The NUS are wrong to use ‘black’ as a catch-all term

Micha Frazer-Carroll 3 June 2016

Recently, at NUS Black Student’s Conference, a motion to change the use of 'political blackness' as a catch-all definer for the campaign was rejected. Speakers against the motion cited the need for a united front and called on the proposers to resist the desire for further ‘division'. Political blackness has a long and complicated history. Reaching prominence in 80s and 90s activist spaces, it was often intended as a marker of solidarity. A rallying cry for non-white bodies, It’s proponents argue that “black” is more than just an racial category – it is a political statement of unity. In a world where racism is often presented in a binary (blackness in opposition to whiteness) this might be true but the use of political blackness as a means of “solidarity” erases what it means to be an ethnically black person moving through the world, dealing with the consequences of racialisation.

The use of the term assumes that whiteness treats all non-white bodies the same or that the racism that non-white people face manifests itself in the same way. This blatantly ignores how the state treats non-white bodies differently, for example – the people most affected by the government’s stop and search policies are predominantly black men because of how ideas of aggression and criminality are attached to blackness whilst those targeted by “anti-terrorist legislation” are more likely to be South Asian Muslim men, because of how notions of terrorism are steeped in Islamophobia. ‘Political blackness’ blankets over these distinctions for the purposes of 'solidarity’ but 'solidarity’ without nuance and careful consideration is pointless. Solidarity that does not recognise how the severity of racism that I, a black woman, will face is different to that of an East Asian woman, because of the trajectory of colonial histories is of no practical purpose.

The claim of 'solidarity' also erases the painful fact that anti-black racism exists amongst non-black communities of colour. Political blackness does little to combat this but instead attempts to create commonality between groups of people who are only united by what it means to experience the world as someone who is not white. It ignores how racial power structures are even perpetuated amongst people of colour. The idea that taking a more nuanced approach to racial oppression is divisive demonstrates a lack of critical thinking. Whiteness as a construct is pervasive and harmful and dismantling the notion of ‘political blackness’ does not reduce the right of non-white communities to organise together, On the contrary, it allows us to better focus resources on the specific issues faced by different non-white groups from The Prevent Duty to colourism. FLY, the BME Women’s Network is a successful example of this kind of organising.

Blanket solidarity that erases the lived experiences of ethnically black people does the very opposite of what it claims to. Politics is not supposed to be easy. Organising is not supposed to be easy. But it is better to recognise that the ways we are racialised are different depending on our proximity to whiteness. That means, how whiteness has enabled the creation of the 'model minority’ which is then used as evidence that racism no longer exists. Many have attempted to discredit the BME attainment gap citing the fact that those from south Asian communities (Pakistani, Indian) have been able to attain degree level qualifications at a rate much more similar to their white peers as evidence that it is no longer a problem.

However, across the board, ethnically black students are still the least likely to be admitted to higher education institutions and have some of the most racialised experiences whilst studying. These are the kinds of important distinctions that must, at the very least, be acknowledged in race activism and political blackness fails to do this. The experiences of ethnically black students at this university are hard to articulate.

We have yet to fully explore what it means to be black student in an elitist space and really grapple with and unpick the consequences of poor representation from lectures to societies. This is why the claim of ‘political blackness’ is so jarring, because homogenising experiences in this way does all minority groups a disservice. It refuses to recognise our multiplicity and instead seeks to place us in a neat and tidy binary opposition that is not always useful. Political blackness is not a viable option to combat the pervasive nature of whiteness. It erases and marginalises ethnically black voices, deeming our understanding of our own identities not sophisticated enough. It attempts to foster a ‘solidarity’ that is so theoretical that is has no practical purpose as a political tactic.