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A different shade of BAME

The dangers of racialised gatekeepers

“I’m going to tell it like it is. I hope you can take it like it is.” Malcolm X

The term ‘BAME’ (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) has attracted a lot of attention following both global pandemic and global events regarding the Black Lives Matter protests. However, this term must be used appropriately, driven by context and lived experience. As not all BAME people are the same, nor should their experiences be neatly collated together. This is a blog which addresses many personal and intimate conversations BAME people have at home and in their private sphere. We must be brave.

The slur ‘house slave’, ‘coconut’, ‘choc ice’ and ‘honorary white man’ are regularly directed at BAME folk. Let’s get this right, these are derogatory slurs that we should not use but they are born out of very legitimate anger, alienation and disillusionment at BAME folks with a platform. I am not justifying their use but without considering the context of their existence, we fail to understand the issues many BAME folks with fellow BAME folks who have attained a platform or position or privilege, Many who fail to acknowledge their history, plight and conditions of their communities. The notion that BAME people are seeking validation from White people is incredibly well documented by Frantz Fanon amongst many others. Fanon, in his eloquent Black Face, White Masks, referred to the post-colonial psyche of BAME folk as a legacy of their historical oppression. Fanon takes the angle that the psychological feeling of inadequacy, dependence and a constant search for endorsement by White people had made BAME people self-loathe, emotionally detach and truly suppress their inner ‘otherness’. His ideas on this notion of ‘colonial trauma’ later fed into critical race theory, but Fanon is an absolute must read.

Later, Malcolm X acquired sentiments of Fanon in many of his famous speeches. A small excerpt from one of Malcolm’s’ speeches in May 1962 at a funeral service, where Malcolm asked his African American audience ‘who taught you to hate yourself?’ Malcolm followed this up with his powerful Message to the Grass Roots speech in 1963 where he differentiated between the ‘house slave’ and the ‘field slave’. Malcolm and Fanon were experiencing these issues at that time but their argument is equally as relevant today as it was back then. Their post-colonial idea remains important in our analysis of the ‘influential people’ or ‘racialised gate-keepers’ BAME folks today.

The real legacy of my hero Malcolm X is how timeless his words are. Image: Azquotes

In Year 9, I became class Prefect, but my peers saw this as at ultimate betrayal. Followed by defacing my exercise books with the slurs, ‘coco nut’ and being labelled a ‘choc ice’, they genuinely believed that I was siding with the ‘enemy’. The moral repugnance was real. Yet, when I was able to work with the School Council to get additional seating areas around the school, work on a more diverse halal school menu and prayer facilities, the tag ‘choc ice’ was merely relegated to a generic frozen dessert! This was a moment of reflection. In retrospect there needs to be some exploration of a situation where BAME people are rarely promoted into roles of influence which then puts them into an ‘individualised’ potential ‘gate keeping’ situation which then becomes totally dependent on the motivations of single individuals who may be under pressure to maintain the status quo. There is a need for multiple BAME voices on different levels and different platforms to be a vehicle to tackle BAME concerns. This is why there is such a stark disconnect between influential BAME representatives and everyday ethnic minority folk. This distance is not just founded on financial or political status but rather on an emotional detachment from BAME issues. At a time where COVID19 disproportionally impacts BAME people, Grenfell remains unaccounted for and structural racism still permeates into every aspect of our society. We may share the same heritage, skin pigmentation, religion and even surnames, but the societal grievances around these issues aren’t the same political priorities.

Before we get to the very core of my concerns, there is no ‘lefty liberal intelligentsia’ here nor is there some sort of abracadabra or primordial attachment required for BAME people to vote Labour, who themselves are tainted with issues concerning anti-Semitism. Conservative thinking may be a prominent feature of many of the homelands of BAME folk and in my opinion this is not the real issue. These influential BAME representatives should be bastions of hope, pillars of integration in British society and the epitome of meritocracy but they are still few and far between and definitely not representative of our multi-cultural society. In a more equal society in theory, BAME representatives should be our role models; they should be spearheading policy initiatives with a full working understanding of the communities they represent, where their political motivations is for everyone to thrive and to have the capacity to be to be socially mobile.

I find it necessary to question if the current BAME influential people even remember the community they once stood side by side with people still living there? Patel, Khan, Javid, Sunak, and I could go on, are BAME people who have climbed to incredible heights, yet despite coming from the BAME community, there is a sense that they are far more politically motivated to keep their positions of influence than they are to serve the people they represent. Sadly, even for them, despite who we associate ourselves with, there will always remain an ‘ethnicity’ box on a form, or an extra airport security check or the disapproving look that differentiates us from others.

Dangers of racialised gatekeepers

The danger of racialised gatekeepers is that the circle of ‘inclusion’ remains small, elite and detached from authentic BAME voices and indeed this perspective may be the very reason they have been promoted. I want to break this down into four points to really tackle the concerns many have when these ‘gatekeepers’ are actively a part of promoting the continuation of systemic racism. This is not an exclusive list but one to begin a critical dialogue.

  1. BAME groups are NOT homogenous – There appears to be an assumption that if, for example, Priti Patel holds a conference about the ‘diversity’ within the Cabinet, that she is speaking on behalf of ALL BAME people. There are over 18 different ethnic groups in the UK, all unique and worthy of a voice. It is inconceivable that someone whose heroine was Margaret Thatcher can be the voice for all of us. BAME groups are internally stratified along the lines of class, age, gender, religion, sexuality and disability. The homogenisation of BAME groups is dangerous and also misleading. For example, myself as an Asian male from a Muslim background, my life experiences will not be the same as a Black Caribbean female, or British Chinese person with a disability. Clumping BAME groups together as one homogenous group which we can place under a one-size-fits-all category fails to address the individual concerns of individual BAME groups. Collectively, yes, there is a battle against historical structural racism, but individual groups face different strands of its impact. Some groups feel the full force of racism in all aspects of public life, others, less so. Stratifying BAME groups is important in enabling us to cater for their individual needs. The ‘influential’ BAME folks, many who are labelled as ‘champions of diversity’, they know full well the dangers of all-encompassing categories but do little to address them.

  2. A daily lived experience –I consider myself to be incredibly privileged but there are others who look like me, speak like me, dress like me, and have similar names to me that didn’t have the opportunities or upbringing I had. I remember a family holiday to Kashmir in 2004, I walked around the cities and towns, witnessing the awful poverty, deprivation and plight of people who also looked just like me. Yet, the experience of BAME people in the communities we leave behind is so particular. The air tastes different, the water has a distinct flavour and there is a particular mindset when you inhabit the social and intellectual spaces of BAME communities. It is a lived experience and one that is engrained into our socialisation thus it evokes emotional feelings and triggers a palpable response to anyone who represents ‘the system’ even if visually they look like us. Racialised gatekeepers, often live in a realm of social prestige which may make it difficult for them to connect with people who are less fortunate. Interestingly enough due to the same systemic racism that they are keeping alive, their wealth and social prestige does not cushion them from racism. In fact, it makes them more vulnerable to being displaced into a ‘nowhere land’ where they are merely tolerated by their white counterparts and disowned by their own communities. The lived experience of discrimination stops, and search and racism are so particular that speaking from a detached position fails to capture the true pain, struggle and plight within the community. These influential BAME representatives may have experienced discrimination in many forms and using their experiences to address the root causes of this discrimination is a moral imperative.

  3. Tokenism – There remains a fine line between genuine inclusion and inclusion for tokenistic reasons. The BAME community does not need another poster boy or girl to tell us the Government are inclusive’ or ‘tolerant’of us immigrants. Diversity and anti-racism are not about showboating a brown face politician to justify and validate an inclusionary ethos. Inclusion is at the grass roots, within the communities and indeed the very fabric of society. Influential BAME politicians who have climbed to the pinnacle and worked, often twice as hard, to win a seat at the table, should be willing to make a difference for all, not just seek secure their positions to the exclusion of the role they are in power to perform. In an inclusive and meritocratic society, everyone should be able to find a seat at this table, regardless of their background. Yet, the exceptional few who do make it very rarely appear to represent inclusion. The problem with the notion of ‘if I can do it, anyone can’ is divisive in a society that is so polarised by social inequalities and sadly that seems to be the intention! When Sadiq Khan became Major of London, a work colleague said, rather naively, ‘Look, another Khan doing well’. This then became his ‘go to’ phrase when we spoke about inclusivity. Token gestures to prove we are anti-racist and inclusive fail to tackle the structural inequalities that truly impact on BAME communities. These gatekeepers should keep the gate ajar for others rather than doing all they can close it behind them to safeguard their own privileges.

  4. Alienation – There is further alienation and disillusionment for BAME people when their own representatives begin to flex their muscles. Sajid Javid once said something along the lines of ‘his family are safe in Israel’. The implication of this statement is a damning indictment for the ethnic minority communities that live right here in England and on his watch! How can BAME communities trust his leadership after a statement such as this? This disconnect is staggering and really divides BAME people into two camps. One that continues to believe the ‘government is diverse’ stance and the other, ‘they don’t speak for me’. It is particularly disturbing to hear BAME politicians espouse beliefs that systemic racism is a myth! This totally disregards the vulnerabilities of these communities and their need for protection, assurance and support. I was incredibly alienated when Priti Patel condemned Black Lives Matters protestors and then displayed an inconsistent approach to reframe the narrative last weekend with the far-right groups. These two MPs actively endorse a Prime Minister who has constantly used racist rhetoric on many occasions, so how do they represent us? This selective silence and unwillingness to delve into the real BAME concerns, is dangerous for communities that already feel alienated and disillusioned. BAME people’s legitimate grievances cannot be articulated by racialised gatekeepers who seek to be a collective voice for the section of the population they are so keen to detach themselves from. I feel the need to add that the absence of black BAME representation is also stark and must be concerning to black people. The irony is that Marcus Rashford has done more for disadvantaged children in a week, than ANY BAME politician has in a decade. We need to target the alienation and frustration to eradicate the racism.

In Summary

The BAME folks who acclaim positions of social, economic and political authority are BAME. Yet, a different shade of BAME. The true heroes of the BAME community are not the Javid’s, Patel’s and Khan’s. True heroes are the Marcus Rashford’s, Raheem Sterling’s, Patrick Hutchinson’s and Zara Sultana’ of this world. These everyday BAME people, who remain true to their roots and seek to challenge prejudices and inequalities within society. BAME communities are internally stratified and do not need more division, especially division created by those who no longer inhabit the same intellectual worlds. I write to you not as a Conservative or a Liberal but as a BAME man who wants a united from. The division within needs to be challenged.

To equality ‘champions’, allow your skills, experience, talents, empathy, compassion and hard work to validate this journey to equality. To our BAME politicians you may have earned your seat at the table but contrary to popular belief, there are plenty of seats for people like ‘us’. Before you begin to speak for ‘us’, make sure you believe in us, engage with us and remember, you are there to make a difference and to create a more equal society for all. I urge all BAME people to stop seeking validation and to start seeking equality, justice and compassion; to begin campaigning against issues of inequality and help to create equality for all and supremacy of none; to stay honest, remain empathetic and remember to not only look out for ourselves. We need integration, we need conversation and we need change. It is time to lobby for more authentic BAME voices both in content as well as more representative BAME politicians.

It does worry me when some of our educators remain selectively silent on the George Floyd killing, the BLM movement or never acknowledge the corporate manslaughter at Grenfell in 2017 but would want to call Marcus Rashford ‘one of their own’ and ‘my son’ when the passion lies in sport. Educators need to have passion for people. Inconsistency and the selectivity help to firmly embed systemic racism into the fabric of our society. It’s time for change. Time to do the right thing. You are BAME, albeit a different shade of BAME.

Long live Marcus Rashford.

Thank you for reading,

Shuaib Khan

Twitter: @shuaibkhan26

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