“Political blackness”: a very British concept with a complex history

Changing perceptions is no act.
Changing perceptions is no act.
Image: Reuters/Thomas Peter
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For last year’s UK general election, award-winning British actor Riz Ahmed issued a broad appeal to black citizens to vote.

“The reason we’re making this film is because blacks don’t vote,” Riz said in a campaign video. “And by black people I mean ethnic minorities, of all backgrounds.”

Ahmed isn’t the first to use the term in this way. In 2016, students at a British university promoted Black History Month by using images of Zayn Malik and London mayor Sadiq Khan—two famous Brits of Asian descent. Using “black” in this all-encompassing way may seem odd, especially to American ears (in the US, black has always been exclusively used to describe people of African and Caribbean descent). In Britain, it points to a far more complicated and fraught history of blackness, identity and nationality.

In an essay in the book The Good Immigrant, Ahmed touches on this experience. “As children in the 1980s, when my brother and I were stopped near our home by a skinhead who decided to put a knife to my brother’s throat, we were black,” he notes in an excerpt published in The Guardian. “A decade later, the knife to my throat was held by another ‘Paki,’ a label we wore with swagger in the Brit-Asian youth and gang culture of the 1990s.”

The memories Ahmed recounts encapsulate the complexity and contradictions surrounding the question of who is black and who is not in Britain. It’s a debate that has flared up again largely because the UK’s Black Student Campaign (BSC) which claims to be the biggest organization of black students in Europe, is having an identity crisis.

The BSC represents all students of African, Arab, Asian and Caribbean heritage. And up and down the country “black student officers” represent students of color at British universities who, because of “political blackness,” are not actual black as generally defined. Last year, the BSC agreed it needed a new name and to end the use of political blackness as an umbrella term.

The BSC launched a campaign to re-think what it should call itself. The resulting discussion has brought the UK’s anti-racist movement into focus and asks a difficult question—what unites people of color in the UK today?

Where “political blackness” comes from

When a large number of migrants from Africa, the Caribbean, and South Asia came to the UK in the post-World War II period, there were a lot of shared experiences of racism and discrimination. Many who came from former British colonies were lumped together as “coloreds.” They struggled to get decent housing, education, and often found their communities under attack from the far right. It wasn’t uncommon for young British people of Asian descent to be called the n-word.

“Political blackness comes out of that,” says Claire Alexander, a professor of sociology at the University of Manchester and author of the 2017 paper “Breaking Black: The death of ethnic and racial studies in Britain.” Alexander identifies political blackness as a unique response to a British understanding of race and racism. Young people of color identified as black and campaigned together to fight racial discrimination, she says, adding that at the heart of political blackness was a shared feeling of being unwanted. Political blackness resonated as term adopted by academics and political activists and took on a considerable life of its own in the 1980s.

Yet the term wasn’t universally accepted even at its height. Tariq Modood, professor of sociology at the University of Bristol and author of the 1994 paper “Political Blackness and British Asians,” became a prominent critic of it—and remains so today. He argues that political blackness was imposed upon British Asians. “It didn’t have the consent of people who were not white,” Modood says. “For people who believed in equality, one of the things they must believe in is that people should be able to choose their identity and to reject identities that they thought were inappropriate for them.”

And if black identity has been a way to reaffirm cultural roots, with people of African descent asserting that black is beautiful, and taking pride in their music, food, and African style, where does that leave those who roots are in Asia or elsewhere? “I thought, as an Asian person, I wanted to be proud of my Asian heritage,” Modood says.

For those two reasons—choice and cultural pride—he says, “political blackness is actually harmful to Asian people in Britain.” He believes it devalues Asian people’s own chosen identity.

Black is the new black

Political blackness went out of fashion by the 1990s. And it has been criticized more recently as a new generation of students of African and Caribbean descent, who didn’t grow up with political blackness, encountered the BSC.

“Black is my hair, is my body, is me. I can’t wake up and decide not to be seen as black—nor can I choose to adopt it as a political identity, whilst exercising racial privileges that lighter skinned people may be afforded due to colourism in many communities,” Melissa Owusu, a former student representative, wrote in 2016 after attending her first black student national conference. The same year, Kehinde Andrews, an associate professor in sociology at Birmingham City University told the Guardian: “A shared non-white identity has never been necessary to build coalitions. Real solidarity is based on organising around shared issues and not trying to create a shared identity that erases the substantial differences between a wide variety of peoples.”

Many critics argued that political blackness erased the specific and differing forms of racism that black and Asian people experienced in Britain. It’s a point journalist Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff touched on in the New Statesman: “I didn’t have the indignation of being compared to a terrorist and told I smelt of curry while growing up, as a few of my Asian classmates did, neither did they suffer from attitudes of anti-blackness imparted by other people of colour while they were a teenager, nor were they ever roughly called nigger by a group of sniggering adolescent boys at a party.”

Alexander, who describes herself as an Asian woman in her 50s, says: “I still use black, but I realize you can’t really get away with that because you look at young people and you describe yourself as black, they will look at you like you’re deranged.” There was an important shift during the 1990s from political blackness to ethnically defined identities, such black British or British Asian. In 2001, mixed-race people were given their own ethnic category in the UK census.

“The government sponsored a specific version of multiculturalism, which was focused on ethnic identities,” Alexander says. She argues that this was a method to undermine strong forms of resistance. The government funded ethnically defined community organizations that tend to be led by the older and more conservative, to shift power away from more younger, more radical, and explicitly anti-racist activists.

Alexander argues that the move away from political blackness and toward ethnic identities broke down key alliances between communities. And this eventually led to a disempowered and, in some ways, a depoliticized anti-racist movement. As Alexander notes in her 2017 paper, the shift from political blackness to cultural identities occurred as public institutions “refocused attention away from ongoing racial and ethnic inequality and social injustice towards the seeming failures of multiculturalism and the apparent inability of Britain’s ethnic minorities (now largely recast as ‘Muslims’) to ‘integrate’ into wider modern society.” Questions around racism quietly disappeared from the political agenda, while issues on culture, religion, and ethnicity (and a large focus on “community cohesion”) took center stage, according to Alexander.

“They may be some truth in that. I can’t deny it,” Modood says of the ground given up when political blackness fell into disfavor.“It did happen at roughly about the same time. And it maybe that we fail to get an alternative unity identity.” Still, Modood stands by his criticism: “I think it’s better for people to have identities that are meaningful to them and not imposed upon them by others.”

A term that has staying power

Political blackness may have faded as a political and cultural stance in the UK but it never completely went away.  In February 2017, an email titled “Black Female Professors in the UK 2017” landed in Alexander’s inbox. The email was from law professor Iyiola Solanke, who was compiling a list of black female academics in the UK. The list grew rapidly within a few weeks, gathering more than 100 names of academics who were experts on a range of subjects. The list included names of women of African, Arab, Asian and Caribbean heritage. In her 2017 paper, Alexander notes the debate the name sparked, as several academics were quick to note how contentious political blackness remains. In response to this discussion, Solanke noted:

I made a conscious decision to use black in the political sense. Perhaps we can leave that question to the next generation of black women academics? Right now, I think we need to work together to simply ensure that there is a next generation of black female professors.

The Black Female Professors Forum still exists under the umbrella term as an online and informal network. But change is coming for other organizations that use the term.

While the BSC is clear it doesn’t want to use the term politically black, it still isn’t sure on its new name. And to complicate matters, a number of former leaders of BSC, who are of African, Asian, Arab and Caribbean descent, note in an open letter published last December: “We, in our cultural diversity, are comfortable to describe ourselves as Black.”

The results of BSC consultation are expected to be published soon. The group has already ruled out the term “black and minority ethnic,” one often used by the government and the media. (The term seems to suggest that black people are the most important ethnic minority and clumps all others together.)

So what should non-white people call themselves in Britain?

“What’s wrong with ethnic minorities? Do we really need to look for another term?” Modood says. But even that term has been criticized. In the same open letter, former leaders of BSC explain why:

The label ‘ethnic minorities’ is similarly inappropriate because, as African, Asian, Arab, and Caribbean people we are in fact the overwhelming majority of humanity. Terminology about minorities reinforces those negative ideas utilised to justify our social, cultural and economic oppression.

And while “people of color” has gained traction in the US, it also has been slammed for ignoring nuances and being uncomfortably close to the term “colored,” which continues to have negative connotations in Britain.

“I’m less worried about the labels, I’m more worried about what people do,” Alexander says, adding she sees value in political blackness because it still has the power to provoke a discussion. For Alexander, the label should be about where those points of solidarity or where those points of tension are and what we can do about that. “The label is always the starting point, not the end point,” she says.

In the end, some activists say that a term that tries to describe all non-white people is pointless—the focus should instead be on finding a term to describe people who all have a shared experience of racism.

And no one is close to finding one that has broad consensus in the UK.