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18th October 2019

Brown representation: they want our faces but not our voices

There is an interesting moment where brown women in the public eye are caught between mimicking vitriol of white supremacy and silent complacency, Urussa Malik argues
Brown representation: they want our faces but not our voices
Photo: Policy Exchange @ Wikimedia Commons

Brown women are having a moment in the UK. Finally.

Priti Patel stood in front of the Conservative Party conference with a sinister smile promising to “end free movement of people.” A British woman of South Asian descent who, in acknowledging her own parents’ immigration, sees no irony in eradicating free movement for others.

Of course, she means this contextually, we are now in a time of heightened insecurity across the globe as opposed to the 1950s and 1960s when the people in now independent colonies were being called over to fill gaps in the British economy.

But this is almost entirely fictional, an ahistorical account that seemingly forgets that the Cold War period was perhaps the most insecure in modern history.

A woman on the other side of this debate is Naga Munchetty, who was reprimanded by the BBC for stating that the phrase ‘go back home’ is, in fact, racist.

The reproach came about as this was a criticism, nay comment, of Donald Trump’s policies which had exacerbated xenophobia across the USA. But with a Prime Minister who seems to capitalise off of xenophobia and racism, this was a tone-deaf, but unsurprising, move by the BBC.

There is an interesting moment where brown women in the public eye are caught between mimicking vitriol of white supremacy and silent complacency. The pandering to a largely white crowd raucously applauding the smiley Patel re-established narratives of xenophobia and veiled racism because it comes from an assimilated immigrant with proximity to whiteness.

Anyone of an immigrant background who pedals this kind of rhetoric is seized upon and is paraded as a representative of all immigrants; as if they are a monolith. It is clear from Munchetty that the British public likes a brown face so long as they can ignore their voice.

Of course, the exception to this rule is if, like Patel, you insist on pushing incredibly racist and damaging narratives. How lovely.

This seems to be something I have to confront as well, should I seemingly transgress what it means, or what it meant, to be a brown woman in the UK. The motivation to remain critical is always with me, to always remain open to possibilities that I can unknowingly reinforce certain stereotypes and assumptions about others, even when I am breaking them.

Patel is a clear example of internalised racism in South Asian communities. Bradford is a city which voted leave during the EU referendum, with the established South Asian communities turning on newly arrived immigrant communities.

Indeed, the driving point of my thoughts is what is acceptable to be spoken: decades-old xenophobic vitriol which marks immigrants as commodities of which only the ‘best’ are allowed? Or the decades-old xenophobic vitriol, which the British communities of BAME backgrounds reveal are intentional in phrases such as, “go home” which ends in a reprimand from state media?

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