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Rishi Sunak is not my brother

Public AffairsInsight
Rishi Sunak is not my brother
Mark Thorpe crop

By Mark Thorpe, Group Head of Thought Leadership

A few thoughts about falling into the “colour-trap”

I recently read a post on Linkedin that was crafted by a very prominent, and respected, senior campaigner for equality. In that post, he claimed that the election of Rishi Sunak as the new Conservative Prime Minister would represent a momentous step forward in terms of the position of “people of colour” within the UK. Utter nonsense.

Sentiments like these, particularly when coming from someone who should know better, do nothing to further the cause of true recognition of inequality and the struggle for justice and meritocracy. In reality, this conflation of disparate people into the implied classification of non-white, much like the dreadful concept BAME, is worse than useless and highly misleading.

I am brown (although I define myself as Black), as is Rishi Sunak. There ends any commonality. Rishi’s life experiences are not mine, nor are they the experiences of millions of others. His brown-ness does not serve as an inexorable link to or with anyone, other than those who we can map him culturally to. His alma maters are Winchester and Oxford. He comes from a background of business ownership and is now extremely wealthy and very well connected. None of these are intrinsically bad, but they do mean that he is not an exemplar of Dickensian struggle.

Rishi Sunak is not part of the Black and Brown disadvantaged. Let’s be really clear about that. To see a brown face leading the nation as somehow inexorably reflective of a step forward is self-indulgent and fanciful. Moreover, it plunges us head-first into crass, colour-based identity politics. This is, actually, the battle we should be fighting: that colour, in and of itself, identifies who you are – including allegiances and the battles to be fought (and won).

The kind of brown-washing we see in the comments made about the “break-through” election of Rishi Sunak (in the now unlikely event that it happens) demonstrates the cultural inability to see the problem of inequality correctly. It fails to recognise that the “black and brown experience” is highly differentiated and not always one of destructive inequality. It also fails to recognise that race, class and social immobility are core to the existence and perpetuation of inequality, and not “just” colour per se.

Let’s not pat ourselves on the back when a brown person rises to a position of power. Instead, let’s start taking a more forensic look at the truth that lies behind the colour of the person’s skin. Let’s not assume disadvantage and hardship, because sometimes, and in certain contexts often, it simply isn’t there. There are millions of Black and Brown people who can but dream of the advantages Rishi Sunak has had in his life. He is neither an icon of meritocracy nor social mobility. Quite the opposite in fact. What the rise of Rishi Sunak actually highlights is that class, education and accessible networks continue to be the key gatekeepers of progress.

There are five things I would suggest we think about before making potentially crass and harmful generalisations (and communications) based simply on the colour of a person’s skin:

  1. Where, geographically, are their origins? Place of origin can mean very different life experiences, that transcend colour
  2. Where, socially, are their roots? It shouldn’t be necessary for me to explain the likely differences created by someone growing-up on a Peckham council estate vs Richmond-Upon-Thames
  3. What is the extent of the struggle that individuals have had to endure in order to reach their destination? Sharing a bedroom with two other siblings right through to A-levels is unimaginably harder than having a room of your own where you can study alone
  4. What is the cultural legacy that people carry (and how does the enable or inhibit their journey through life)?
  5. What does conflating people on the basis of skin colour do to the prospects of diversity and inclusion?

Read Mark Thorpe’s previous article on getting away from jargon and “rubbish words”

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