Priti Patel sparked controversy (a term I’m sure she’s familiar with) when she claimed that she didn’t need a lecture on racism having been subjected to racist bullying as a child. But experiencing racism and being a person of colour does not exempt one from holding racist ideals.
Priti Patel and I share an alarmingly similar ethnic background. Like her, I was born in London to a father who had emigrated from Uganda to the UK. And like her, I have been subjected to racism (though through largely implicit forms that tend to infantilise). But unlike her, I can admit that the community I was raised in was, and remains, racist towards black people.
As a child, I grew up in Kenya and Australia and in both settings, the Indian community I was surrounded by asserted an assumed superiority over black communities. In Kenya, my Indian family friends would claim the black African was lazy, inclined towards criminality, couldn’t be trusted with money and deserved to be kept impoverished. Indian business owners in Kenya are infamous for their (mis)treatment of black workers, preferring to hire from India than promote local black Africans. Indeed the revered non-violent campaigner, Mahatma Gandhi, took advantage of these racist assumptions to propel his cause for people of Asian descent in apartheid South Africa, arguing it was an abberation that civilised Indians should be lumped into the same category as black South Africans.
In Australia, a similar narrative emerged with consideration to the Indigenous community. We were warned by family friends against befriending Aboriginal Australians for fear that they would rob us. In spouting anti-Indigenous rhetoric, one might still struggle to distinguish the voice of the Indian man from that of the white man (but here, I shall provide a caveat, so as not to paint with one brush all South Asians’ views on black people).
Such narratives are disappointing, but they make sense. One goes from being the victim to being the bully, and who easier to assert superiority over than those deemed lower down on the evolutionary scale? I have heard from black friends that in London, their only experience of racist verbal abuse has been at the hands of people of Asian descent. I have spoken to Indian friends who claim that their parents would pull them out of university if they knew they were flatsharing with a black person. Such examples seem otherwordly, out of place in this day and age where we only accept implicit forms of racism (and that, too, might be changing). But when you’re raised in my community, such encounters are everyday and require commitment to upend.
Experiencing racism doesn’t prevent one from perpetuating racism. Being discrimated against should encourage greater empathy and this is the premise of many solidarity groups that engage with all people of colour. But it is easier to revel in fleeting moments of power than to take action against the powerful, and herein lies the position of Priti Patel. Rather than using her authority to advance the cause of equality, she chooses to head the very system that subjected her to racist taunts.
Now, I’m well aware of how this article might be construed. I can envisage a Daily Mail headline (because, of course, I deserve to be front page) “Indian claims people of colour are racist”. I don’t mean to imply that all Indians share these biases (or even everyone within my community). What I am merely attempting to convey is that in order to dismantle racism, we need to acknowledge the full spectrum of racist encounter and take serious stock of (a term bandied around these days) intersectionality. We need to acknowledge ways in which we all might be responsible for the contemporary and historical pain experienced by black people, and we need to take great pains to redress those wrongs.