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18th October 2022

‘Superficially Black’: Why no one can define Kwasi Kwarteng’s Blackness

Rupa Huq’s racist comments must spark a conversation about what Blackness means in UK politics
‘Superficially Black’: Why no one can define Kwasi Kwarteng’s Blackness
Chancellor of the Exchequer Kwasi KwartengPhoto: Andrew Parsons / No 10 Downing Street @ Flickr

Words by Tiffany Ibe

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has suspended MP Rupa Huq over her questionable labelling of Britain’s first Black Chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng, as “superficially Black”. To me, and to many of us in the Black community, such a statement takes no effort to discern.

Nevertheless, I believe it sparks interesting questions surrounding how Blackness is defined and understood both by members of the Black community and those on the outside – are we, or more importantly, why are we, still being viewed as a monolith?

My problem with what Huq said is that she believes you would not be able to decipher that Kwarteng is Black if you “heard him on the Today show”, a statement she reinforces by referencing his educational and financial background. To Huq, there is a predetermined, fairly narrow, scope of political agendas, dialects, and speech mannerisms that coincide with definitions of ‘Blackness’, that Kwarteng differs from so greatly that his Blackness becomes audibly unrecognisable.

To many of us within the Black community, such statements may already have a sense of familiarity – being told that we speak, dress, and act “white”/ “non-Black”

Of course, this is obvious stereotyping, but we already knew that was at play. To me, the issue lies in how Kwarteng’s academic and occupational successes somehow erase his Blackness. Not only that, but that Blackness is something that should be identifiable audibly in the same way as a lisp or a stutter.

To many of us within the Black community, such statements may already have a sense of familiarity – being told that we speak, dress, and act “white”/ “non-Black”. Firstly, to have such comments imposed on us not only implies a sense of community betrayal, but it reduces Blackness to something that can be picked up and put down as and when – a costume.

The longstanding debate about whether or not Blackness is deeper than a phenotypical trait, pioneered by policies such as the one-drop rule, becomes particularly interesting when looking at situations such as this. Many have tried, mostly in good nature, to dismiss Blackness as a physical characteristic as meaningless as eye colour. The failings of this colour-blind approach lie in the fact that it is automatically blind to the systemic and institutional hindrances that being Black in the West forces you to face. Moreover, suggesting that Kwarteng’s Blackness is erased because he differs from Huq’s expectations of what a Black person should sound like ignores the challenges he has rather impressively overcome.

Huq’s statement becomes even more frustrating when considering Kwarteng’s Ghanaian background, which, similarly to many within the African diaspora, prioritises academic and occupational achievement as being the key to success, happiness, and stability. By suggesting that Kwarteng’s position is a deviation from the “norm” of Black people clumps all Black people into one singular mould. It erases variation. It erases individuality. It erases the successes of groups like Nigerian Americans, who make up the most educated ethnic group in the US, or the achievements of minority-dominant state schools such as Brampton Sixth form in Newham, where over half of their 2022 cohort achieved straight A*/A – level grades.

His political standing should have no effect on the perception of his racial identity.

To reduce Kwarteng’s Blackness to a superficial trait also brings into question notions of political representation. It introduces the idea that there is one political view that all Black people are expected to share and implies a Black person holding positions of power within white-dominated political spaces automatically becomes a representative for the entire Black community.

Not only is this not the case in any way, but it imposes an unfair burden of responsibility that Kwarteng’s white counterparts are not expected to bear. Why should Kwarteng be expected to serve as the spokesperson for the beliefs of all Black people? Why can’t he simply be seen as a representative for his constituency? Why must his skin colour serve as the foundation for his political beliefs?

Yes, it goes without saying, conservative policies have not always had the best interest of minorities at heart, but Kwarteng has the same right as any other individual to exercise his political autonomy and align himself with any belief system he chooses. His race should have not been accompanied by political expectation. His political standing should have no effect on the perception of his racial identity.

The complex interaction between Blackness as a physical trait and Blackness as wider experience is complex and confusing. It is hard to navigate and understand, and it is even harder to find a position on either side of the argument to fully align oneself with. But this experience is one that is for Black people to manoeuvre individually. It is a personal journey. It is not something that can be taken away by a non-Black person. Being Black is not something that can be branded “superficial” by a non-Black person, or anyone other than the individual themselves.

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