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8 May 2018updated 05 Oct 2023 8:42am

Those calling Sajid Javid a “coconut” should have better things to judge him on

The first BAME home secretary must be afforded the chance to be rated on his own performance, not on those of his associates.

By Rohan Banerjee

Sajid Javid’s appointment as the first black, Asian, or minority ethnic (BAME) person to hold one of the great offices of state hasn’t been treated as a straightforward triumph for workplace diversity. Much has been made of the novelty of the decision to make the son of a Pakistani bus driver home secretary. Yet it came in the wake of the Windrush Scandal, which exposed both the extremism of the Conservative Party’s hostile environment policy, and the callous knock-on effect it has had on those who came legally to Britain from the Caribbean in the 1960s, but lacked documentation. Unsurprisingly, for some Javid’s appointment amounts to a bit of a hollow move.

Others, though, have gone further. Tariq Mahmood, who describes himself as a freelance campaigner for the Labour Party, took to social media to brand Javid a “coconut” – a slang phrase used to accuse someone with brown skin of betraying their cultural heritage by being “white on the inside”. Although Mahmood has since claimed that his comment wasn’t racially charged and that he was in fact simply lampooning the shape and shine of Javid’s bald head, his defence appears questionable at best. Coconuts are hairy for a start.

Coconut shaming is an unusual form of racism, but it is a form of racism nonetheless.

Javid might be the first BAME home secretary, yet there is a distinct camp of people out there for whom that isn’t good enough. According to them, he is not the right sort of BAME person and therefore his appointment needn’t be celebrated.

So what exactly does that mean? Is it OK to prescribe particular politics, beliefs or behaviour to a person of colour? Within the BAME community, people can find themselves in a cultural crossfire, where they must counterbalance their backgrounds and what is expected of them, against the desire, and pressure, to integrate with the white status quo.

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Javid and others like him are sometimes criticised for “acting white” or “selling out” because they have chosen, for example, to pursue a career path not traditionally trodden by BAME people, they are in a relationship with someone from another background, or they do not speak the language or practise the faith of the culture they were born into.     

Being BAME and voting Conservative, meanwhile, presents an issue in itself, given the party’s historically hard line on immigration and defence of the British imperial project. And although Javid moved to disown the Tories’ hostile environment policy in his first speech as home secretary last week, the MP for Bromsgrove actually voted in favour of the policy in 2014 – a decision that undermines the sincerity of his concerns for minority rights.  

It is a position held by many critics of BAME Tories, including the novelist Benjamin Zephaniah, who compared people like Javid to “house slaves”, blind to the history of the institution they serve, or if not blind then at least willing to overlook it in order to preserve any new status or wealth they have achieved.

Zephaniah told Huck Magazine: “The racism I experience that comes from institutions, it comes from policies from the Tories. The racist things I hear from politicians? The Tories. Somebody once asked me when we were talking about animals, what is the strangest animal I’d ever seen? I said a black Tory. To me that’s a very strange animal. Then as Sajid Javid was appointed, you have [parliamentary private secretary to the chancellor of the exchequer] Kwasi Kwarteng defending the government on Windrush. I’d go so far as to say they’re like house slaves.”

It is arguably more understandable why ethnic minorities would generally lean towards left-wing politics, thanks to its egalitarian language, social progressiveness, and defence of workers’ rights at every level of income. But it is important to note that a BAME person who votes Tory does not automatically cease to be BAME.

Zephaniah and other critics would do well to realise that regardless of Javid’s involvement in the Conservative Party, he is unable to shield himself from the enduring prejudices and struggles that come with having brown or black skin. Consider that on Javid’s hiring as home secretary, the announcement was met with a torrent of racist abuse on Twitter. For example, one user, whose handle is @rationalgamer55, wrote: “The absolute state of Britain. A Paki Muzzer will now hold one of the great offices of state.”

“Acting white” does not offset skin colour. Sajid Javid’s appointment as the first BAME home secretary is not illegitimatised by his Conservatism or by his being a Eurosceptic. Whether he fails or succeeds in this role remains to be seen – he assumes the role in trying circumstances – but Javid should be afforded the chance to be judged on his own performance, not those of his associates.

Ultimately, whatever spin you want to put on it – perhaps this is indeed a panicked gesture after Windrush – a home secretary from a BAME background is a step forward. Precedent inspires possibility, and maybe, from across the political spectrum, we can now expect to see more BAME people holding prominent positions in office. In being the first BAME home secretary, Javid has invited the idea of finding a next one. And for those BAME people on the left who view the 48-year-old as an inauthentic choice, perhaps they should question whether bringing him down is helpful to the case for diversity they claim to support.

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