Aditya Chakrabortty :- I’m Bengali and I’m black


As I was reviewing links clicked on our blog, saw that someone clicked on one that leads to Aditya Chakrabortty.

His posting is titled “I’m Bengali and I’m black – in the same way that my parents were”.

BTW, the actual post that references Aditya Chakrabortty is one by Safy-Hallan Farah.  Ms. Farah’s post is here.

Ms. Farah’s post, published on Feminist Wire, is dated 2013-April-3rd.


I am Bengali and I ‘m black


Before I was Asian, I was black. No, I haven’t since undergone some Jacko-style operation, or doused myself in Fair & Lovely. Rather, black was one of the terms my family and I used to describe ourselves.

I grew up in 80s London, which still echoed with the Anti-Nazi League’s chant of “We are black, we are white, together we are dynamite”. At her primary school, my sari-wearing mother was a member of the local NUT black teachers’ caucus. As late as university in the mid-90s, I was handed a black prospectus, featuring action shots of a Punjabi pointing at a noticeboard (sadly, this was to prove an all-too-accurate guide to student entz).


Discussing that period, those terms and the politics with which they were freighted, feels like remembering the era before email: so recent, so different. True, my mother’s old union branch still runs its black teachers section for “all teachers who face racism”. But the notion that someone of my background growing up today would refer to themselves as black is, frankly, fantastical.

Now you are black, or you are Asian – a categorical wall has been put up. And on either side of that wall other divisions are hurriedly being erected: you are a Gujarati Hindu from Leicester; he is a Bangladeshi Muslim from Whitechapel; they are Nigerian Christians from Lewisham. And so endlessly on, until you end up with what a sprawl of what A Sivanadan terms “cultural enclaves and feuding nationalisms”.

Isn’t this just the inevitable flowering of minor differences in an ever more diverse society? Quite the opposite. “Black” and “Asian” identities are just as badly bolted together as anything else. Take that cozy, cliched history of black Britain that begins with the Pathe newsreel of Empire Windrush docking at Tilbury. On which decks would have been the arrivals from Nairobi or Accra? Similarly Britain’s black history month, which ends today, takes its lead from the US – where the celebration began in 1926. But despite being an “Asian”, I might have as much in common with a black Trinidadian Hindu whose ancestors came from Uttar Pradesh as with a “fellow-Asian” whose parents hail from Multan, via Luton.

When someone like my late father responded to the term “black”, it was not because he’d forgotten his Tagore, or the films of Satyajit Ray. He carried that history with greater care and affection than those who today boast of their Bengali-ness. But “black” wasn’t about pigment or some flatpack identity. It was primarily a political term, borne of a recognition among those who’d recently arrived in Britain that they faced obstacles in common and would try and beat them together. One wore “black” not instead of “Jamaican” or “Sikh” but alongside all those other labels of cultural and historical identity, as an anti-racist affiliation.

Our parents were black because when they tried to get digs, they’d all see those signs saying “No black, no Irish, no dogs”. They were black because they’d all struggle to get the jobs, the pay and the promotions they deserved. And they were black because they all faced racial abuse and violence.

Of course, one could be black and Indian; one inevitably was black and leftwing. In his new book Racism, Class and the Racialized Outsider, Satnam Virdee charts how groups such as the Indian Workers Association, or Jayaben Desai and the heroic women strikers at the Grunwick film processing plant, were constantly building alliances with others on the left, whether in the trade unions or the Socialist Workers party.

Contrast that with what we have now: a host of ethnic identities all competing with one another for recognition and government funding for their own pet projects – not on the grounds of what they do but on who they claim to represent. This has been encouraged by Whitehall – which doled out money to the Muslim Council of Britain in the name of preventing terrorism. And it has certainly been fueled by local councils. In his book The End of Tolerance, Arun Kundnani notes how throughout the 80s, Bradford city council encouraged and funded local mosques to group together and “provide an alternative voice” for Muslims in the area. The hope was “they would become allies in a process of absorbing opposition, at the expense of the younger militants”. It goes without saying that the “militants” were aggressively secular.

This move has bestowed power and money on certain figures within these ethnic communities – but it has also enabled successive governments to pretend that racism is no longer the problem. Instead, if you can’t get on in today’s Britain today, it’s because of some cultural factors that you and your community really need to sort out, pronto. This is the same sleight of hand that you see in discussions of sex and class, too: covering up the systemic issues and pretending that the problems can be solved by the individual. Lovely women: lean in! Oi, proles: get off Benefits Street! And you Bangladeshis: shave off those beards! Don’t worry about whether the game is rigged, or the rules are wrong: just play up.

Where this ends up is with David Cameron, that community leader for Old Etonians, speechifying in Munich about “state multiculturalism”. “When a white person holds racist views, we rightly condemn them,” said the prime minister who put on London streets vans reading “Go Home”. “But when equally unacceptable views or practices come from some who isn’t white, we’ve been too cautious, frankly, even fearful, to stand up to them.”

Except that racism hasn’t gone away. It may have got more nuanced, as you’d expect over time. But in work, it still pays to be a white man. On the streets, the police in England and Wales record over 100 racist “incidents” every day, and the Institute of Race Relations has tallied up 106 racial murders between 1993 and 2013. Meanwhile, to be black or Asian is to be far more likely to be stopped and searched – up to 29 times more likely in the West Midlands.

The obstacles remain, racism is still with us. Even after decades of fixating on our differences, ethnic minorities in this country are bound together by many of the same injustices and frustrations. My identity comes in many parts: Bengali, Londoner and the rest. But I am also black, in the same way my parents were. And if you feel the pinch of the same constraints, you’re black too.


Other Works


  1. Aditya Chakrabortty on the ‘bubble mentality’ in financial journalism
    • Profile
      • Aditya Chakrabortty from the Guardian talks to Transforming Management at Manchester Business School about the silo mentality that occurs in financial journalism.
    • Videos
      • Video #1
        Channel:- Alliance Manchester Business School
        Published On:- 2011-August-4th
        Date Added:- 2017-November-17th



In a world constantly forcing binary choices on each of us, it is refreshing to have an author offer more than 1, albeit 2, in this case.

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