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Priti Patel Cannot Make Herself a Poster Girl for a ‘Non-Racist Britain’

By using herself as an example of how Britain is not a racist a country, the Home Secretary is blind to how such thinking keeps structural inequality firmly in place against others from minority communities, writes Hardeep Matharu

Priti PatelCannot Make Herself aPoster Girl for a ‘Non-Racist Britain’

By using herself as an example of how Britain is not a racist a country, the Home Secretary is blind to how such thinking keeps structural inequality firmly in place against others from minority communities, writes Hardeep Matharu

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“The fact you are sitting here speaking to me, a woman from an Asian minority background, shows we have such great opportunities in this country,” the Home Secretary told the Daily Mail at the weekend. “It pains me to hear people talk our country down. If this was a racist country, I would not be sitting where I am.”

Such personalisation of a systemic issue by Priti Patel is deeply problematic.

That her presence in one of the four great offices of state or the racism she has faced shows that the UK is not structurally racist and that the Conservative Party understands inequality and discrimination, is – at the very least – an intellectual hollowness devoid of any nuance, and – at worst – a sinister form of gaslighting.

According to a group of black and ethnic minority Labour MPs who wrote to her last week, it is the latter. Accusing Patel of using her “heritage and experiences of racism to gaslight the very real racism faced by black communities”, they said that “being a person of colour does not automatically make you an authority on all forms of racism”. 

The Home Secretary’s response was that it is racist to “dismiss the contributions of those who don’t conform to their view of how ethnic minorities should behave”, while her colleague Matt Hancock said he abhorred “this divisive identity politics” and declared, somewhat crudely, that the Conservatives “don’t think that there’s such a thing as the wrong type of BME” – a party led by a man who has referred to black and ethnic minority people as “letterboxes”, “piccaninnies” and having “watermelon smiles”, which presumably Patel has no issue with.

Racism’s roots are deep. Beyond verbal abuse and physical violence based on a dislike of someone’s skin colour, it is a system of structural and cultural oppression in which people of colour are at a disadvantage, facing barriers to enjoying the privileges embedded into institutions which benefit white people. That such racism is still to be found in Britain today is a reflection of the country’s unconfronted imperial past – a history which inevitably shapes our present day.

According to the Equality and Human Rights Commission, unemployment rates are significantly higher for ethnic minorities at 12.9%, compared with 6.3% for white people. Just 6% of black school leavers attend a Russell Group university, compared with 11% of white school leavers. Ethnic minorities are more likely to be victims of murder. The rates of prosecution and sentencing for black people in the criminal justice system are three times higher than for white people. 40% of the children in prison are black or ethnic minorities, despite these groups accounting for less than 17% of the entire prison population. Ethnic minorities are more likely to live in poverty, with 35.7% of them in this position, compared to 17.2% of white people. Black African women have a mortality rate four times higher than white women. There is a significant disproportionate number of ethnic minorities detained under mental health legislation.

Despite making up just 14.5% of the population in England, black people are most likely to be diagnosed with COVID-19 and death rates are highest among people of black and Asian ethnic groups, according to a report by Public Health England. Bangladeshi people are around twice as likely to die from COVID-19 than white people. People from Chinese, Indian, Pakistani, other Asian, Caribbean and other black ethnic groups have a 10-50% higher risk of death from COVID-19, compared to white people.

A section of the report – held back by the Government and leaked to Sky News – states that “it is clear from discussions with stakeholders that COVID-19 in their view did not create health inequalities, but rather the pandemic exposed and exacerbated longstanding inequalities affecting BAME communities in the UK” and that “stakeholders pointed to racism and discrimination experienced by communities and more specifically BAME key workers as a root cause” of the risks posed by COVID-19. 

These statistics point to something far more widespread and deep than one ethnic minority woman becoming Home Secretary.

As someone aptly wrote on my Twitter feed in response to Priti Patel’s comments in the Daily Mail: “How can world hunger exist, when I ate breakfast this morning?”

While it is good for her that Patel has not been held back from progressing in life by the fact of her ethnicity, many others are not so lucky.

Pointing to her own achievements may bolster her own identity and sense of pride, but they cannot be taken as representative of everyone else from a black and ethnic minority background. ‘I did it, therefore so can you’ is no basis for policy. 

Patel told the Daily Mail that she did not have a privileged background and is not like her own Cabinet colleagues because “I didn’t go to the most glamorous of schools, but I worked hard and went to university”. In the same way, she must open her eyes to the truth that others are not like her.

It is also not a question of Patel being pigeonholed and persecuted for being “the wrong type of BME”. It is actually about something more fundamental: empathy. The ability to walk in other black and ethnic minority people’s shoes. A trait that one would assume she would have ready access to, having experienced a form of othering and prejudice herself.

The Home Secretary is engaging in a blindness with potentially damaging repercussions: that, because of her success, others will continue to be denied the chance of it.

As the British-born Punjabi daughter of immigrants from Kenya and India, I am from an ethnic minority community. But I am acutely aware that my experience of my race and identity will not be the same as others in this community or reflective of it. 

With naturally auburn hair, freckles and fair skin, my experience tells of a little white-looking Indian girl walking with her parents – a mother in shalwar kameez and a father in a turban – being stopped by police and asked why they had such a child with them. It is of visiting India and being approached by Indian people wanting a photo with a white girl, despite our ancestors sharing a country of birth. It is of being told by a white acquaintance, as a complement, that I “transcend” my race and class. 

I know others who have had very different experiences. For my father, for instance, racism has been something to accept and live with. Recalling his upbringing as an Indian living in British Kenya, he said: “Racism was something I was used to in Kenya. I knew that it existed, over there they used to call it ‘colour bar’. There were certain hotels that were only meant for white people and there were certain parts of Nairobi where only white people could buy houses and live, Asians weren’t allowed. So I knew from a very young age that this went on. There was a lot of racism [when I came to Britain], but one had to learn to live with it.” 

These issues are anything but black-and-white.

In 1963, Martin Luther King Jr told America that his dream was for his children to “live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character”.

The colour-blind world that King was referring to is “a desirable end-state, where all racial prejudices have been defeated,” observes the Labour MP David Lammy in his book Tribes. “Colour-blindness is not a means to defeat the real prejudices that exist. Ignoring the inequalities in how different ethnic groups are treated will not fix them, but perpetuate their existence”. 

In the same way, by making herself a poster girl for a ‘non-racist Britain’, the Home Secretary is also engaging in a type of blindness with potentially damaging repercussions: that, because of her success, others will continue to be denied the chance of it.

Being blind to a reality does nothing to change that reality.

To have an ethnic minority figure in such a position in Britain displaying this blindness is damaging and the Labour MPs who wrote to tell her this were right to do so – not on a point of “identity politics”, but because of the more fundamental issues of justice and fairness at play.

Ultimately, Priti Patel’s blindness is indicative of a wider problem of how we want to see ourselves as a country, compared to who we actually are – one which goes beyond debates around the historical significance of statues and one woman’s experience of race and identity in modern Britain.

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