Black like me

By | January 27, 2023

Colin Grant writes:

It is commonly agreed that race is a social construct. If, as sociologists such as Alondra Nelson tell us, there is more difference within groups than between groups – so that, as the child of dark-skinned Jamaican parents, I have more in common genetically with a red-haired Scot than a sub-Saharan African – then why do I still feel obliged to accept the primacy of race, and the notion that any distancing from those of my own phenotype is a betrayal? If my ornery old grandfather was still alive, I suspect he’d be enraged. Inspector Adams would have been more impressed by the attitude of Britain’s first prime minister of colour. Unlike the 1987 breakthrough, when four black and brown MPs – Diane Abbott, Keith Vaz, Bernie Grant and Paul Boateng: the first elected in modern times – emphasised the importance of their race and ethnicity, Rishi Sunak has dialled down his. Further, Sunak has signalled his allegiance to British Conservatives’ anti-immigrant, nativist tribe, such that his Hindu wristband and alignment with people of his complexion and diminished social capital among them are all but invisible.

Along with other high-profile politicians of colour in the Tory Party, Sunak has benefited from an elite private education and the kind of privileged connections historically associated with his white Tory peers. Winchester College proved as advantageous for Sunak as Eton did for Kwasi Kwarteng. Power trumps race: and, if the cost of maintaining the status quo is to admit a few conservative black and brown colleagues into their tribe, then that’s a price the Tories have deemed worth paying.

Unexpectedly, I seem to have gone the other way and become even more black as I’ve aged – especially through others’ perception of me – and that process appears to have accelerated since the murder of George Floyd and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. But, and it’s a big but, it’s complicated.

While I enjoy the freedoms and vibrancy of black culture, I resist the tyrannies of the promotion and exclusive embrace of ‘Black’ – a descriptor, now capitalised by a growing number of papers (both Right- and Left-wing), journals and individuals, even though I never got the memo. What are we supposed to do about the perverse domain assumptions that underpin the adoption of an old racial taxonomy long past its sell-by date, as well as its triumphant inversion: the ambition to be Black fuelled by the old sentiment: ‘Fuck you, white people. You reject us? Nah, we reject you!’ But this notion of blackness is defined and limited by its opposition to whiteness, encouraging silos of separation. This surely highlights one of the central questions of blackness: what do you let go of, what and who do you allow to define you? [Continue reading…]

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