So Shirley Brown called a colleague on Bristol City Council a “coconut”. And apparently that is now proven in the courts to be an example of a “threatening, abusive or insulting word, with intent to cause a person harassment, alarm or distress.” It is hard to express just how wrong-headed and fatuous is this utter waste of the time and resources of the criminal justice system. That in itself is not a trivial matter, nor is the fact that Ms Brown now has a criminal record. But the real damage is much more serious than that: it strikes right at the heart of our society’s long and largely ignominious struggle against the evil of racism. It brings that struggle into more disrepute than ever, makes it easy for white racists to dismiss the whole issue as “political correctness gone mad”, and leaves black people even more convinced that Britain’s commitment to racial equality is, and always has been, a sham.
Let’s step back. The laws in this country from the initial race relations legislation back in the 1960s until the latest amendments in 2003 and the statutory duties of 2006 were intended, in theory at least, to address the issues of inequality between members of different races in British society. Whether it has been about the direct criminalising of discrimination in housing, the jobs market, etc. or the duties on public bodies to publish their schemes of race equality, the purpose has been been clear. Black people face discrimination, and the Acts are there to protect them from that discrimination. The laws have often been good, despite the extraordinary difficulty that ordinary black citizens have faced in obtaining the practical justice those laws have promised them. Many black people are cynical about the laws in practice, some to the extent that they wonder about their intentions even in theory. But if we allow the benefit of the doubt on that, the issues the Acts have tried to address are serious, and have a serious effect on black people’s lives. How then do we end up with the travesty of Ms Brown’s criminalisation by a legal framework that is supposed to protect her? The answers are not pleasant, and have their roots in racism itself.
The key fact in Ms Brown’s case is that her use of “coconut” was directed at an Asian woman. Amongst the Afro-Caribbean community “coconut” is routinely used as a wonderful and pithy metaphor to describe a black person who has in some significant way done white society’s job for it. Black skin, maybe, but a white soul. Obviously you cannot with any meaning call a white person a coconut. How about an Asian? And there’s the rub. Many Asians fiercely resist the description of them as “black”, and this leads us into murky waters. Between the Afro-Caribbean and Asian communities in Britain there is a flow of racist ideology in both directions. I’m not going to get into the debate about whether expressing a racist ideology is the same thing as being a racist, with all the issues about whether any non-white person in this society can truly be called a racist in that sense. But racism is most certainly not only about the politics of power between races: it is also about ideas. And you don’t have to know many Afro-Caribbean or Asian people before you hear some pretty fruity stuff. “Paki” is as likely to come from the mouth of a young Afro-Caribbean as a young white. I’ve heard Asian people describe Afro-Caribbean people as “blacks” and it wasn’t supposed to be a compliment.
But it goes very much deeper than this. The experience Afro-Caribbean and Asian people had of British rule was very different. In the sub-continent there were very many appalling atrocities committed by the British, but there was also rule through the co-option of existing power structures. It was possible for some indigenous people to enter into a relationship with the colonial system that brought them advantages, or which secured their pre-existing power relations. To put it bluntly, there has been some tradition of operating in exactly the way that the word “coconut” is supposed to describe. None of this is to belittle the reality of colonial brutality, but the vastness of India simply could not have been ruled by British power alone.
For Afro-Caribbean people, the experience was utterly different, and inconceivably worse. I will doubtless be roundly condemned as an anti-Semite but it is not at all accidental that in our culture atrocity is now calibrated against the holocaust and the Nazis’ final solution. I shouldn’t need to (but I know I do) spell out for the avoidance of doubt that the holocaust was a criminal and inhuman atrocity of appalling and disgusting severity. But conveniently for the British, it was an atrocity that we were on the right side of. It was those pesky Germans who were responsible, gallantly defeated by the plucky British. Even more, it was an atrocity that did not really address the issue of white on black racism. The Jews may not have been Aryan, but they weren’t black either. So we are permitted, by deciding that nothing can be worse than the holocaust, to hide from our own genocide, and evade its racist core. What the Western European powers did in the Caribbean was to pile slavery onto genocide. We wiped out the indigenous populations. We used the cleared ground to grow our cash crops and we imported black people to do the work. We treated them like cattle. We stripped them of their cultural identity. And we certainly did not co-opt them into the governance of the territories. There was no tradition of the “coconut” in the founding of the slave states. This is the historical and cultural context of Ms Brown’s description of her colleague as a coconut. It makes no difference that this history is long, and reaches back 500 years.
Seen in this light, the utter triviality of Ms Brown’s conviction is beyond words. As is its breath-taking injustice. Anti-racism has become nothing more than manners. It is not racist simply to call someone a name that they don’t like. I have no idea if the cap fitted the Asian councillor Jay Jethwa’s head. If it did, she should have worn it with humility. If it didn’t she should have protested its unfairness. But when white people presume to tell a black woman that she cannot use a term that has meaning and power, then something has certainly gone mad. Worse than its madness, is its betrayal of the fight against the racism that we might like to think has gone but which, on the contrary, is ever present – and ironically is perfectly symbolised by this disgraceful incident.