‘Call him a Coconut!’
70% of the healthcare workers who’ve died saving others from Covid are from BAME communities. While unions call for their immediate protection, voices from the right scramble to drown out accusations of racial bias.
It’s 1979 and I’m being chased across the park by skinheads. I’m six, almost seven, they look like men but are probably still in their teens. I’m scared but I’m three minutes from home and know every tunnel burrowed through the privets between the gardens. The skins are high on glue, I’m confident I have a good lead, but I know not to look back.
Timmy’s ahead of the others, he always is. They’d been spark out on the grass, surrounded by Olde English cider bottles and shrivelled up glue bags. Timmy rose up as I crept by. Just the sight of him stopped my heart. He had tear drop tattoos on his cheek and scars and scabs everywhere. He always had had a scent for me. I don’t know what they want to do to me. The last time white kids took me off, they locked me in a garage, it was hours before mum and the neighbours found me. We moved from there but it’s the same here.
I fly out of the bushes and onto my street, Timmy is nowhere to be seen. I go inside and face the music for sneaking out of the garden. I’ll do it again tomorrow. The estate’s a wonderland of ginnels, blossom trees and derelict houses, and I’m an explorer. I say nothing to my parents. Nobody here understands or knows how to help me.
I’m six and I already live in my head. I have questions no one can answer like ‘Where do I belong?’ They want to send me back there, but I don’t know where that is. I know my real dad’s a Black man but what does that mean? I just know that’s why people hate me. When people call me names, I have to say, ‘I’m British, just like you,’ but that doesn’t work like mum thinks it does. I don’t like saying it. I don’t know why. How can I make them see I’m a person like them? Am I a person like them?
I do everything to prove I am. I’m at the top of the class in every subject. I kill the boys on the track and the field. I’m not content being ranked with the girls and there’s a couple of other girls who’ve caught on that we’re as strong as the strongest of the boys. We spend play times proving it over and over. It doesn’t matter. The slate’s wiped clean at the start of every day. It’s an actual feeling. I keep on. I know I can make them like me. They like Timmy. He looks like me. Same hair. Same big lips. Same coloured skin. If they like Timmy, there must be something I can do to make them like me.
Attempts to Whitewash the Investigation into BAME Medic’s deaths
Timmy stayed with me. It’s too huge leap to say how I got where I am now but I did find out where I belonged. I will say that, by the time I got there, I had to be completely undone. I remember Timmy when I see a book or a film about a Black or Mixed-Race kid who fell in with the far right. I wonder what my life would have been like if I’d never stepped away from whiteness long enough to hear myself think. I’ve met him in many guises over the years, but Timmy’s recent incarnation caught me on the wrong subject.
My first introduction to Rakib Ehsan was when he replied to a Tweet I made about Trevor Phillips being appointed to investigate the deaths of BAME healthcare practitioners who lost their lives treating patients with Covid. There are concerns that workplace inequality and subconscious bias during treatment could be a factor in the grossly disproportionate amounts of BAME workers dying. I flippantly Tweeted that ‘the Black community had collectively kissed their teeth’ at the announcement. It didn’t nearly convey the weight of my fears that Trevor Phillips would whitewash the investigation and lay the blame for the medics’ deaths at their own feet.
In recent years, Phillips’ skewed commentaries on Black and Muslim communities have found him favour with the far right. Riding on the idea that minority disadvantage could be “self-inflicted,” Trevor has lost the respect of the community he once championed. Sadly, his track record lends credibility to his smears. Currently under investigation by the Labour Party for a slew of Islamophobic comments, Trevor’s appointment has been met with widespread horror. There’s too much at stake to ignore the mistrust of those who are so heavily represented in the NHS.
My Tweet lacked nuance, but I was responding to a right-wing gobshite and I wasn’t about to get deep. Enter Rakib, speaking with such authority I assumed he was a conservative leaning brother. “A collective Black British Community” he mocked. “Very clear differences between people of Black Caribbean and Black African origin based on trust in politics and satisfaction with UK democracy.” He asserted, drawing for the old trope of the disaffected Caribbean, unable to see the wonders of British politics and democracy beyond our warped view of the establishment.
The Reverse Racist Ambush
Rakib wasn’t done. He retweeted my comment and in seconds a bunch of white people piled in. I checked his profile to see what world of white nonsense I’d been dragged into, and find that Rakib is a British Bangladeshi/Indian PhD from Luton. He’s wandered miles out of his lane, so I gently try to steer him back in the right direction.
“You won’t silence my dialogue on identity politics!” Rakib whined. I’m a completely unknown screenwriter with about 100 followers. I’m no threat to Rakib’s freedom of speech but we both knew that wasn’t why I was there. I was a treat for his white followers, they lurched awkwardly into the conversation like glued up skinheads.
(Image of my Tweet replying “Man you a Bangladeshi get all the way the fuck out our business and mind your own)
“Call him a coconut!” One of them urged, not realising they just did. ‘You’re the real racist!’ Another ejaculated, before I had chance to say mayo. By Twitter standards it was a mild trolling, but it made me think. Who is this waste man?
On paper, Rakib Ehsan is more educated than Timmy. He has a PhD in political science, but his studies and social observations are limited by the scope of his target audience – Good white folk who want to be reassured they’re not racist without doing a damn thing to earn it. Rakib has something to soothe them on every subject. He writes pieces for Spiked and right leaning stink-tanks on Islamic extremism and other dog whistle issues. The titles alone almost put me off going further. Almost… ‘Is Brexit a Nationalist Project?’ ‘Terror Plotters Should Get an Automatic Life Sentence.’ ‘Sadiq Stop Playing Identity Politics With Covid 19.’ On and on. I’m one of you. Honestly I am. Lock them up. Shut them out. Fly the flag.
Rakib claims to focus his research on Bangladeshi and Pakistani communities, but he stays in Black people business.
“From one perspective,” he lauds. “The relatively high levels of dissatisfaction with British democracy among Black Caribbeans can be viewed as a positive, an indication of being successfully incorporated into the politically distrustful and critical social mainstream.”
(Image is a Tweet reply by random asshole saying “You mean Blacklash?”
Weaponising the Black Experience
Occasionally Rakib gives mention to the unique struggle of British Caribbean people but it’s a wilted garnish on a plate of puke and does nothing to conceal his bias. He wants to extract Black British people from the conversation unless they reject the Caribbean British Community’s analysis on UK race relations.
Ehsan weaponizes our different experiences of inequality. He wants to sever the thread between the Black British Community and the Caribbean experience by claiming it excludes British Africans. It’s true that the Black British Community centres the Black Caribbean experience. Not just for their foundational contributions to the UK struggle, but through understanding the legacy of enslavement. It’s also a defence against the far right who, like Rakib, use statistics for British Africans, to deny the extent of UK racism and sell the narrative that those of us with Caribbean heritage are wallowing in victimhood. Rakib entirely misses the Africancentric heart of the Caribbean struggle.
They centre us. We centre them. The heart of the Caribbean movement has always been African centred. None of this erases the colonial divisions placed between us or the ways we may have hurt or misunderstood each other. The Black British Community is where African and Caribbean Brits intersect. Everyone is free to be British African, British Caribbean or both but here we join forces to connect, heal, educate and campaign.
In his article ‘The Myth of Black Britain,’ and across the entirety of his work, Rakib relies heavily on the idea that racial discrimination is ‘perceived’ rather than experienced. He suggests that British Caribbean people could be more exposed to racism through relationships with white people. Though this works against his claims that integration improves race relations. Inadvertently, Rakib illustrates that people of Caribbean heritage are more likely to be targeted because of their part in defining the terms of racial oppression in the UK. Shutting down this voice is a victory for white supremacy. I can’t decide whether Rakib understands this or if his bias and efforts against the Black British Community are a subconscious defence of his own identity.
Rakib proudly amplifies the voices of those who are least affected by racism. He’s built a whole career trying to ensure that the most affected go unheard so white people get to do the least to address inequality. I refused to engage him sensibly. He sees BAME healthcare professionals dying and takes our pain back to share with his white followers.
“See!” They applaud, “BAME people are happy with Trevor Phillips. It’s just those damn Muslims and Caribbeans. Rakib says so.” They’ll throw him another mayo cookie and if Rakib had his way, Windrush descendants would have no stake in the discussion at all. Rakib’s statistics don’t count their contribution, their sacrifice or how much the NHS needs them right now. Thankfully the unions do and it’s looking likely that Trevor Phillips’ name will quietly fall off the project. Still, this right-wing academic trend of using life or death situations to propel their causes is becoming too common.
A Voice for the White
BAME issues are only a concern for Rakib when they infringe on the feelings or politics of white people. He writes on the plight of Muslims in Kashmir only to applaud Starmer for staying out of a matter that is not of concern to your ‘average’ (read white) Labour voter. It doesn’t matter what’s at stake, Rakib is up in the mix, campaigning for the rights of the only identity that ever mattered.
There’s no motivation to save lives behind Rakib’s support of Trevor Phillips. In his his honestly titled article, ‘In Defence of Trevor Phillips,’ (the one thing we have in common is bad titles) Rakib bemoans the left’s rejection of Phillips as an ‘uppity coconut’, as though it were white liberals who characterised that particular condition. We know it from the plantations. From historic writings of Black anti-abolitionists. From Timmy on the council estate to a random interaction on Twitter. Rakib and Trevor promote the idea that the Black British Community are restricted by their own victimhood. That we use racism as an excuse for self-imposed limitations. So why then, does Rakib devote so much time to portraying the white working classes as victims? From the poor, disaffected teddy boy example he uses in his dissertation to disillusioned, diversity weary Brexiters. Rakib consistently frames the agitators of racial tension as victims. From the depths of his bias, he can’t see the glaringly obvious. He’s playing identity politics with the white, working class identity, in the same way he accuses white liberals of using ours.
Desensitised to and disconnected from the suffering of BAME communities, Rakib finds pleasure gas lighting those of us who still care. In the middle of pandemic, as we watch our brothers and sisters die and ask only that the person representing us will investigate with neutrality. Somehow this is an apt time to tell us that our Community doesn’t exist.
There’s no attempt to hide his hypocrisy. While Black Britain is a ‘myth’ and any talk of such is ‘lazy,’ British Indians are bonded by “values of personal responsibility, individual initiative and self-sufficiency that run across this religiously diverse population.” Rakib happily homogenises an entire ethnicity. Wiping away religious differences and varying experiences that make the existence of a Black British Community an impossibility. He gently wraps the Indian British identity in positive, protective language. If only the rest of us could take initiative and personal responsibility, perhaps we too could be self-sufficient? Is the clunkily disguised implication.
The Black British Community
Rakib is afraid of the Black British Community. Bonds between British African and British Caribbean communities deepen every day. Our children emerge united, politically engaged and culturally confident. To acknowledge us as a valid political voice would force Rakib to accept his own cowardly condition. It cut him to see me acting like I had a stake in the discussion, as much as it cut Timmy to see me roaming the estate free. That’s the root of Rakib’s fixation with the British Caribbean community. That’s why he came for me.
But why did I come for him? I’m surrounded by amazing Black and Asian people. People who put in work, for the youth, for the NHS, in arts and entertainment. Most of them are activists, born of activists. I feel incomplete when they talk of a past I was cut off from. Cheated. But being confronted by the person I could have become if I’d let whiteness define me, was a reminder to appreciate my own journey and the spirit of the child that got me here.
It’s too late for Rakib. He wrote a whole dissertation based on the assumption that racism is ‘perceived’ rather than experienced. Correct that and his life’s work disintegrates. He’s spends his days invalidating those of us who rejected the easier path (I say easier cos there’s always a price) and shitting on the contributions of those who made it safe for him to walk street. The pandemic and Brexit give him life. There’s BAME suffering to be erased and he has his Union Jack cape ready. His super power is ignoring everyday racism. Plot twist.. It’s also his Kryptonite. The same people who use him to sell their warped ideologies will throw him to the dogs with the quickness of a newly installed Labour leader with a brief to paint it all magnolia. By the time I got through Rakib’s mess, Trevor Phillips had officially been removed from the party.
Timmy and the skinheads never catch me. They sink deeper into to the glue and I’m way too fast and cocky now. I’m not scared of Timmy anymore. The skins make fun of him and make him do stuff. I saw him down the swings one day, burning his knuckles over and over with a cigarette. It won’t get better for him, he’ll do a lot of bad stuff to himself.
I still don’t know who I am yet but I know who I’m not. I nurture a feeling I can’t yet understand or vocalise. Just mention my skin, or my lips and I’ll remind anyone I’m as strong as any boy at school. People say I make things harder for myself. But I’m the only one around here who can hear what they really mean,
I’ve been right down to the bottom of the estate to a garden with a cherry blossom tree. A Black family lives there. They smile when they catch me picking their blossoms. I see more Black people. I sit opposite them on the bus so I can stare right into their faces and make sense of my own. Sometimes they talk to me and I want to ask them about that thing I’m protecting, but I don’t have words for my identity yet. I’m sad when they get off and I’m left with my questions. But I’m not alone. There are people fighting with me. For me. I’m a small girl in a very big story. I just don’t know it yet.