those black and white photographs in their porkpie hats and smart Sunday suits, but they grew up, had families and continued their histories for many years afterwards. For us to look at these photographs is a potent reminder that the world changes with them and we must too.
The show is paired with another exhibition upstairs – Marcia Michael “I Am Now You – Mother”. Michael’s photographs of her mother and herself are graphically intimate and at times uncomfortable to view. The closeness and nakedness is disturbing in such a small space, yet, it is also a familiar child-parent relationship. You can feel her same feelings of connection and searching in the past, yet, remaining trapped in the present. This is a visual essay on matrilineal history, but also an immigrant child’s yearning to find an identity in family and country. Like Rodgers’ portraits, it touches a raw nerve and is very much worth seeing. Both artists capture something of the complexity of second generation identity and the mix of emotions we share.
Both free and open till 7th July 2018.
 Image: Franklyn Rodgers, Loretta Rodgers, 31 January 2006

Artists4Brexit: Response to Matthew Parris

It has long been a curatorial fantasy of mine to organise a re-staging of a boxing match that took place in 1972 between the German artist Joseph Beuys, regarded as a giant of modern art, with a local art student of his.