You’d be surprised by what you can get away with saying, when you pose genuine views as hypothetical. That’s why racists love a rhetorical question. When all else fails, they can always avoid backlash for their divisiveness by dressing up as a devil’s advocate.
When theatre critic Quentin Letts criticised the casting of black actor Leo Wringer in a recent production of The Fantastic Follies Of Mrs Rich, he did it with a question, not a statement. “Was Mr Wringer cast because he is black?” he wrote, the mock shock practically audible. “If so, the RSC’s [Royal Shakespeare Company] clunking approach to politically correct casting has again weakened its stage product.”
Stephen Glover, a Daily Mail columnist, used the same tactic when chastising journalist Afua Hirsch for her critiques of “contemporary Britain and its past”. She was born to a Ghanaian mother and a father who is half British and half German-Jewish, her paternal grandfather seeking refuge in Britain from Nazi Germany in 1938.
“Couldn’t she summon a smidgen of gratitude for the institutions that have nurtured her?” he wrote. “Or for the country that provided a home for her German-Jewish grandfather who escaped as a child from the Nazis?”
In the minds of Glover and his ilk, the answer to these thinly veiled queries is blindingly obvious – yes, Hirsch should show gratitude that Glover doesn’t require from her white British counterparts. She should shudder in tearful recollection at what her life may have been had she been raised in Ghana, God’s Plan playing on a loop in the background. While Glover suggests she’s partly indebted on the behalf of her grandfather, he doesn’t mean it. You see, this type of op-ed – impatiently pressing for a “you’re welcome”, arms folded, foot tapping – is only ever addressed to brown Britons.
It’s a tactic increasingly deployed by Daily Mail columnists and commentators of other right-wing publications. Far too afraid to pen their true thoughts, they resort to coded questions, the “othering” sitting firmly between the lines. In February, Daily Mail writer Amanda Platell wrote a piece almost identical to Glover’s in covert racism and cowardly evasion. After Stormzy called out Theresa May for her diabolical handling of the Grenfell tower fire, Platell, animated by the same irritation as her colleague, proceeded to write her own whinging diatribe.
“For all his life Stormzy has happily benefited from the health care, housing and education opportunities the government, whether Tory or Labour, has provided,” she said, before the inevitable rhetoricals. “Today, as he relaxes in his £2 million flat… is it asking too much that he show a scintilla of gratitude to the country that offered his mother and him so much? Instead of trashing it.”
The 'get out of my country' sentiment has made its way from the comment section to comment pages
Yes, it’s far too much. Because it’s more than is asked of any white success story. It’s ironic that Platell believes she has the right to lecture Stormzy on what he can and can’t say about his own government, given she’s Australian. But the Daily Mail are less fussed about the intervention of white foreigners than they are black people who were actually born here. Anyone would think the £2m flat “he relaxes” in was gifted to him by May herself, as opposed to paid for with his own money, the very same money he contributes to Britain in tax. She also skillfully skips over the fact that the “country that offered... him so much” is the same country that allowed 71 people, many from ethnic and economic backgrounds similar to his own, to perish in a fire needlessly. It’s safe to say, Stormzy hasn’t thrived because of Britain’s love for people like him. The majority of “Stormzy’s” don’t leave their estates, no matter how hard they work.
But her ire isn’t specific to him – rather, it’s aimed at any brown person that’s “done good” and doesn’t put their success solely down to the benevolence of this country. Platell dedicated similarly bitter column inches to essentially warning 2015s The Great British Bake Off winner, Nadiya Begum, that she shouldn’t, in the words of the grime artist, get “way too big for her boots”.
“One of the many appealing things about Nadiya is her solid bedrock of home and family, of traditional values,” Platell wrote. “She is the daughter of a Bangladeshi couple who moved to England in the 1970s to escape poverty.”
“Let us hope she and her ‘dreamboat’ husband are grounded in those values, and are sufficiently level-headed not to let fame destroy what they have.”
The racism is hardly dog-whistle as opposed to foghorn. This genre of article is fueled by a not-so-subtle belief that Britain’s brown population are “owing” in some sense. That we’re born in the red, and any eventual success is essentially us paying back the nation for the debt of being born here. The price we are to pay is endless sucking up. We’re not members of the family, rather, we’re the friend you let kip on your couch who has long outstayed their welcome. Their complaint about the dodgy heating they aren’t paying for is met with seething rage.
When we experience racism – in employment, in day-to-day interactions, in columns – we should be grateful we’re at least facing it on this great island. And, even when we complain about things our fellow white Brits do, we’re seen as spitting in the face of those who have been gracious enough to let us live here. The “get out of my country” sentiment has made its way from the comment section to comment pages. It’s "if you don't like it here, there's the door", by another name.
The raising of valid concerns especially grates when the critics are doing well for themselves. The uppity-negro trope of black people that refuse to stay within their place, affects black people who are seen as getting above their station, wherever that station may be. In America, for instance, Colin Kaepernick was booed for taking a knee during the national anthem in protest at police brutality. Stevie Wonder did the same at a concert; “Another ungrateful black multi millionaire”, congressman Joe Walsh tweeted. Black people, especially affluent and successful ones, have long been expected to be well behaved, even when the lives of fellow Americans are at stake. At least, if those Americans aren’t white.
“Ungrateful is the new uppity,” Jelani Cobb wrote for The New Yorker last year. “Trump’s supporters, by a twenty-four-point margin, agree with the idea that most Americans have not got as much as they deserve – though they overwhelmingly withhold the right to that sentiment from African-Americans.
When we experience racism, we should be grateful we’re at least facing it on this great island
“Yet the belief endures… that visible, affluent African-American entertainers are obliged to adopt a pose of ceaseless gratitude – appreciation for the waiver that spared them the low status of so many others of their kind.”
It’s the same for minorities here, too. When the same disenfranchisement expressed by the white working class is expressed by Britons of a darker hue, it’s seen as the griping of outsiders. It’s why the dubbing of grime as the new punk, the new voice of the systematically sidelined, sets eyes rolling. When we discuss the failure of white working-class boys in school, their lagging is seen as the byproduct of siphoning the few resources we have on “others”. This year, Labour politician Angela Rayner told The Spectator that white working-class boys had been left “at the bottom of the heap” due to a focus on ethnic minorities. There was no nod to the swathes of minority students at the bottom of the very same heap. Some Brits are more British than others, it would seem. And, if that’s not the case, then where were the thinkpieces impatiently waiting for the apology of Lily Allen, when she declared Theresa May an “abomination” and dedicated her song, Fuck You, to “our very own arsehole, Theresa” in a performance last month?
When our criticism is scarce, so is the backlash. If, as Glover wrote, Hirsch is the “darling of the trendy Left”, then Conservative MP Kemi Badenoch is the black best friend the Conservatives desperately needed. Badenoch is vocal in her debt to this country, describing herself as the "British dream” – an “immigrant who came to the UK aged 16 and who became a parliamentarian". It’s all smiles and backpats as long as we don’t ruffle feathers – the Daily Mail was quick to award Lenny Henry’s documentary, The Commonwealth Kid (which was criticised by some for a benign portrayal of the Commonwealth), a four-star review: “No more meaningful reminder could exist that the Commonwealth is a family of nations tightly bound together,” reviewer Christopher Stevens gushed. “This was a documentary that restored your faith in international friendship.”
It’s a funny, one-sided, Mean Girls type of friendship, mind, where the rug can be pulled out at any given minute. Increasingly hostile immigration policies have seen several older black Brits, who have lived here since childhood, have their right to be here contested, despite being British subjects at the time of their arrival under the allegedly unbreakable bond of the Commonwealth. Some have had their right to work revoked, and fallen into debt and homelessness, and they are no doubt expected to show a “scintilla of gratitude”, when they haven’t even been shown that quantity of respect. The spate of potential deportations attests to just how contingent our claim to Britishness can be.
The majority of the 53 member states that make up the Commonwealth are former territories of the British Empire; an Empire that pilfered from scores of nations, depleting them of resources and causing permanent infrastructural damage. But Britain has a very bad memory. It’s forgotten all about the pillaging that came with it and what it did to the countries of many of our parents. It can’t remember that it couldn’t even make tea – the most quintessentially British of beverages – without the countries they claim no connection to, now the shopping spree is over. It has no desire to acknowledge those who helped make Great Britain great to begin with. The problems many immigrants ran (and run) from were directly caused by Britain – given the country’s history of colonialism, “gratitude” is a particularly audacious ask. “They are here because you were there,” cultural theorist Stuart Hall famously wrote of black Brits. “There is an umbilical connection. There is no understanding Englishness without understanding its imperial and colonial dimensions.”
Yet, in the minds of many, we truly don't belong here. Even the God-given right to moan about your own government is often withheld from ethnic-minority Brits. It’s undermined by the implicit (and, in the case of the Daily Mail, explicit) belief that it's not ours to start with.
But commentators and columnists cannot continue to hide their belief that we are less British behind clever wording and doublespeak. Their clandestine approach to othering allows them to set themselves apart from those with the same views, but who hang a St George’s flag out of their window and take to the streets, red-faced, on marches. If they, too, consider the children of immigrants a generation of counterfeit Brits, they’ll simply have to say so – and slip out of the devil's-advocate costume, into the better-suited, less-coveted label worn by others who hold that belief.