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Uncle Tom’s Cabinet

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For the past few years it is telling to see the number of Black people the establishment co-opts into “unofficially” speaking for Black people – from Candace Owens in the United States to Trevor Phillips, and most recently in the UK Parliament’s Black History Month debate with Conservative MP and Under-Secretary for Equalities Kemi Badenoch. Whilst the title of this blog may be rather amusing, this is anything but that. The biggest opposition to racial equality movements in the Black Atlantic, more specifically the US and Britain is not just white racists but how the establishment uses Black and Brown people to reinforce ideas that negatively impact those same communities.

As Black women in Britain, are five times more likely to die from pregnancy, childbirth or in the postpartum period, compared to their white counterparts (Mothers and Babies: Reducing Risk through Audits and Confidential Enquiries across the UK, 2019) for example, in the next breath Badenoch says “the government stands unequivocally against Critical Race Theory.” Whether those are also her views or only that of her government, remains to be seen. Whether or not she agrees, she is an MP and has been co-opted by the establishment. People will think she believes those things because she is saying it on a platform. What’s worse, nobody will challenge her because she’s Black, as that means she’s “an expert”… doesn’t it?

For those that don’t know, Critical Race Theory (CRT) is a body of scholarship based on the idea that race and racism are a product of social thought and understanding (we know race was socially constructed, and thus we have racism). CRT scholars hope to show the ways in which racism is embedded in society, in ways that have been normalised. Moreover, how it is maintained. So, when we see people like Badenoch, it does not take too long to realise the problems that this can create, pertinently in the middle of this perfect storm of Black Lives Matter and the Coronavirus pandemic.

Critical Race Theory has its orgins in leftist legal movements of the 1970s. Yet, many Black and Brown scholars (including Derrick Bell, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Cheryl Harris and others) primarily saw within the frameworks of Critical Legal Studies (CLS) that it failed to engage meaningfully with racism, as it [racism] was aligned it with class-based hate / discrimination. However, despite CRT starting in the legal world, it has since spread:

“Today, many in the field of education consider themselves critical race theorists who use CRT’s ideas to understand issues of school discipline and hierarchy, tracking, controversies over curriculum and history, and IQ and achievement testing.”

(Delegado and Stefancic, 2006: 2)

The use of the term Uncle Tom dates back to the 19th century with the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin by white American author Harriet Beecher Stowe. In the 1850s, it was probably as famous as Disney is today. It was the bestselling novel of the Victorian era and the second bestselling book, only being outsold by the Bible. It outsold every major work by every major author, from Dickens and Thackeray to the Brontes and George Eliot. In Black and British, Prof. David Olusoga tells us Uncle Tom’s Cabin is “a book about Black people, it’s a book about slaves in the deep south of America” and an uncle Tom in its day was a Black man who was thought of as excessively obedient to white people, or someone betraying their cultural or social alleigance.

So, when I talk about Uncle Tom’s cabinet in accordance to the establishment, I extend that term to people of colour more widely, such as how the establishment co-opted Marcus Rashford (though unknowingly to him I think), in his acceptance as a Member of the British Empire [MBE] and when Kanye West said “slavery was a choice.” Also, how Boris Johnson continues to state how the current Tory cabinet is the most diverse it has ever been, very much co-opting people like Home Secretary Priti Patel and the current Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak. Still, the hostile environment endures and most impacted by the Windrush Scandal, still have not properly compensated.

From Trevor Phillips’ comments on Islamaphobia to Baroness Lawrence on Grenfell to Candace Owens on literally anything, and Femi Oluwole on blackface (possibily a naive victim here), the establishment co-opts Black/Brown people to promote things that reinforce inequalities or to disrupt equality drives (pushes that were often spearheaded by the left). The establishment ranges from everything between inviting ‘acceptable’ Black people on mainstream media to Black/Brown MPs that don’t really challenge anything, to giving Black and Brown people Empire medals.

All these people at one point or other have been co-opted to “speak for Black / Brown people”, and because they are visibily not white, the public will take their opinons as gospel. Co-opted by white institutions they’re ticking diversity quotas and being ‘accepted’ into the establishment whilst at the same time harming the communities they are “speaking for”, often with little knowledge, especially historically. I can only speak for myself and they do not speak for me. How Black / Brown establishment types have been co-opted, (ironically incl. activists), is even more problematic when we encounter acronyms like BAME [Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic].

Not every Black or Brown person high in our institutions is [knowingly] an Uncle Tom but there are more Kemi Badenoch characters in our institutions dressed up in the guise of “diversity” and “representation” than we realise (not all skin folk are kinfolk), be aware!

The views of Black and Brown people that read from the hymn sheet of the Conservative Party need to be countered by opposing views from other Black and Brown people. Seemingly, in these talks, especially on TV shows, the viewpoints of Black/Brown activist-academics is missing, as it will most likely be a point of view that does not fit the narrative. The most vocal academic I see is Prof. Kehinde Andrews who brings a breath of fresh air to all these debates. However, we also need to see the view of young people and students, as well as the points of view of the Black working class. Despite there being lots of educated people on this shows, they are also very privileged, including Kehinde Andrews, a professor at Birmingham City.

Uncle Tom’s cabinet is something I thought about in relation to how specifically the Conservative Party has used Black / Brown MPs to reinforce damaging messages. But it’s something that can be extended to all of society. White supremacy doesn’t become less dangerous when the person that’s reinforcing it is not white. If anything, one could say it becomes more so. The words of MP Kemi Badenoch in that Black History Month debate about curriculum and more, make me ask questions about neo-colonialism and what epistemic violence could mean in the context of parliament and those that dictate what gets put on the national curriculum.

Listening to Kemi Badenoch, you see the caste of Eton rearing its head and it doesn’t change a shade in the colonised minds of Multiracial Britain. She may not have gone to Eton, but the Commons speaks to privilege of caste and class. And to keep a population compliant, you give them scraps and cut them off from knowledge and make them say thank you when you do give them something, oh so evident in many of the minds of former-colonial subjects and their descendants. If Critical Race Theory was to succeed, the building blocks of which society currently is built upon would tumble down. To be anti-racist, you really have to be anti-capitalist as well.

In watching Kemi Badenoch’s speech you begin to see she really believes what she’s saying; she doesn’t change a shade, no change in expression or volume, because the “House Negro” still has a place in the 21st century and the only colour the ominous “they” truly care about, is green.

Referencing

Delgado, R., & Stefancic, J. (2006). Critical race theory: An introduction. New York: NYU Press.

Mothers and Babies: Reducing Risk through Audits and Confidential Enquiries across the UK (2019). Saving Lives, Improving Mothers’ Care: Lessons learned to inform maternity care from the UK and Ireland Confidential Enquiries into Maternal Deaths and Morbidity 2015-17. Oxford: Oxuniprint.


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