When it comes to race and gender, oppressed people can be oppressors too

Sonia Sodha

From lesbians being denounced as bigots to East African Asians racially abusing black people, the lines of discrimination are not always clear

Illustration: Dom McKenzie/The Observer
Illustration: Dom McKenzie/The Observer

Last modified on Sun 14 Feb 2021 05.10 EST

Is it deeply offensive to lambast a black or an Asian person for not being “black” or “Asian” enough? Yes. Is it offensive to assume that someone black or Asian criticising the politics of another black or Asian person is motivated by such sentiment? Yes.

Last week, the Conservative MP Neil O’Brien blundered into the latter under the guise of defending his black colleague, equalities minister Kemi Badenoch, from the former. Badenoch had tweeted screenshots of two private right-of-reply emails the black journalist Nadine White had sent her, accusing her of “creepy and bizarre” behaviour for putting to her claims made by a source.

This triggered a torrent of abuse directed at White. There is no question that Badenoch has faced unpleasant racism, but that does not excuse her behaviour towards White, a journalist doing her job, nor her undermining the confidential right-of-reply process that is critical to accurate journalism.

That did not stop O’Brien weighing in to try to justify Badenoch’s behaviour. In order to do so, he misrepresented White’s work and conflated her journalism with some of the abuse Badenoch has received on Twitter that has accused her of being a “race traitor”, which has nothing to do with White. All this tends to depict White’s journalism as being motivated by a belief that Badenoch, as a Conservative, isn’t truly black.

He didn’t stop there: he also accused the Labour MP Naz Shah of “straight up racism” for claiming that the home secretary, Priti Patel, was gaslighting ethnic minorities by talking about her own experiences of racism. Again, O’Brien misrepresents what happened to give the impression that Shah’s critique of Patel is motivated by a belief that her politics make her less Asian. What actually happened was that the black MP Flo Eshalomi asked Patel a question that referenced her experiences of anti-black racism and the structural racism of policies such as those behind the Windrush scandal.

Patel dismissed Eshalomi’s concerns and implied that her own experiences of racism put her and the government of which she is part beyond any critique on grounds of racial injustice. Patel was denying that Eshalomi might have a different experience of racism than Patel – who, like me, is a relatively privileged middle-class woman of East African Asian descent – and arguing that her skin colour makes her immune to criticism about her politics in relation to racial justice. This is particularly offensive given the long history of anti-black racism among East African Asians with which Patel will be familiar.

In lumping together black and Asian people in an amorphous group assumed to have a common experience of racism, O’Brien ends up reinforcing the very idea he wants to challenge: that someone’s identity must define their politics. The very act of assuming that all Asian or black people who criticise the politics of another Asian or black person do so out of bad faith and racism reinforces the hateful idea that you cannot criticise another Asian or black person’s politics because of some twisted notion of “solidarity”. It is offensive and dangerous, not least because a woman like Naz Shah has faced toxic misogyny from Asian men within her own community, and has been depicted as a race traitor by some on the left for calling it out. Are Asian women only allowed to call out misogyny and racism from within our own communities when a white man tells us it is OK to do so?

There are parallels with how some lesbians have been denounced as bigots and deluged with rape threats for their views about gender and biological sex. Transgender people and lesbians are two groups that face hatred and discrimination, and differences of opinion exist within these groups. Some trans people and lesbians believe that being a woman has nothing to do with biological sex; others believe they are related, because female reproductive biology is the basis on which women have always faced structural oppression. Both perspectives have a right to be heard. Yet lesbians who believe the latter – many of whom have faced lesbophobia their entire lives – are facing persecution for their beliefs.

Take Julie Bindel, an important feminist voice whose decades of campaigning against male violence have made a material difference to women’s lives. Last week, an Australian bookshop issued an apology for “any hurt caused” by hosting an event with Bindel three years ago. They did not even have the guts to say what is offensive about Bindel, but it’s fair to assume they were referring to her views on gender.

Or Allison Bailey, the barrister suing her chambers and the charity Stonewall for employment discrimination. Bailey is a black, working-class lesbian and a survivor of child sex abuse who believes, as many women do, that there should be some exceptions to males being admitted to female-only spaces. After she tweeted about a group she helped found for people who are same-sex attracted, Stonewall filed a complaint to her chambers and warned that its relationship with them would be damaged unless her chambers took disciplinary action against her.

On Friday, a judge ruled that Bailey’s case has “more than reasonable prospects of success” and should advance to trial. That a gay rights charity stands accused of discriminating against a black lesbian illustrates how wrong it is to assume the rights and interests of all LGBTQ+ people perfectly align. Of course, that has not stopped white men telling Bailey that her concept of womanhood is not only wrong, it makes her a bigot.

Solidarity between oppressed groups is a powerful weapon for change, but it does not come automatically: it comes through listening to others and through finding common ground. As East African Asians know to our shame, the oppressed can be willing agents in the oppression of others.

Be wary of the white, straight men who call out lesbians and women of colour as bigots because they refuse to comply with the version of liberation they deem appropriate, and who pat themselves on the back for being an “ally” for doing so. Their naivety gives them the luxury of childishly dividing the world into goodies and baddies. The rest of us live with the consequences.

Sonia Sodha is an Observer columnist