Sunak & I: visual difference does not change make
Today, Ria unpacks her sentiments towards this moment in British history, as someone who's life has somewhat mirrored the new PM.
When Obama was elected for president in 2009, the term ‘post-racial’ became increasingly popular in reference to American society.
Celebration was called when Liz Truss revealed her overwhelmingly diverse cabinet, with 10 women and 7 people of colour. It should be of course mentioned that it is the most ‘socially exclusive’ cabinet, with two thirds of the cabinet attending private (fee paying) school.
And there has been another call to celebrate the leaps and bounds in diversity for our first British Prime Minister of colour, Rishi Sunak.
There is a knee jerk to visual difference. For the generations which champion the ‘I don’t see colour’ campaign, I invite you to reflect on the irony. Whilst there can be value in a ‘seeing is believing’ approach to diversity and inclusion, the dangers far outweigh the possibilities. I’m writing from the point of view of a British Asian woman who created her own blog and platform so she could be more seen online - I understand the power of visual representation. I reap the value of it, I live it. But I also understand that it only goes so far. It’s not going to solve structural or systemic racial issues. Similarly, visual representation is no good without context. Context of circumstance, privilege, roots, rhyme and reason.
Visual difference does not change make.
When we see Sunak, sure, he's the first British Asian Prime Minister, the first Prime Minister of colour. But this significance is nothing without its context. Briefly, we can summarise this context with 2 unforgettable facts:
Sunak’s personal wealth with his wife is estimates at £730 million (double that of the King)
Sunak’s rife anti-immigration policies
To many British Asians and people of colour in Britain who come from immigrant heritage, these facts (should) make the head spin. It stokes at a deep anger where visual representation loses its value. These unforgettable facts contextualise Sunak’s position and most vitally, underscore his values. For where do your values lie if you are forming anti-immigration policies which would prevent the actions your parents took to provide you the opportunities that afforded you the path to your new title, Mr Prime Minister?
Visual difference does not change make.
"Does Sunak represent me? Absolutely not."
At this point, it’s worth highlighting the platform on which I am able to write this from. When looking at where Sunak and I would lie on a Venn diagram, it’s pretty stark.
We are both British Asian.
We both attended a private school for which our parents paid for.
We both have South East African born Indian parents who migrated in the 1960’s.
Both our heritage is from the Punjab.
Sunak escalated to the role of Prime Minister for a party with a strong anti-immigration narrative which thrives on colonial history (we only have to look to Churchill’s statements of India or the River’s of Blood Speech) which entirely informs their modern policies. Heritage is incredibly key to this privately educated, aristocratic rooted party after all.
And yet, I have just handed in my MA dissertation entitled ‘How the British Asian Woman Haunts the Colonial Memory’ and am officially launching my business, MatriarchLtd., committed to anti-racism and creating a more inclusive world through addressing Britain’s colonial past.
Does Sunak represent me? Absolutely not.
Is Sunak’s representation worth celebrating? Perhaps, if his context and politics didn’t directly contradict his heritage.
Within the immigrant experience, there is a consistent narrative across ethnicities and cultures, of generations previous working to provide better opportunities for their children and those that come after him. Whether this is something his parents did is not up for debate - to send him to Winchester College whilst working as a GP and working at a pharmacy, clearly this same immigrant impetus occurred in Sunak’s family.
And this is where I can level, eye to eye with Sunak. My question is, what have you done with that opportunity? Whilst I disagree that people should feel active pressure to ‘repay’ these opportunities in some way, our humanity indicates one would feel committed to recognising, honouring and actively appreciating this in some way. Does ending up championing anti-immigration policies that contradict the pathway through which you exist within the UK, do that? Is that really honourable? Is that really appreciative? Or is it worth turning your back on your heritage for power in a party which undercuts your heritage?
I summarise this thought with a quote from Sathnam Sanghera’s seminal work, Empireland: How Imperialism Has Shaped Modern Britain. Sanghera writes of a common British attitude acquired through the Empire which has distilled to the modern day in the form of exceptionalism,
‘This sense of exceptionalism, a feeling that we are different, better than everyone else and therefore don’t necessarily have to obey the same rules, has seduced political leaders of all hues.’ (pg 121).
This was written in 2021 and is ever so eerie.
No matter how I spin this, I cannot make this make sense. I cannot make this add up or comprehend a valid reason for this other than wealth, greed and social mobility. Undoubtedly there must be a skill to how Sunak has gained what he has (I substitute the term ‘achieve’ for ‘gained’ here). But what is the cost of that? I can only hope that there is a personal weight of regret to turn your back on the culture and history of your heritage. Either Sunak does this knowingly, or it’s a dire tribute to the British education system which supports my business case. Even still, there is a cost in what part of the British public are spinning this as a ‘win’ for diversity and inclusion in the UK. My personal worry is that viewing this as a progression win, in the same tone as a ‘post-racial’ America, takes away from any campaign aiming to better educate and acknowledge Britain’s racial and colonial past, which has never stopped informing its present.
"There is either an incredible denial of our colonial history or a conscious choice to switch it off like a tap."
Britain historically finds difficulty in facing its history, this is nothing new. There is a very real concern that these visual, performative like representations will undermine the task at hand of addressing systemic racism and working for equality. Sanghera writes later,
‘Freudian psychoanalysts believe that if you deny or repress a traumatic experience, you risk acting out versions of the original trauma in ways that can be self-defeating. if we don’t confront the reality of what happened in British empire, we will never be able to work out who we are or who we want to be.’ (pg 215)
In the context of Sunak, this quote haunts our reality. There is either an incredible denial of our colonial history or a conscious choice to switch it off like a tap. For a man so well educated, I am swayed from the former to the latter, effortlessly.
Ultimately, ignoring history is one of our greatest dangers. We see it with Kanye West’s anti-Semitism and the culture that’s re-promoted, or rather a confidence-fuel it’s provided for people to be bolder in their hate. Ignoring, re-writing and most importantly not learning from history is a constant threat to our balloon like society - pumped with pressure that could burst at any given moment.
Visual representation does not change make.
And in the same breath, one Prime Minister of colour does not remove us from our imperial past. A Britain truly in search of inclusion and equality would work hard to not let that history slip away.