The privilege of being generic

Some White people don’t like being called “white“.

Why do we need labels? Why can’t we all just be people?

Those of us with post-colonial backgrounds might raise an eyebrow at this,

“Why indeed?”

Some people have always had labels affixed to them. If you’re not white in the U.K. you likely spend a lot of time negotiating various labels both those you affix yourself for others and those they place upon you. Where you’re from, where you’re really from.

But being white does not normally necessitate this. If you’re white you’re assumed to be from here. This is perhaps where the anger comes from. If you’re accustomed to being accepted wherever you go it can be difficult to feel that you suddenly require explanation.

There’s a historical irony to this. White as an ethnicity was a conscious creation of racial theorists of the 18th and 19th centuries. It was shaped by the need to differentiate Europeans from inferior, colonised races; and by efforts to fashion and preserve hegemony by Protestant elites in America. Who got to be white has always been up for negotiation, but the principle of exclusion was vital.

Having moved from an identity based on reified differentiation, Whiteness became the default from which everything else is an exception. If you are the generic option then you must, by definition belong. However much space is allowed for people that differ from you (and that space can contract as much as it expands) it is clear that you are making space for others at your indulgence. They might be allowed to stay (or they might not), but that’s not the same as belonging.

The consequences of this trope become clear when a broadcaster comments on the number of white people that attend a Brexit rally and unleashes a torrent of white grievance. Grievance that would be called identity politics if the parties involved had more melanin.

But the consequences are bigger then just Jon Snow being made to give a public apology. The consequences of the White default are that members of the Windrush generation can face sudden deportation to countries they left as children. They are that MPs like Diane Abbott and David Lammy can face continual vicious racist abuse and death threats. Because some people think that just being born here and then getting elected does not give one carte blanch to criticise a state that fundamentally isn’t for you. They are that the Mail can decide a Black MC is being “ungrateful” when he castigates the failure to offer justice for the Grenfell disaster. The consequences are that Shamima Begum’s newborn baby can be left to die in a camp for the sin of having an abused teenager for a mother. Because the rule of law is only conditional for people who are exceptions to the rule.

It does not matter that the Home Secretary who revoked Shamima’s citizenship is not white. Not being white does not necessarily inoculate you from the overwhelming logic of the white default. Especially if your career ambitions rely on it not doing so.

White is not the only default. A recent book has pointed out how much of our lives takes men to be the basic unit of measurement, across culture, design, healthcare. And people who are LGBT have a lot they can tell you about the assumptions of heteronormativity that run though discussions of sexuality. These are just two examples. Each of these defaults have their own historical roots, and modes of expression. But all of them reinforce the idea that the generic is the common good. Everyone else has narrow sectional interests which are granted more or less tolerance depending on the times. To draw attention to this dynamic is to engage in divisive identity politics, and even the default are not free to do that.


The case against stop and search

Should we bring back stop and search?

In many ways, it never went away. But it was in significant abeyance for several years. The current wave of knife violence has amplified calls from police to ramp up the use of stop and search, in a return to policing tactics last seen at the start of the decade, before usage plummeted.

Stop and search rate, per 1000 people, by ethnicity over time

all stop and search


Source: Police powers and procedures England and Wales statistics

There were a number of years in the middle of the last decade, when Theresa May – she of the hostile environment and go home vans – positioned herself as the scourge of racist and counter-productive policing. The following is an excerpt from a debate on the use of stop and search from 2014, inspired, partly by an Her Majesties Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) report on the usage of stop and search:

Michael Ellis (Northampton North) (Con): The figures given by my right hon. Friend on stop-and-search are frankly a stain on British policing. The vast majority of stop-and-search powers are exercised under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act, and police officers are required to have reasonable suspicion before exercising those powers. Do not the figures indicate that, sadly, in a large number of cases it is nothing but the colour of the skin of the person being stopped that has caused the stop-and-search to happen?

Mrs May: I am sorry to say that my hon. Friend is right. It is clear that in a large number of cases, there were no reasonable grounds for suspicion. Given that a black person is six times more likely to be stopped and searched than a white person, one can only assume that it is the fact that the person is black that leads to the stop-and-search taking place.

Michael Ellis: Disgraceful.

Mrs May: It is absolutely disgraceful. Sadly, as I indicated in response to another hon. Friend, the feeling has been passed through to young people in black and minority ethnic communities that this is what happens and is, if you like, a fact of life. I want to change that and ensure that it is not a fact of life.

Source: Hansard 30 April 2014

I would encourage anyone to go back and read the whole debate, if for no other reason than to see Theresa May deplore the draconian usage of stop and search licenced by Labour Home Secretaries during their most recent term in office.

In the wake of the 2011 Riots, the HMIC report, and year after year of grossly disproportionate stop and search statistics; the political climate had shifted so far that two conservative politicians could stand up in parliament and brand the police’s actions “disgraceful”. A cynic might also point to the context of a running fight between the Home Office and the Police Federation regarding budget cuts. But still, how far we’ve come.

Subsequent reforms to the practice of authorising Section 60 orders (orders that permit stop and search to be carried out in a specific area without need for reasonable suspicion for a limited time) always the most grossly disproportionate power; brought usage to almost zero. The Home Office’s Best Use of Stop and Search Scheme (BUSS) outperformed the (admittedly rather pessimistic) expectations of civil society groups and did reign in excessive stops. But while stop and search declined, disproportionality remained:



(This chart and the one below are taken from The Colour of Injustice report by Release and the LSE, 2018)

Black people continue to be subjected to stop and search at a disproportionate rate.

That’s not fair. But surely, given the current knife crime epidemic, might we accept a little disproportionality if it will take knives off the street? If it did that, maybe we would and maybe not. The problem is that stop and search is overwhelmingly not deployed against, nor does do much to prevent knife crime.

It’s mainly used for drugs.


What this chart shows is that, as the use of stop and search has declined for other offences, drug stops have made up a bigger and bigger proportion of the total.

Self-reported drug use is very slightly lower among Black people than white. It is higher among Black men than white men, though not nearly at a level that justifies the disproportionate level of policing.

adult drug use

Source: Illicit Drug Use amongst Adults, NHS Digital

The evidence indicates that Black people are more likely to be stopped on suspicion of drug possession, and if found to be in possession of drugs are likely to receive a more punitive response. To pick just three indicative stats: Black people are subject to court proceedings for drug possession offences at 4.5 times the rate of whites, are found guilty of this offence at 4.5 times the rate, and are subject to immediate custody at 5 times the rate of white people.

Given the above, what are the chances that granting the police carte blanche to ramp up stop and search will result in proportionately more knives being recovered? As opposed to many more young Black people being arrested for possession of small amounts of cannabis?

We don’t need to speculate. Studies on this topic go back decades. And they all indicate that stopping people on the street is not a very effective way of capturing knives. There is statistical evidence that shows that increase in stop and search do not correlate with decreases in knife crime, and there are studies showing that stop and search undermines community trust in policing. If people don’t trust the police, they will not tell them if they know someone who is carrying a knife. If young people do not trust the police, they will not rely on them for protection, instead they might carry a knife.

Stop and Search fulfils a psychological need to just do something. But that something is not keeping young people safe.

White male is an identity too…

Critiques of identity politics tend to forget this fact.

That progressive politics should appeal to everyone, is a coherent claim. But it is instructive to ask exactly how we’re defining ‘everyone’. Because complaints about the divisive nature of identity politics often reveal themselves to be complaints that white men aren’t being explicitly catered for.

Take, for example, this interview with Jonathon Haidt. It is unusual only in that he makes this complaint explicit. Haidt claims left-wing, progressive politics has become divisive because it’s so identity focused:

Hillary Clinton’s opening advertisement had lots of people who were visibly members of identity groups, it had only one white male with a speaking part.”

The interview contains other Haidt classics: defending free speech from imaginary threats and attacking an army of straw-men.

But that quote really stands out for making clear what is normally only implied. White men are the generic, default and politics should defer to them. Anything else is an identity, and identities are divisive.

Threats to The West.

Hurrah, another open debate.

Do middle-aged pundits pose a threat to civilised society? How might this threat be managed?

Let me be clear, I’m not suggesting that the likes of Claire Fox, Trevor Phillips, Matthew Goodwin, Eric Kaufmann and David Aaronovitch really are a threat, I’ve always opposed discrimination against pundits of all ages. I’m just asking questions.

There’s a debate taking place at Conway Hall, the original subject was ‘Is rising ethnic diversity a threat to the West?’A glance at the website shows they’ve changed the title to the less race-baity “Immigration and Diversity Politics: A Challenge to Liberal Democracy?” It is reassuring to know that ethnic minorities are no longer a threat to the whole of western civilisation, we only constitute a challenge to liberal democracy.

But the original is what the panel signed up to. So it is worth unpacking that original title a bit. On one level it might be dismissed as pure click-bait. Designed to garner publicity, I guess it was dumped when the backlash proved to be a little more vociferous than the organisers expected.

But what is implied by asking if ethnic diversity is a threat to the west?

Firstly, that there is something readily and unambiguously identified as “The West”. What might that be? Presumably this is not just a geographical marker.

So a concept then. Not just the west, but The West.

If ethnic diversity is potentially a threat to The West, then clearly ethnic diversity must be intrinsically lacking from The West to begin with. The West, therefore denotes something ethnically homogeneous, or at least it ought to be. It was in some purer, more authentic time. To the extent that The West is ethnically homogeneous it is safely The West, to the extent it is becoming diverse it is not.

Does it exist, this ethnically pure West? If so, when was it? And where?Who were the ethnically pure Westerners? The debate is taking place in London, so presumably the English are in. Or some of them at least. If the English are in The West, are the French? Presumably.

But are Australians? Geographically they can’t be, but if not then do Australians also constitute a threat to the ethnic purity that is so vital to its survival? What about Canadians? Or Americans? If they don’t count then this West is looking very small and embattled indeed.

But if they do, and Australia is in, then maybe it is just White Skin that defines the West? For how long have America and Australia been homogeneously White? Have they ever? Do Southern Italians count? They can be downright swarthy, so does Italian migration constitute a threat? There have certainly been times in American history when it did. But does it now? That might be news to Matteo Salvini and the Lega Nord.

What about the Irish? We might include them now, but I think if we were to inform some Victorians that Irish Catholics were to be included within the rarefied circumference of Western Civilisation many of them would object in the strongest possible terms.

If the West doesn’t make much sense as a term of definition, it does make sense as a term of exclusion. The most important point about The West has never really been about who it includes. Its always been more about who it excludes.

All ideas contain the idea of their opposite. So this West, the one that may or may not be threatened by ethnic diversity, cannot exist without its reverse. The Orient perhaps. The Orient is also not an actual place. It is a concept. The Orient signifies ethnically, diverse, polyglot impurity. When we talk of the threat to The West, post by ‘ethnic diversity’, we mean the threat that it will become like The Orient.

At the moment The Orient is often Asian and largely Muslim. At times however, it has included Africa and it sometimes still does. In the 50’s and 60’s it also included the Caribbean, and within the last century it has included the Irish and Jews. People who are not currently from The Orient, would do well to remember that they might find themselves from there at some point in the future.

People from The Orient are inherently destabilising. Their very presence is problematic. The more people from The Orient, that there are in The West, the more diverse it becomes and the less it can be said to exist. The very existence of these Orientals is a threat to the binary separation on which The West depends. Too many of them and it will simply collapse.

This impression is confirmed if we look at some of the people who have invoked the defence of The West, who have raised the alarm and rallied to its defence.

Last year Donald Trump voiced his concern over the threats to Western Civilisation and praised the far-right Polish government’s role in defending it. Marine Le Pen is fond of invoking defence of Western Civilisation to buttress her attempts to alienate and exclude French Muslims, and Victor Orban has made it a key plank of his authoritarian ethno-nationalism. To that rather unedifying list can we now presumably add Conway Hall and Academy of Ideas?

Some participants in this debate have been defending their liberal, anti-racist credentials and arguing that of course they fervently disagree with statement; but they believe in free-speech and confronting racism with open debate.

The problem is they’re not the ones currently being debated.

Once the topic of whether one’s identity is a civilisation-level threat has been put on the agenda, those who endorse the question do not have a great claim to the gratitude from the people who’s lives they are debating. They are playing the game regardless of which team they may be on.

Other of the participants in this debate have been on Twitter defending their participation on the grounds that they are just asking important questions. These questions are out there, whether or not they get publicly answered. The fact that they are now being answered at prestigious events involving Russell-Group academics, prominent radio and press-pundits is neither here nor there.

It’s a useful move, the “Just asking Questions” defence. It allows those who often have very little at stake to say irresponsible and offensive things without ever having to take responsibility for the tension they create. They would never shout fire in a crowded theatre. But they are loudly asking if anyone else sees all that smoke. It’s open debate and you can’t blame them for any resulting stampede. They’re just asking the question.


On the burka and bans

Should we ban the burka?


I was sorely tempted to leave it at that. So sick am I of this preposterous and disheartening debate.

But given that we are, apparently, doing this again; here’s five reasons why it’s a bad idea.

1) It will do nothing to help women who may be suffering under oppressive religious or cultural strictures. It will simply make them liable for criminal proceedings should they follow those strictures. So it will further inhibit what limited freedom they have to go out and interact with wider society.

2) Ditto for social integration either then.

3) There’s not much liberating about setting the police on women and girls because of how they’re dressed. But we all knew that didn’t we? Because:

4) This has sweet FA to do with improving social cohesion or liberating women. This is about picking an out-group and squeezing them for political capital. It doesn’t take a genius to clock that the fact this out-group are Muslim and overwhelmingly non-white is like, not coincidental.

People who are suddenly excised about the oppression of Niqabis often seem strangely unconcerned about the fact that say funding for women’s refuges has been slashed by £7million since 2010. Or that Universal Credit makes it harder for people to leave abusive partners. Which seems like it should be top-of-mind for those who worry about domineering men trapping women in the home? Not to get all whataboutery about it, but it does give cause to question their motives.

5) Finally, because, outside some strict and sensible limits regarding safety and public decency, it is in no sense the place of a democratic state to legislate what people can wear and it beggars belief that we still have to say this. Who are these supposed liberty-lovers who think that the Government should be piling in to decide what women can wear on the way to the shops?

Ah but what about swastikas etc?

That’s a facile comparison, because swastikas are specifically worn to indicate the wearer’s hatred of other people, and to inspire fear in those people. The burka isn’t.

Ah, but what about if women are forced to wear the burka?

Well, we have laws against physical and now emotional abuse and if necessary we should deal with that situation under that rubric.

However, I suspect it won’t be. Because, again, this isn’t about protecting women.

The right type of clothing doesn’t protect women from an abusive partner. Refuge, support, and a welfare system that doesn’t impose harsh financial penalties for trying to escape does that.

But there’s little political capital in offering genuine solutions to domestic violence. Instead, let’s just wheel out the dog-whistle, again.

The myth of Question Time

There is a persistent myth that has shifted from inaccurate to pernicious and it’s time it died. The myth is that the night that Nick Griffin was invited on to Question Time was the end of the British National Party as a political force in the UK. Griffin was humiliated and the facist beast was sent packing after being bested in an open debate. As proof, less than a year later the BNP was trounced in both local and national elections, bankrupt through lost deposits and consigned to the dustbin of history.

So the system works.

In 2009 waves of the British public were seriously considering voting for a racist party, and enough had done so, at a local level and London Assembly level, that the BBC felt obligated to give Griffin a platform. But the same British sense of fair play that insisted Griffin be heard also ensured he was rejected. Thereby, putting paid to all the fear-mongering over allowing the leader of a facist party into the mainstream.

This line of reasoning has made it easier to justify allowing a range of far right voices onto prime time. Last week Raheem Kassam was given airtime on The Today Program to defend the far-right leader Tommy Robinson. No mention was made of Kassam’s links to Breitbart, or of his complete lack of qualifications to comment on legal matters. Instead the insidious idea: that Stephen Yaxley Lennon’s conviction for contempt of court is a freedom of speech issue, was bolstered by a slot on BBC radio 4’s flagship news show.

The defence is that sunlight is the best disinfectant and its best to have the views out in the open where they can be challenged. Look at what happened to the BNP.

Except that it’s a little bit more complicated than that.

In the 2005 general election, the BNP received a total of 192,746 votes. In 2010, after the forces of rational debate vanquished their leader on national television their vote slumped to a mere 564,331.

It wasn’t the brilliant rhetoric that vanquished the BNP, it was a jump in turn out of around two million voters. Their vote didn’t rise enough to match it and under a first past the post system that was hugely damaging. This was compounded by a combined local and national election that drove up the turnout for local elections in a manner that drastically penalises small parties who might otherwise do relatively well at locals but struggle to make a dent in the general under FPTP.

Secondly, the idea that white nationalism fell into catastrophic decline in the aftermath of Griffin’s admittedly stilted and awkward performance is palpably untrue. One would need to be obtuse to the point of dishonest to look at the dramatic rise of UKIP; Theresa May’s tenure at the home office; the EDL; the transformation of Tommy Robinson into an alt-right martyr; the career of Katie Hopkins; Steve Bannon’s various interventions into UK politics, the murder of Jo Cox and in fact the entire Brexit referendum, and conclude that racism reached its high water mark in 2009. Griffin’s political career may have ended in failure but his politics are far more firmly ensconced in the mainstream than they were when he was invited on to Question Time.

Open debate is great, but we shouldn’t be naive. Not everyone respects the rules. Some people don’t want to demolish their opponents arguments through the cold light of reason. They just want to repeat their poisonous message on as big a stage as possible and hope it cuts through. When we invite them to join a debate being conducted at a national stage we lend credence to their vision and offer it up as another acceptable option among the many. We imply that where you stand regarding fascism is the kind of thing reasonable, well-meaning folks can disagree upon.

We should think long and hard about whether that’s a myth we are happy to live with.

Is racism just a skin condition?

Of course most people would answer that question in the negative. But people often discuss racism as if it is only a question of pigment.

So, is skin irrelevant?

Clearly not. Because we have selected skin pigmentation as a marker of a given social construct, that skin pigmentation (and a host of other features: hair texture, nose and eye shape, make your own list) do carry significance. People impute all of the other consequences of being a given race, on the basis of skin colour. For that not to be the case, skin colour would have to cease to signify anything about a person’s background.

So let’s take that proposition seriously for a moment.

Let’s imagine that skin colour is randomly distributed at birth (and let’s maybe use skin colour as synecdoche for a range of phenotypical features) so that appearance doesn’t give the casual observer any information about an individual’s ethnic background.

In that situation would racism still persevere? Well a sizeable segment of it probably would. We might see that on the street confrontations feature far fewer racial epithets.

But would the statistics on police stops become more proportional? While our first instinct might be to say yes, on reflection the question of proportionality becomes a bit more complicated.

How do we judge proportionality in a world where any necessary connection between ethnic background and skin colour has been broken? Simplifying massively, we might say: the statistics should show that the number of people with a given natural occurence of melanin that are stopped by the police, roughly equals their proportion in the population. Let’s assume that everyone gets one of three possible proportions of melanin: X means your skin is what we would call white, Y means its what we call black, and Z means it is some version of what we might call brown which is in between them. So the stop and search stats should show that roughly 33% of all stops are carried out populations that have X,Y and Z skin tones.

But, there are still areas where people of a given ethnicity predominate, police still devote large amounts of often aggressive policing to them and this still has a hugely detrimental effect on their relationship to the police, is still linked to a range of other negative outcomes not limited to the criminal justice system and so on.

A random distribution of X,Y and Z skin types could result in many more people of a given ethnicity being stopped, while the statistics on searches by skin tone remain proportional. Just looking at the stop and search stats by skin pigmentation wouldn’t alert us to this. In fact it might obscure it and cause us to become complacent.

This crude thought-experiment should give us a clue that the harmful effects of racism do not rely simply on reacting to skin colour. In fact, that is often the least of it. It is the large, systemic forces that can operate without anyone every seeing your face that can often dominate the course of a person’s life.

The fact that members of ethnic minorities might be sequestered in poor quality housing for instance, has a huge impact on their future life chances. The impact of overcrowded housing on schooling means that it is harder for children from these communities to find the employment opportunities that would allow them to leave, so future generations are likely to face similar disadvantages to their parents.

There is substantial evidence that having a non-white English name on your CV is a significant disadvantage when applying for work. People do not ever have to see your skin, to racially discriminate against you.

Given that communities different skin tone, and much of the discrimination they face would remain. Because even with different pigmentation the power dynamic would be much the same.

The right type of racism

Theresa May announced that the 22nd April would be marked every year as Stephen Lawrence day in honour of the murdered teenager. There were some who felt that this was merely a cynical gesture by a PM under pressure. A sop to distract us from the horrific (and entirely predictable) effects of her hostile environment policies. I want to suggest that the truth might be worse than that. I think she might have been genuine.

There is a tendency to divide racism into two sorts. One is the wrong kind. It uses the N-word unironically and outside of hip hop, it sieg heils in public and stabs black teenagers to death at bus stops.

The right kind is much more polite. The right kind would never identify itself as such. The right kind of racism would never dream of using a racial epithet. But it requires constant performative displays of British Muslim’s loyalty. In France it bans the Burka, whereas in England it frets vocally about the rights of Muslim women, at the same time it slashes funding for refuge centres again and again. The right kind might never use a racial epithet but it does assume that brown people are likely to be illegal immigrants and will send vans to BME areas to deliver just this message. The good racism doesn’t stab anyone, but it does deport them, and intern them in detention centres. It deports now, and only allows appeals later. It destroys landing cards. It legislates that teachers, doctors and landlords must continually survey their students, patients and tenants in case any of them are an illegal immigrant. It doesn’t specify they have to target non-white people, and those with a foreign accent but well, it is the most efficient way.

The thing about the right kind of racism is that both relies upon and fuels the wrong kind.

It relies upon the wrong kind of racism to provide an alibi, a permanent exculpatory comparison. Racism just means the wrong kind. How dare you accuse the proponent of the right kind, of racism?

We can all agree that the wrong kind of racism is bad. It’s repugnant. People from across the political spectrum and every parliamentary party can unite to condemn it as such. Thus Richard Littlejohn can engage in performative outrage at being associated with the “knuckle-scraping scum” of the BNP, and still have published a book like Hell in a Handcart, a “400 page recruiting manual for the British National Party”. It allows the Daily Mail to proudly campaign for justice for the Lawrence family on the one hand, and continually fearmonger about Muslims, migrants and Ed Miliband’s foreign father, on the other.

More importantly, it allows a politician who pioneered the hostile environment, to declare her admiration for Doreen Lawrence and dedicate a day of remembrance to her son. Proponents of the right type may be cynical but I think are also often blind to the link between the right and the wrong. While at the Home Office Theresa May was more vocal on the issue disproportionality in stop and search than any of the Home Secretaries I remember from my lifetime. Part of this was tied to an on-going conflict with the police but in part I think she was genuine. Eye-wateringly disproportionate stop and search figures came to be seen as the bad kind of racism.

One effect of the Lawrence case and the Macpherson inquiry was that forced the country, and parties of all political stripes to accept that racism was a live issue in the police. The riots in 2011 reinforced the idea that the mistrust and resentment engendered had serious effects not just on communities affected but on the ability of the police to carry out their duties. So clear had this lesson become, that eventually even a Conservative Home Secretary had to acknowledge it.

But of course, the right kind of racism doesn’t only rely on wrong kind. It fuels it. The constant drip feed of stories and editorials, and laws and edicts that call into question the position of minorities in the country means people start to view them as an unwelcome intrusion. Continually dehumanising migrants in legislation and print tends to reduce the extent to which people view them as humans. So they shout racist names in the street, vote for racist parties and stab people.

And those in a position to do something about this, the people who print the headlines and make the laws well of course this is nothing to do with them. This is (the wrong type) of racism. They don’t do that, they only do the right type, and so they do nothing.

A bit of a rant about Rivers of Blood

There are two principles to bear in mind here. One is that censorship is bad. Two is that censorship is not categorically not the same as just not having a public platform. Having your works suppressed, and readers and publishers of them arrested or harassed is censorship. Not being given a a prime time slot on radio four, is not censorship. No one is censoring Enoch Powell’s rivers of blood speech. Anyone who wants access to the complete transcript can google the words “Rivers of Blood Speech” and they will find ample providers willing to supply it. I invite you to do so now. That’s the beauty of the internet.

So given that access to the entire Rivers of Blood Speech is not, actually very difficult to get hold of, the BBC’s decision to read the speech in full, on the basis that few people will have heard it in it’s entirety feels like a bit of a non-sequitur. It’s probably true, but that doesn’t mean the BBC is required to devote some prime programming time to providing it. On it’s own, it doesn’t mean they mustn’t but… It’s a bit like when politicians declare that immigrants must subscribe to our “tolerant, liberal way of life“. Sure, no one is objecting to tolerance, but we have questions about both their premise and their motivation.

The analogy is not accidental. Powell’s speech – for anyone who hasn’t googled it yet – is primarily concerned with the dangers of mass-migration to Britain. And to be clear, while pedants are right when they point out Powell never used the words “rivers of blood”, the speech incited violent racial antagonism against immigrants and their families for decades. Within ten days, a Caribbean man was stabbed to death by youths chanting “Powell” as they did so. That antagonism was far from a perversion of it’s message. Throughout the 70’s and 80’s far-right groups like the National Front looked to Powell, one far-right magazine was even named ‘Powellite’ a pun on the anti-fascist publication ‘Searchlight’.

The speech may have ended Powell’s time as a shadow-cabinet minister, but it was far from the end of his public career. He was a regular talking head on immigration for years to come. Further undermining the implication that Powell’s speech and his ideas have been taboo for so long, that they are due a re-evaluation in the cold-light of day.

And what about the speech itself? Every now and then someone pops up and decides to rehabilitate it, arguing that Powell wasn’t a racist, and / or the speech was really prophetic. But Powell clearly views migrants from the commonwealth as intrinsically unsuitable for life in the UK. Their continued presence is only ever described as cause of distress and suffering for the white population (though he is willing to concede a value in those migrants who come to staff the NHS as trainees then return home). The very presence of “negroes” in a neighbourhood is enough to elicit pity.

He deliberately picks emotive subjects: a little old lady being terrorised by “Negros”, the threat of the “black man having the whip hand over the white”. These are tropes that play to supremacist ideas of the natural dominance of the white race – with their not-very-veiled allusions to slavery; and chauvinistic ideas about the need to protect white womanhood from dishonour by colonial subjects. Finally, he depicts black communities as uncivilised and animalistic: they break windows and fling faeces, their children are: “charming, wide-grinning piccaninnies. They cannot speak English, but one word they know. “Racialist,” they chant.” The word “chant” implying an incantation, a savage, pagan ritual with which the heathen mock and persecute innocent white womanhood.

While he talks about threat of racial conflict the only examples he expounds upon are the threat that white people will be subject to the indignity of accommodating a non-white population. There is no concern for the violence that will be inflicted upon the non-white population either in his hypothetical future; or in reality as a result of his words.

The real target of Powell’s speech is not really immigration but race equality legislation. His fear is that white people will be prosecuted for the engaging in their natural aversion to interacting with people of another race. The fact that many of those arriving come from British colonised territories where they were forced to do just that, does not seem to have occured to Powell.

Though Powell only obliquely acknowledges it, Britain’s imperial expansion is the leitmotif that runs throughout the speech, and the racist fearmongering that underpins it. Powell was a heartbroken imperialist who once wanted to be viceroy of India. The sense of imperial superiority lies beneath a lot of the racist tropes that he toys with in the speech. He clearly views the empire as a good thing but has no wish to see the consequence of colonial exploitation: that people from colonised countries must leave to come to the metropole to find work.

A proper deconstruction of Powell’s speech is probably ovedue to be honest. For too long those revisionist voices that try to portray Powell as little more than a realist have been left unrebutted. But in the context of mounting racist violence; of the “hostile environment“; of “take back control” what confidence can we have that a proper deconstruction is what we will get?

Giving anti-racism campaigners the chance to weigh in is the least the BBC can do given the nature of the material, but it will be of no help if they are to be presented as just one take among many; alongside David Goodhart and James Delingpole’s particular brand of bad faith and racist dog whistle.

The speech has not been censored. Anyone who wants to is free to look it up at their leisure. And it is perfectly right that they should be able to do so. But that doesn’t mean the BBC has to grant it the legitimacy that comes from with a Radio Four dramatisation. The decision to read it in full, will not problematise the speech, it will reinforce the idea that it is just another controversy for us to debate. With wrongs and rights on both sides and the truth probably somewhere in the middle. But the truth isn’t somewhere in the middle. Powell was racist, and so was his speech, we should be wary of debate that obfuscates that fact.

An uncertain ratio

This is an essay I wrote to submit to a journal. Unfortunately it didn’t make the cut, so I thought I would edit it a bit and post it here…

What should we call the kid?

The politics of baby names have been vexing me recently. As a mixed race man in a mixed-race couple, the politics of picking are name are quite complex. Ideally, there would be an algorithm that could calculate this for us, but to my knowledge no-one has found one so its a question we have to wrestle with alone (thanks a bunch science). 

At the moment, this question is purely hypothetical. To my knowledge my fiancée is not pregnant. But we have talked about it, we are of an age now and we intend to have kids. As a mixed-race man, this question opens up a range of further ones about how my child would identify, which really asks a lot about how I do. And how does my Canadian partner fit into all this? So, what would they be?

Try not to over think it

The most obvious answer I suppose, is that they would be ours. That’s the most important classification. But names do count, of course. Mine is Punjabi and despite a primary school flirtation with changing it, I’ve always felt it reflects something important about my background. That said, I’ve never really liked the habit of placing too much emphasis on ethnicity. It’s important, but it under-describes who people are. It over-simplifies things that are complicated, it’s deterministic about traits that are often up in the air. Being mixed race, with a Punjabi dad and an English mum, discussions about my ethnicity have overwhelmingly been focused on the Indian half. This has often felt unbalanced, unfair or simply inaccurate. 

What’s different is what’s decisive?

On the other hand, my mum is English and I live in England.  It may be inevitable that the side of my identity that differs from the majority will attract the most attention. So am I really thinking about which side of their personality will the child have to explain most often? For long stretches of my life that has been the prosaic reality. Maybe, if I had grown up in Hoshiarpur then my mum’s Englishness would feel more prescient. Similarly, there is less imperative to preserve the aspect of a child’s heritage that they will be surrounded by on a daily basis. So, should they get a Punjabi name?

Perhaps the decisive factor is really what stands out.  A lot of the terminology would seem to suggest so.

What stands out

When I was at school, I used to call myself half-caste. I guess half-caste was a reference to the fact that I have a skin tone that is not white, but neither is it as dark as some of those whose skin tone implies their parents both came from sunnier parts of the world.

At some point, I think when I started secondary school, I was made aware that half-caste was insulting. I don’t remember it being explained to me why, but I was told the correct term was mixed-race and so that’s the term I used for at least a decade and a half. Mixed race has obvious advantages.  It is sounds more neutral. It sounds flatly descriptive, broad enough to cover those whose parentage might be geographically disparate even if you wouldn’t know it from their skin tone.

But this very flexibility opens up tensions that lie under the surface when we talk about race and ethnicity. Race may be a construct, but ethnic categories nonetheless have a solidity to them. On reflection, the language is misleading.

What’s mixed when you’re mixed race?

Most people who are mixed race will discuss their particular admixture in terms of being half-one thing and half-another: half-Irish half-Pakistani; half-Jewish half-Jamaican. The fact that both of these would come under the same descriptor is an indication of just how sloppy the term really is. The idea that, aside from the quality of mixedness those two people share any particularly salient ‘racial’ traits is a nonsense. That’s before we get onto the genetic difference that can be found even within populations we might consider to be racially homogeneous. See the pages of fretting on the discussion boards of white supremacists who have recently used 23 and Me to look into their own genome for further proof of this. Genetics only loosely map onto the features  we often use to identify a person’s race.

My mum is half-Jewish. While not religious, she has told me how she felt this marked her out as separate at school; and how it shaped a view of Englishness which excluded her family.  However, lacking any of the religious upbringing that often embeds the cultural side of Jewish life, beyond a penchant for Jewish jokes, I grew up in an environment where mum’s Jewishness often went unremarked, if not unnoticed by those around me. I’ve often felt that being half-Indian and half-English left a bigger mark on my childhood.

A mixed mixture

So how do we classify this second order mixing? Often, we resort to a list of the various backgrounds involved. Sometimes these are even classified down to the specific fraction, one quarter Jewish, one quarter English, half-Punjabi. But how small a fraction do we have to get to before the admixture ceases to be meaningful? My child’s jewishness would amount to only one eighth of their heritage. What about my fiancée’s, father’s Dutch antecedent? Will they require a shout out?

My child would be overwhelmingly white. My fiancée is white, I am half white, their skin-tone would likely be like their grandparents; largely pale. If we were to decide their upbringing on purely arithmetical grounds, the impact of my Punjabi heritage would be minimal.

The politics of baby-names

Would an ‘Anglo’ name be a suitable recognition of this? Would calling them Nirmal, or Malveer actually be a bit pretentious? Like those parents who give their child a name plucked from an entirely different culture, only justified by a tenuous family history.  I don’t think there should be iron rules about who can and cannot call their kid what. Technically, I guess there’s nothing wrong with it. It’s not exactly exploitative, but it strikes me wrong, it feels false. And a look at discussions on Mumsnet on the politics of baby naming indicates that I am not alone in feeling this way.

After a certain fraction, surely the percentage becomes so small that it no longer has any meaningful impact on the person’s experience in the world. Far better, to focus on those elements of your background that feel salient to you, and not worry about a strict accounting of your ancestry.

My Asian antecedents shaped me in ways that feel too important to be dismissed purely on arithmetic grounds. On that basis, maybe we should look at the experiences and forget about the numbers.

A family affair

My dad wasn’t born here, but he did a lot of growing up here and is of the generation that considers their integration in British society to be a mark of victory. Hard won in the face of those who would seek to exclude them, politically, culturally and often violently.

By the time he met my mum she already had two daughters – my sisters (half-sister’s technically, but who’s counting) from a previous relationship. They refer to him, now, as their dad, alongside their other dad, but at the time he was a strange man who seemed to be trying to replace their father. My nephews and niece now have an abundance of granddads, so many that they have adopted separate terms for their maternal grandfathers, my dad is Bubba, my sister’s dad was initially Pops (though that changed when he expressed a preference for Granddad), and then their dad’s dad is also Granddad. But this type of ease takes time to develop.

Reluctant to make things more awkward by speaking to his son in a different language, Dad did not bring me up speaking Punjabi.  In truth, I’m not even sure how the pragmatics of us speaking in a different language to three-fifths of the household would work. And at a young age I might have considered the requirement to speak a different language to the rest of the family to be an unwelcome burden.

Quite an Anglo Asian

So how did a Punjabi background impact on me? To my great regret, I never subsequently taught myself Punjabi. A decade or so ago I took some Hindi classes but it didn’t really stick. The feeling that this makes for a poor-Punjabi has stuck around me, to differing levels for most of my life. It is most acute when meeting another second-generation Asian for the first time. As I feel the conversation veering towards the topic of our heritage and the inevitable follow-up question about language, my insides knot. At some point I will have to admit that I don’t have the language. The discovery that I don’t always makes me feel like a phony. Merely by using my full name, and talking about my background, I have falsified a connection to a joint heritage I cannot really claim. Imposter syndrome is bad enough when you actually are qualified, let alone when you really are an imposter. The sense of relief I feel on meeting another desi-descendant who is monolingual is palpable.

The truth is in some ways my upbringing was overwhelmingly British. Nonetheless, I have family on my dad’s side who never lost touch with their Indian background; visits to paternal grandparents, aunts and uncles were brief but regular intervals in an otherwise pretty English childhood. For about 10 years now, I have periodically put on a pag, mainly so I don’t forget how to do it. My ability to tie one – while passable, is put to shame every time I pass a sardar on the street with a properly tied turban. I am embarrassed to be seen out in a turban if there are other Sikhs present. I am sure they will take a look at the hair jutting out under the fabric and immediately denounce me as a phoney, a weekend turban-tier just playing in an identity in which I don’t belong.

A lot of my personality now is shaped, for better or worse, by the need to navigate contradictory impulses. Not speaking the language, not growing up in the culture or religions means I feel like a fraud if I try and put too much emphasis on being Punjabi. But to pretend it’s not there doesn’t feel any more authentic. And worse, it feels like a deliberate snub to a whole side of my family and its history.

Conversations with friends who have similarly attenuated connections to their ethnic backgrounds reveals similar angst. While there are, undoubtedly, bigger penalties to be paid for being an ethnic minority, it is a stress I would save my child from if I could.

It’s probably too late to become fluent enough in Punjabi to raise a child speaking it now. But neither do I feel comfortable with the idea that I give up on that aspect of my background, and raise the child as purely English. Even if that is, largely how I was raised.

My other half

Maybe another answer for what we would call our kid would be half Canadian? We tend to  tacitly assume that ethnicity only applies to non-white people, and that in the west at least, white is the default from which the rest of us diverge. But certainly, for this kid, skin colour may not be the most salient difference.

After all, by definition it won’t just be my background in the mix. My fiancée is Canadian, so how important would it be for her Canadian heritage to be represented?

Does Canadian count? Culturally it has become clear to me that there are bigger differences between my fiancée and me, than between myself and white friends who also grew up here; than between dad and other baby boomers regardless of skin tone. Assuming (and it is a big assumption) that we raised the child here, perhaps their Canadian mother would be the exotic element. Keeping them in touch with their heritage would mean celebrating Canada Day, and having thanksgiving in October. If we were to move to Canada, presumably my being English would be the defining factor. Never mind tying a turban, the priority would be ensuring they spelled it “mum” (at least at home), and teaching them ‘Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes’ to the appropriate rhythm (NB. She informs me this is a ridiculous expectation and frankly unrealistic. After some debate we agreed we would call it “The Hokey Cokey” at home as a compromise).

So, what’s a good Canadian name? Well, in most cases (first nations excepted) it looks a lot like a British one. Their name might well come freighted with less significance than I have been attempting to imbue it.

So, what?

In actual fact, maybe it is the height of presumption to think that they will be at all affected by my preoccupations in this matter. It all may well strike them as hopelessly second generation and passé.  Conversations with my parents indicate that the process of picking my name didn’t require anything like the 5-page essay of angst that I have indulged in. They have a friend called Kamaljeet, and mum liked the name. Maybe that’s the best solution. In conversation with new parents, I get the impression that  for all the stress you put into picking a name beforehand, once the child is born, there is such a radical shift of priorities that worrying about the name barely got a look in.

A lot’s changed already

We’re recently engaged, and are planning our wedding. To be honest, I was a bit blasé about it beforehand. I hate those couples who evangelize on the assumption that marriage is the necessary end point of a serious relationship.  After seven years, the fact it would stop people asking me if we’re going to get married, was a non-trivial motivating factor. But at the risk of sounding like one of those people: I was amazed by the change I felt. The quality of what was already a loving relationship shifted inside in myriad ways just from asking her to make me her husband, and her saying yes.

Getting engaged was a decision that only really involved the two of us. The idea that all the obtuse thoughts and preoccupations that have filled these pages would survive contact with the reality of bringing a person into the world and the shared, but total responsibility of bringing them up, is probably for the birds.

And in any case, since starting this essay three weeks ago, I’ve decided I really like the name Jaspreet. So, I’d probably lobby for that.