Priti Patel, accused of 'gaslighting'. Credit: Peter Summers/Getty

June 17, 2020   5 mins

The backlash against Priti Patel and Munira Mirza has been something to behold. Mirza, recently appointed to run the Government’s new Racial Inequality Review, has been described as a ‘racial gatekeeper’, among other things; Patel has been accused of ‘gaslighting’ by Labour MPs after talking about her own experiences of racism.

I feel it especially because I have something in common with Patel and Mirza: we are all ethnic minority women who do not accept the standard leftist view of racism.

In 2010, I spoke out about the state of our education system at the Conservative Party Conference, criticising the ‘culture of excuses’. For some, this was the worst thing I could do. No matter that I am not nor have ever been a member of the Conservative Party, nor that I feel passionately that we should all be floating voters, especially minority groups.

I would never be forgiven by some people, who just couldn’t understand why an ethnic minority person would have sympathy for Conservative policies. At best we’ve been hoodwinked; at worst we must just be plain evil. It often feels like we are not allowed to think for ourselves, outside of the orthodoxies set down by Left-wing political groupthink.

My experience ten years ago is why today I have the greatest sympathy for Conservative MPs like Priti Patel and Kemi Badenoch. I know how I have been treated for simply being supportive of Conservative policies — heaven knows what actual Tory MPs from ethnic minorities must have to endure. Mirza has been working with the Conservative Party for many years and her simple appointment to this role has enraged her detractors. For them, a ‘good’ ethnic minority is one who always toes the leftist line.

In the days of fighting to set up my school, and in our first few years of establishing ourselves, I received racist emails and threats of violence — from the Left. There were protests outside my school and abuse was shouted in my face from militant union members opposed to free schools.

My detractors tried hard to discredit me in ways that made sense to them. There was even a running Wikipedia battle over my heritage, a wiki-war lasting for years. It was regularly edited to state that I was of Indian descent, while some people claimed my ancestry to be Indian Ugandan, and therefore (given the historical legacy of Idi Amin, who drove most of the Asians out), that I must hate black people. It was utterly absurd, and I didn’t know from one day to the next what race my Wikipedia page would say I was.

While it seems a bizarre thing to fight over, some opponents clearly believed that my criticisms of the education system and my support for free schools could be discounted if I wasn’t black. So, play around with my Wikipedia page, make me Indian with a couple of keyboard strokes, and suddenly not only have they wiped my mother out of existence, but my words don’t really matter anymore. (For the record, my mother is black Jamaican and my father is Indian Guyanese.)

This accusation of “not being black enough” raised its ugly head when Priti Patel was accused of distracting from the racism facing black people by highlighting her own experiences — as if somehow her struggles were worth less because she is of Indian heritage (indeed her parents were from Uganda). That being called a ‘Paki’ as a young girl wouldn’t have had the same crushing, hurtful impact as any other racial slur. Similarly, Munira Mirza has been accused of not being able to understand the experiences of black people because she is of Pakistani origin.

The hierarchy of race is inextricably tied up with the totem pole of oppression. Blacks are at the top. Then come the Pakistanis and Bangladeshis. Then the Indians, I guess, saving the least oppressed for the Jews or the Chinese. Your position on the oppression totem pole is directly related to how well or badly your group is thought to be doing, educationally and in the workplace. Is more of your group proportionally in prison than another group? Is more of your group failing at school or excluded? Are they underrepresented among CEOs and other masters of the universe?

The worse these average outcomes, the better your claim to the top spot on the totem pole, and the less likely your experiences of racism will be dismissed like the Home Secretary’s was.

The recent protests inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement should have provoked serious conversations about the meaning and impact of race; we all need to explore the nature of racism and what to do about it.

But it is clear to me, from the black boxes on Instagram to the meaningless supportive BLM statements on corporate websites, that few people are interested in examining race in our own society. Most people want an easy fix, a stamp of approval that will allow them to be branded a non-racist so that they can go back to their normal lives, satisfied that they are a good person (and certainly better than Tories).

This is not even remotely helpful to anyone, it’s simple box ticking; but the desire to signal ‘anti-racism’ instead of just not being a racist is so prevalent that at times I wonder whether human beings have the capacity to distinguish between the two: the signal and the reality.

This tick-box race culture goes hand in hand with the oppression Olympics. Hierarchies of race are the easy bingo card that allows ethnic people to be ticked off on a sheet. Chinese? Sorry, only 2 oppression points for you. Black? Wow, that’s 10 points! You go straight to the top! This is why, if you are merely interested in appearing to be non-racist, rather than actually being a non-racist, you will buy into the idea of this totem pole of oppression. You will ignore that race and class are so much more complex than this.

My father was of Indian heritage, but he came from a much poorer environment than my black mother and grew up without any shoes. Life is more complicated than the tick-box culture allows, but if your only interest in race is to do enough to signal to everyone that you aren’t a racist, then you will promote that hierarchy enthusiastically because it is the perfect prop for your non-racist dissimulation. It doesn’t require any thought or effort.

The reality of being anti-racist requires years of reading and discussion, befriending a variety of black people, including ones who think differently from you politically (oh the horror of it) and really coming to terms with one’s own uncomfortable feelings around race. Signalling requires a black box on Instagram and instantly everyone approves of you. You can see why most people choose the simpler option.

In fact, spending a lifetime helping black boys realise their potential, something Black Lives Matter should approve of, instead of earning me adoration as a black box on Instagram does, has given me many enemies. My 20-plus years of improving young people’s lives is meaningless next to the superficial letters of support for BLM, because making a useful difference to people’s lives is less important than being seen to do so. It is a wonder why anyone ever does anything truly good at all.

But there is one way of being anti-racist in a very simple and real way that takes no time at all. Allow Priti Patel, Kemi Badenoch and Munira Mirza the right that so many white people enjoy and take for granted: the right to think for themselves.

Katharine Birbalsingh is the founder and headmistress of Michaela Community School, a free school established in 2014 in Wembley Park, London.