Traditionally tolerant, a new form of essentialism has gripped parts of the leftby Sameer Rahim / July 26, 2019 / Leave a comment
We live in strange political times. But one of the strangest recent developments has been the rise of racial thinking on the left, historically the progenitor of equality legislation and defender of minorities. And no, for once, this isn’t a piece about anti-semitism in Labour.
The new Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s appointment of more ethnic minorities than ever to the top of government—including Sajid Javid as Chancellor of the Exchequer and Priti Patel as Home Secretary—has caused a meltdown among certain sections of the left. To be fair, Ed Miliband-biographer Mehdi Hassan struck a welcoming note: “Even if you loathe them & their politics … it matters to young UK Asians to have a chancellor called Javid & a Home Sec called Patel.” But he has, as it were, been in the minority.
Replying on Twitter to James Cleverly, now Conservative Party Chairman, the Labour shadow minister Clive Lewis wrote: “you & other black members of that cabinet had to sell your souls & self-respect to get there.” He didn’t use the phrase Uncle Tom, but it seemed on the tip of his tongue. Pop-up Corbynista Ash Sarkar said she would never call the ministers Uncle Toms because the character, “refuses to whip his fellow slaves.”
The assumption that black and Asian people somehow organically share the same views and that any deviators from the correct line are not full members of their group—in the words of Canary editor Kerry-Ann Mendoza, “no longer a person of colour”—is closer to essentialist racism than any of the indefensible phrases Johnson has used in his Telegraph columns. So why is this happening? And what are the intellectual roots of the left’s attempts to fix group identity?
One answer can be found in a 1985 article by the postcolonial theorist Gayatri Chakravovty Spivak—clever, but perhaps too clever for some of those she’s influenced. It might seem a long way from the translator of Derrida’s Of Grammatology to today’s intemperate tweets. But half-remembered ideas picked up by humanities students often come to shape “the discourse” in influential ways. So stay with me.
In Spivak’s knotty essay, “Subaltern Studies: Deconstructing Historiography,” she focuses on the lives of the…