My problem with black identity
Remi Adekoya on the danger of racial politics.
There is no shortage of figures, wielding considerable cultural power, ready to talk up the threat of racism in the UK today. Like Ta-Nehisi Coates in the US, commentators such as Afua Hirsch, Reni Eddo-Lodge and others wanting to fly high in the often academically accredited punditsphere talk of the persistence of structural racism, worry at the inexorable force of white privilege, and damn British society as an inhospitable place for black people. Racism is everywhere, they say. Something is still to be done.
Remi Adekoya, a Polish-Nigerian journalist and academic, is different. Not that he doesn’t think racism is a problem in 21st-century Britain. He has lived here for nearly four years, and racism does exist, he says. But it is not the huge problem it is being hyped up to be. It is not a daily experience. And it is not everywhere. What is more, he contends, the black identitarians promoting the racism-is-rife narrative, and portraying white people as deeply, even if unwittingly, racist, are making things worse – for white people and black people.
To explore his thinking in more detail, we caught up with Adekoya earlier this month. Here’s what he had to say:
spiked review: What is the main thrust of your critique of identitarianism today? And what, ultimately, do identitarians want?
Remi Adekoya: What do they want? It’s a vast camp, there are various people there with various motivations. If you ask them, they’ll tell you the focus and motive is racial equality. Various people will have various motivations, and it would be very unfair and wrong for me to say that none of those people are motivated by a desire for racial equality as they see it. So there are true believers who think their actions might lead to greater racial equality.
Then, as in all ideological movements, there will be opportunists, who see that this movement or school of thought is getting pretty popular. And this is very easy to gauge today – through social media. You just see what people are tweeting and liking on social media. Opportunists will pick up on that because they think this is what sells today.
So it’s a mixed bunch. One of my major problems is that identitarianism doesn’t make long-term sense, both for wider society and the black group that I’m focused on. For wider society, a politics that is propagated as a zero-sum game, in which X group has to lose in order for Y group to win, is inevitably bound to foster antagonisms and drive divisions in the long run. Yet, the whole narrative of what I call identity populism is steeped in group-based assessments of what they have and what we have. If group X has more than us, then we need to be angry about it because it means we are being cheated. If that kind of message is being propagated, there is no way it’s not going to lead to increased tensions. It’s not conducive to live in a society in which people look at each other suspiciously, thinking: if they’re getting this, it means we’re not getting that.
That’s the big picture. For the worldview of racial identitarians, what really matters is my group – the black group. All the others can worry about themselves, we black people should only be worried about black people. What are my actions actually going to bring for the black people I say I am fighting for? Let’s look at this from a realpolitik point of view: what are my chances of success? Identity politics is a game of numbers at the end of the day. Racial minorities don’t have the numbers. If you add all the black people and mixed-race black people in the UK, it’s about five per cent of the population. Racial minorities make up a total of 13 per cent of the population in the UK. There is no way that a group that constitutes five per cent of society are going to win at identity politics. Ultimately, if you start playing the numbers game, the other groups are going to respond. All of a sudden you have the group which constitutes 87 per cent of society saying, okay, we’ll try this identity politics thing, too – we are only going to be interested in pushing solutions that will benefit white people, let the rest worry about themselves. The reality is they have the numbers to win at such a game.
It’s the same in the US. One might think that there are more black people then there actually are in the US going by what you see in American movies or TV shows. But black people constitute just 13 per cent of US society – that’s one in eight people. Even according to demographic projections, by 2045, it’s still expected that only one in eight Americans will be black; it’s the Hispanic population that is expected to grow significantly. So, in the long term, how is a politics that signals it is only concerned with black interests and couldn’t care less what happens to the rest of society going to work for a group that constitutes just five or 13 per cent of society?
review: Do you think that identitarianism, and political correctness, has helped black people? Is there anything you can draw from it which is positive? Surely the people you mention who are interested in genuine racial equality would say it has been historically significant to the anti-racist movement?
Adekoya: I draw a distinction between political correctness and identity politics – or what I prefer to call identity populism. Political correctness has indisputably helped black people. I’ve lived in Poland, my mum was Polish and Poland is 99 per cent white with a very low level of political correctness towards minorities like myself in comparison to the UK. It wasn’t pleasant to watch TV interviews in which politicians compare government policies to those of a ‘Bantu State’ or a ‘backward African country’. Of course, when I heard things like that, I got angry and felt bad. I like the fact that a British minister would never say something like that on public TV. It’s far more pleasant, far more conducive for minorities to live in society in which people, especially authority figures, address all groups of people with a fundamental decency and politeness. That has benefitted black people, no doubt about it.
However, identity populism is another matter altogether. Like all populism, it proffers very simplistic solutions based on a simplistic black-and-white worldview. Right-wing populism will essentially suggest the West’s only major problem is excessive immigration and the arrogant elites who support it. Identitarian populism is a similarly simplistic worldview: the world is essentially made up of inherently good black and brown people, and bad oppressive white people. We, the inherently good black and brown people, are being oppressed by the bad white people. It’s hugely simplistic.
I realised that because of my negative experiences in Poland, I had retreated into the comfort of feisty racial rhetoric to give myself the illusion of power
Look, I grew up in Nigeria, the most populous black nation in the world, and I can tell you there is as much evil, prejudice and greed among black people as there is among white people. There is ample evidence of this all around the world. There is definitely plenty evidence of this in Africa where black people, especially those in power, oppress, marginalise and disenfranchise their fellow black people every day, sentencing hundreds of millions to poverty and mass suffering. So trying to draw this simplistic we-blacks-good/they-whites-bad picture is absolute nonsense. It’s the wrong diagnosis of the world’s problems. The question, of course, is why are many black people responding to identity populism? Why is there a demand for it? Clearly, those propagating identity populism are fulfilling some kind of emotional need at this moment.
spiked review: Is this really a popular outlook among most black people? Because often the really vocal pushers of racial identity populism, as you call it, are white people – so there is an element of white guilt in there. But does this have traction among most black people?
Adekoya: I’ve observed three main types of attitudes towards identity populism. First of all, there are black people who don’t really buy the line that white people are all more or less racist and those of us living in Western societies are being terribly oppressed. But they believe that supporting identitarians, or at least not challenging them, is in their best interests. This applies mostly to black middle-class professionals, not black plumbers, mechanics or other working-class black folk.
Let’s take me for example. I’m about to finish a PhD, so imagine I really want a job in academia, but it’s really hard to get one as there is a lot of competition. And then, all of a sudden, I see that there is some noise being made about there not being enough black academics in British academia because of racism. It would be in my own personal interest to jump on this and help those spreading this message. It would be in my personal interest to join in applying pressure on UK universities, in the hope they adopt some kind of quota system or other policy geared towards rapidly increasing the number of black academics in British universities. This might then make it easier for me to get into the position I want. So, even if I think racial identitarians are wrong most of the time, I could support this if I took a purely self-interested view. So there are quite a few people who look at it from this self-interested point of view, especially middle-class professionals in fields where such pressure has been successfully applied in the past, and where there has been a lot of focus on the need for more diversity in the workplace.
Then there is the second group. Very often, people of all races, when they approach a certain age and things haven’t worked out the way they expected, start looking around for answers to explain why that is. Now, the more difficult answer is that I haven’t attained the success I expected because I made some mistakes down the line. The problem is in me. That is the most psychologically difficult way to look at it. It is more psychologically comforting if someone comes along and says, hey, of course your life hasn’t worked out the way you expected it to – it’s because you’re living in a racist society and you’ve been marginalised. White people have deliberately planned the society in such a way that things wouldn’t or shouldn’t work out for you, so it’s not your fault, you did everything right, they are the problem. Emotionally, this is a very seductive message. People of all races much prefer to externalise the blame for their unmet expectations than to be self-critical.
Then there are those who really believe in the identitarian message. They genuinely think Western societies are oppressive and racist. These are usually racial minorities who grew up here in the West. Those of us who grew up, say, in Africa have seen what real oppression and marginalisation can look like. However, I understand that those who have grown up here don’t have that comparative frame of reference. They only compare Britain as is to what they imagine it should be, rather than to other countries. They might have been brought up to be suspicious of white people because of colonialism, slavery and other historical wrongs that happened to black people in the past. They might have been brought up hearing and reading a lot about historical wrongs and thus have an instinctive suspicion of white people. This makes them very susceptible to assumptions that white people simply don’t like black people and think they are inherently superior to black people. What we have been told about the past is a powerful shaper of how we interpret the present. This, of course, applies to all people, not just black people.
review: How pressing a problem is racism in the UK today? Take something like stop and search – some argue that this is an example of structural racism…
Adekoya: Here we get to the issue of subjective individual experiences. I have a bit of a different perspective on racism because I have lived in Poland, a white majority country outside of the UK. I’ve also travelled quite widely all over continental Europe. I’ve seen the situation of black people in countries like Germany, France, the Scandinavian nations, and many other European countries. Based on that experience, I know there is no place in Europe, most probably in the Western world, where the situation is better for black people than here in the UK. There is no more tolerant white-majority society in Europe than British society. I’ve seen this with my own two eyes, that’s been my subjective experience.
Now, of course, someone who was born in Britain and perhaps hasn’t spent much time in other white-majority societies, hasn’t had my experiences and my frame of reference. I can’t expect that of them. And I can’t deny them their subjective experiences and say you should be happy with what you have because black people have it much worse in other countries. No, that wouldn’t make sense.
There is no more tolerant white-majority society in Europe than British society
So, yes, racism is a problem, but I wouldn’t say that racism is the biggest problem in British society, or even the biggest problem in society for black people. There are many societal problems, among which is racism. In 2017, the government released a report explicitly acknowledging there were significant disparities in housing, jobs and other aspects of life in Britain which are strongly linked to race and something needs to be done about this. Of course, the identitarians will say: give us actions, not words. Fair enough, but it’s not like nothing is being done. Things are being done and no one, including the current government, is pretending everything is fantastic.
review: When you were younger, did you ever have a desire to get involved in the kind of black identitarianism politics? Especially being a young man in Poland, where, as you’ve detailed, there was a fair amount of racism. Was it something that you embraced, or were you always at a critical remove?
Adekoya: In my case, I was born in Nigeria and raised in Nigeria. I went to primary and secondary school in Nigeria and moved to Poland to go to university in my late teens. And black identitarianism was exactly my initial stance in reaction to the negative experiences of crude racism I experienced in Poland, especially in the late 1990s – the kind that probably hasn’t been seen in Britain since the 1970s. My immediate reaction was to view the world as an Us vs Them situation. I retreated into black circles, and we spent a lot of our time complaining about ‘all these white people’. It was a way for us to vent our frustration and feelings of powerlessness in a country where we knew very well the authorities weren’t really bothered how we felt. So, I know very well how it feels to experience racism. Poland was then, and still is, incomparably less open to people of different races than the UK.
However, I remember my mum visited me once and we were chatting about this and that. I launched into one of my Malcolm X-wannabe speeches about black people this and white people that. And my mum said, ‘You do remember that I’m white, and I’m your mum, don’t you? I know that you have different experiences to me because of your skin colour, but I’m your mum, I brought you up, so what’s with this whole Black Panther act and you trying to deny half of yourself?’ I started laughing. I realised that because of my negative experiences in Poland, I had retreated into the comfort of feisty racial rhetoric to give myself the illusion of power. That’s when I dropped the whole ‘oh, look at me, I’m blacker than black’ persona and started to look at things from a distance.
One thing which is under-appreciated is how many people of mixed-race origin find themselves within the identitarian movement. They are often some of the most prominent propagators of black-identity populism. People who have one white parent. All mixed-race people will experience an identity crisis at some point in their life. It was better for those of us like me who were born in Africa, where that whole race thing is not as big as in Western society. But in a Western setting, you’re never going to be seen as white, no matter how you feel or identify inside. That’s the reality. This means that, for the mixed-race kid who craves group acceptance (which most people do), you know that the only group that can potentially accept you as one of them is the black group.
But even there, there will be some who will question whether you’re really that black – because, after all, one of your parents is white. There will be some black people who will think that you have it better than them in Western societies because you have lighter skin. Some will resent you for this and insist that you don’t really know what the black experience is. Faced with this, mixed-race kids often overcompensate, and try to act blacker than black. They’ll want to be more Catholic than the Pope himself. They’ll go out of their way to prove to the black group that they are as black as them, perhaps even more so.
review: Are you concerned by the cultivation of black victimhood, this sense that, because of historical injustices from slavery to the police racism of the 1970s, one should continue to see oneself as the black victim of white oppression? In this way, surely, black youth never gets to define their identity by anything other than race.
Adekoya: Yes, certainly. There was a strong black authority figure in my life, in my late teens. I was always interested in politics and thought of studying political science at university in Poland. But this person told me this was a waste of time because there was no place in anything connected with Polish politics for a black person. So I ended up studying law at university and hating every minute of it. I graduated from law school but could never see myself spending my life working as a lawyer. I thus ended up spending several years of my life quite directionless, before eventually finding myself in political journalism.
We shouldn’t bring up kids with over-optimistic delusions – racism exists – but telling them that society has a plan to make their life a failure is a terrible thing to do to young minds
Meanwhile, in that same Poland, roughly 10 years after that person told me there was no place for a black person in anything connected with Polish politics, two black guys got elected as MPs. Yet I was told no black person could achieve anything in the political realm in Poland. So you see how such a message can affect a young person’s life if they are told society will not allow them to do something. It can be terribly damaging. We shouldn’t bring up kids with over-optimistic delusions – racism exists – but imbibing the young with the idea that society has a plan to make your life a failure is a terrible thing to do to young minds.
review: If not black victimhood, or identity populism, or identitarianism, what do you think needs to happen to overcome remaining racial injustices for black people in the West?
Adekoya: When racial injustice happens it should be brought up and discussed and challenged. But tone and attitude are also very important. You can say the same thing in an aggressive tone which won’t get you anywhere, or you can say it in a tone signalling you want to come together with others to solve problems for the betterment of wider society. If problems affect one group – say, black people – we should present these issues as also presenting a problem for wider society and for the values shared by wider society.
We also need to think about what we emphasise. The emphasis shouldn’t always be on our differences, on constantly reminding people about there is an us and a them. The focus should be on wider shared societal values and commonalities, on what benefits all of us, not on what benefits some of us. Even from a negotiating point of view, if you start off with an attitude signalling you are only interested in what you will get out of the negotiations and are completely uninterested in what the other side will get, you can’t expect the negotiations to go well. The attitude must be, let’s do things that are mutually beneficial and that will work for everyone in society as a whole rather than focussing on how my group can benefit from this and let the rest worry about themselves. That is a road to nowhere.
Remi Adekoya is the former political editor of the Warsaw Business Journal and is currently conducting PhD research on identity politics. He is speaking at the Battle Of Ideas festival on the 13 and 14 October. Get your tickets here.
Picture by: Triggernometry Podcast