To the world, the UK's Conservative party wants to broadcast an image of diversity by fielding minority candidates. But there’s a lot else at play.
Several British and international media outlets and pundits have commented recently on how the ongoing Tory leadership race was “surprisingly” diverse as the party fielded a number of candidates of colour who hail from minority backgrounds.
Indeed, in the final leg of the race stands Rishi Sunak, the Indian origin former chancellor who, since betraying his old boss Boris Johnson, now seeks to take the top seat at Downing Street.
In the Tory leadership race, white is what’s righthttps://t.co/LUIMaxzCbD— Global Courant (@Global_Courant) August 19, 2022
These pundits are perhaps only surprised by Tory diversity because of a history of racism that has tainted the party to the extent that it has merited the authoring of several books.
Johnson himself is no stranger to allegations of racism, particularly the racialised abuse he heaped on Muslim women who cover themselves - he compared them to bank robbers and letterboxes. That outburst led to a 375 percent spike in anti-Muslim incidences in the week after he made those hateful remarks.
In a party such as this, how is it that it is fielding contenders from diverse ethnic backgrounds for the post of prime minister? Are the Tories simply misunderstood? Or is there something else at play?
Pandering to the base
The answer, of course, is whiteness. Before we press on, it is important to caveat that I am not blaming white people writ large for all the ills of the world. Rather, I am talking about a concept, one that thrives on the insecurities of those seeking a greater station in their adoptive home - the UK - far from their brown or black origins.
Take the former home secretary and chancellor, Sajid Javid, for instance. As a Tory politician from a Pakistani Muslim background, Javid has reached well beyond what many British Muslims can hope to achieve. He rose the social ladder despite job discrimination against Muslim men and women and anti-Muslim attitudes reaching unprecedented levels in recent years. He has held several senior offices of state, and has even vied for the government’s top job.
Yet there is a reason why many British Pakistanis speak of him in unflattering terms, referring to him as a “coconut”, “Uncle Tom”, and a “House Muslim” – leading the politician to rant that he was being subjected to racist abuse through the use of these terms, likely in order to silence criticism and debate from the community he has repeatedly claimed he is representative of.
Javid has long been known to downplay his Pakistani identity, and especially his Muslimness. He has gone out of his way to talk about how his family tradition is to “snog” under mistletoe every Christmas and to say that he practises no religion, which is of course entirely his right. However, if he chooses to abandon his Muslim identity and heritage, he is then similarly disqualified from commenting on anti-Muslim hatred as a “native” in order to provide cover to his Tory colleagues, including Johnson.
Yet Javid did so, once more donning the Muslim cloak during an interview with Andrew Marr in 2019 in order to contradict another British Muslim Tory politician, Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, who has repeatedly gone on the record criticising her own party for having an anti-Muslim sentiment.
Returning to prime ministerial frontrunner Rishi Sunak, again we find many examples of how this son of African Hindu migrants of Indian origin has done his level best to pander to the baser instincts of the Little Englanders that he thinks his future prospects rely on, all while playing up his East African and Indian roots in campaign videos.
Despite Sunak and his family being obvious beneficiaries of immigration that gave him so many opportunities in the United Kingdom and elsewhere, Sunak was not only avidly pro-Brexit – with all the tropes that campaign relied on by portraying Britain being at breaking point – but has since doubled down with anti-migrant rhetoric, pledging to crackdown on migration while doubling the number of foreigners deported over minor crimes. While getting rid of a criminal element is never a bad thing, there are distasteful undertones here, especially as the UK migration system is already infamous for its lack of fairness and its discriminatory policies.
Sunak has also gone a step further, targeting Muslims in yet more dogwhistle anti-Muslim hatred by vowing to widen the definition of “Islamist terrorism” and would add “vilification” of the UK to the definition of extremism if elected by the party membership. In other words, and if Sunak had his way, many of us who have actively criticised British foreign policy and military adventurism in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere could find ourselves being accused of vilifying our country and being branded as extremists, deserving of punishment.
Diversity as a masquerade
There are obviously a number of reasons why people like Sunak and Javid behave the way they do, but primary among them is the quest for acceptance in a society where they have frequently been exposed to racist abuse, with both having described the pain it causes.
Rather than stand up to that racism, taking advantage of their positions of power and influence to ensure it not only does not happen to them again, but is stamped out wherever it is found across society, these politicians have instead decided that racism is part and parcel of the system they have aligned themselves with and continue to seek to serve.
They have internalised these racist attitudes that have stung them personally so deeply, and normalised it to such a degree that they not only cover up for them, but they also engender them by proposing new policies, each more radical than the next, in a desperate attempt to prove that they are not as brown – in the cases of the two men mentioned above – as their chosen audience thinks they are. They are malleable. They know how to “get with the programme”. They will desperately try to prove that, even as prime minister, they will know their place and will not rock the boat.
Far from the Tories being diverse, they have in fact only shown that there truly is a glass ceiling in British politics for people of colour and different cultural and religious beliefs that do not align with the white establishment. Their most diverse candidates are positively falling over themselves to prove how assimilated rather than integrated they are, simply showing that, after all, you really can have different shades of white.
Tallha Abdulrazaq is an award-winning academic and writer, with a specialism in Middle Eastern strategic and security affairs
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