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Resisting racial gatekeeping

British Indians in government are fuelling the so-called culture wars. Bal Sokhi-Bulley dismantles their harmful rhetoric and outlines an alternative politics of solidarity and friendship

9 to 12 minute read

An illustration shows a figure with long straight hair standing in the small opening between two sides of a gate. The figure is laughing, head thrown back

For a British Indian growing up in the late 1990s, Goodness Gracious Me was a ground-breaking and formative show. We all remember ‘going out for an English’ as a parody of racist British stereotypes, and the banter between the Coopers (Kapoors) and Robinsons (Rabindranaths) as exposing the ‘peculiarity’ of British values, and the spectre of whiteness that haunts immigrant communities.

A real life sketch on ‘Britishness’ is playing out in British politics today, but it is no laughing matter. Performed by key British Indian figures in government, it reveals instead a form of ‘racial gatekeeping that permits border violence, the dehumanisation of immigrants and the maintenance of white supremacy in Britain today.

Musa Okwonga explains that racial gatekeeping ‘is the assertion that the political figure in question could not possibly be criticised for regressive policies against a particular racially marginalised group, because they themselves are members of that group.’ The then home secretary Priti Patel’s speech at the 2019 Conservative party conference both claimed her heritage as a ‘daughter of immigrants [who] needs no lectures from the north London, metropolitan, liberal elite’ and pledged to ‘end the free movement of people once and for all’.

Whilst there was a hint of the Koopers in how hard she relied on the version of Britishness that she thought acceptable, this act of racial gatekeeping is a dangerous tactic in the wider strategy of border violence. It allows white people with racially regressive views to deny their regressive effects simply because a non-white person agrees with them, and so furthers white nationalism.

Racial gatekeeping is also a galling tactic as it is disguised as ethical behaviour concerned with social justice. In 2021, Patel described her ministerial job as ‘sewa’, which can mean, ‘service, commitment and dedication to others.’ Her words were met with a Twitter storm of outrage by Sikhs who disassociated the criminalisation of asylum seekers in the form of the Nationality and Borders Bill from the Sikhi ethic of selfless service.

Rishi Sunak and the current home secretary Suella Braverman have taken up Patel’s mantel and then some. Their act is not one of striving for proximity to the white, liberal elite but rather one of ‘collaboration with white ruling classes’. Recognising the intersections of race, class and caste is vital to understanding the anti-immigrant sentiment of the gatekeepers. Pankaj Mishra explains that ‘political passivity rather than struggles for social justice largely defines the history of the Indian diaspora, especially of its highly educated and upper-caste members… who regard their Black and brown compatriots as the losers of history and escape to London to join its white winners’. No wonder Hindu supremacists have relished the possibility that Sunak is a ‘desi bro’.

racial gatekeeping is a dangerous tactic in the wider strategy of border violence

The latest act of racial gatekeeping attempts to criminalise migration in the form of the Illegal Migration Bill. The bill continues a (b)ordering tradition of British immigration law as racialised and racist. It thereby extends ‘the hostile environment’ and is an open attack on human rights. On 19 April, news broke that Rishi Sunak had caved to demands from hard-right MPs to allow the UK to ignore rulings form the European Court of Human Rights on small boat crossings.

The racial gatekeepers (Sunak, Braverman, Patel) are important figures in framing the story of who gets to belong in Britain. And this popularised story is not one about entitlements but ‘culture wars’. This is problematic because, as Amardeep Dhillon has recently written, ‘When we frame border violence as part of a culture war, we obscure its ideological roots: white supremacy’.

What we need then is a re-storying of Britain to claim it for racially minoritised people in a way that does not pit us against each other. Re-storying means opening up narratives of race and class, and caste, and listening to those who have been abandoned, rather than the point of view of those that govern them. It is a way of challenging racial gatekeeping through practices of radical friendship on the ground.

‘Stop the boats’

In a somewhat insidious shift of language, the Home Office started using the term ‘compliant environment’ over Theresa May’s ‘hostile environment’ in 2017. Compliance suggests a more disciplinary form of governing than hostility. The bill disciplines the borders of Britain in two ways: detention and swift removal. The effect is that a person will be deported within 28 days, blocked from British citizenship and banned from ever re-entering. In this way, the Bill builds on the Nationality and Borders Act 2022 and the provision (formerly Clause 11 of that Bill) to discourage asylum seekers travelling via unsafe and illegal routes.

As the UN High Commission for Refugees points out, the bill basically amounts to an asylum ban. Moreover, its Rwanda policy (yet to be actualized) fails to meet the necessary international standards. Asylum seekers arriving in the UK are thus not deserving of the right to life (Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights), the right to freedom from inhuman and degrading treatment (Article 3), right to fair trial (Article 6) and the right of access to legal advice and thus an effective remedy (Article 13). There are important ethical issues that the bill raises, but which the racial gatekeepers are keen to dismiss as a betrayal of (white) Britain.

The two-tier system creates a problematic distinction not between regular and irregular migrants but between ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ asylum seekers. The undeserving – those escaping persecution from mainly Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Eritrea and Sudan – are denied a home (practically speaking housing, and ethically speaking a sense of belonging or community) and citizenship. The distinction is problematic because it casts those who ought to be the most deserving, according to the Refugee Convention (i.e. persons without state protections), as not less deserving but completely undeserving. Of what? Of the protection of rights, of a home.

In his book Race and the Undeserving Poor, Robbie Shilliam frames the problem well. He highlights the continued post-Brexit rhetoric and policies of postcolonial Britain as a racialisation and re-racialisation of the distinction between those considered deserving and undeserving of social security and welfare. His focus is a challenge to the ‘white working class’ label – which is used as a deserving category, so that there is not so much a coincidence as a moral relationship between whiteness and deserved-ness, and blackness and undeserved-ness.

Shilliam gives a complex and important account of the logic of class as race. The argument is not as simple as, say, we have treated Ukrainian refugees as deserving and ‘others’ as undeserving. Rather, we need to destroy the categorical and collective distinction itself. Framing the narrative – i.e. the response to people fleeing persecution – as ‘culture wars’ obscures a radical re-imagining of the possibilities around welcoming asylum seekers.

UK Home Secretary Suella Braverman stands shaking the hand of the President of Rwanda, Paul Kagame, in a press photograph, stood in front of the crest and flags of Rwanda

Home secretary Suella Braverman with Rwandan president Paul Kagame


Culture wars

Race is an important driver for the so-called ‘culture wars’. Issues that divide people in a culture war are, as Alan Lester explains, fundamental questions of identity and spectres of existential threat. So, the political issues that immigration policy raises become weaponised and made into identity issues, which are then turned into existential threats to Britishness.

Worryingly, the courts seem to have bought this narrative in so far as they have deferred sovereign power to the home secretary to decide who deserves citizenship rights – see the recent decision in the Shamima Begum case. This signals a deference where denial of human rights can be plausibly argued for in and by a court of law. It also demonstrates the ‘violence of Britishness’ which upholds white nationalism and views postcolonial citizens as perpetual ‘immigrants’ whose belonging constantly hangs in the balance.

Britain has a history of forgetting its collusion with racism and has buried its history of slavery, so that the story is a noble one of collective sacrifice rather than massacre, enslavement and subjugation. In place of reparative histories, the culture wars narrative has the effect of dismissing entire racialised communities by indoctrinating the public in a false and exclusionary idea of ‘British values’.

Consequently, dehumanisation of racially minoritised people becomes a normal part of social and political life. In the same fortnight as police investigated an ‘alleged’ hate crime over the display of ‘golly dolls’ in an Essex pub, the home secretary further put immigrant communities at risk by making the racist claim that ‘grooming gangs’ behind organised child sex abuse are ‘almost all British-Pakistani’.

This far right display of Islamophobic and xenophobic prejudice places ‘British values’ within a racist rhetoric. These groups of men, like those involved in the Rotherham child sexual exploitation scandal, must have base ‘cultural values totally at odds with British values’ because they are Muslim and Pakistani. In the words of former Conservative party chair Sayeeda Warsi: ‘Ms Braverman basically said group sexual exploitation is a British Pakistani problem’.

There is strong resonance here with Sajid Javid saying Shamima Begum was Bangladesh’s problem when he made his deprivation of citizenship order in February 2019. Braverman also claims that the attitudes and behaviour of those crossing the Channel in small boats are ‘at odds’ with British values.

The culture wars framing of Britishness distracts from attacks on rights. While we are diverted to the ‘golliwogs’ story, the Met police are three times more likely to subject black girls to an invasive strip search than their white counterparts. While we witness ‘Paki-bashing’ return to mainstream politics, less attention is paid to the cuts on children’s services and grassroots projects to support the victims of child sexual abuse. And while government ministers focus on ‘un-British’ Muslim-Hindu divisions in the recent unrest bubbling to the surface in Leicester, the open secret of the neglect of racially minoritised garment workers in Leicester’s dark factories is deliberately forgotten.

While we are diverted to the ‘golliwogs’ story, the Met police are three times more likely to subject black girls to an invasive strip search than white girls

The violent disorder that took place in Leicester last autumn was attributed by the home secretary to the failure of newcomers to integrate, rather than to the spread of Hindutva ideology in the diaspora. The Islamaphobic and anti-immigrant sentiment of the government’s response is masked in the moral panic of ‘Hinduphobia’. Popularising the rhetoric of Muslims as the ‘bad’ minority threatening the ‘good’ Hindus not only furthers supremacist and nationalist ideologies but drapes them in the moral authority of anti-racism.

This framing of Hinduphobia is endorsed by British Indian MPs at the expense of Muslims and Sikh activists. Pitting Hindus against Muslims, and issuing warnings about Sikh nationalism (following the recent attacks on the Indian High Commission in London) re-enacts the divisive colonial logics of empire, and stifles collective resistance.

Radical friendship

The culture wars, observes Nadya Ali, respond to a vacuum where left-electoral politics embodied by the Corbyn movement failed. Moreover, they are themselves a radical politics parading as the norm. We need to tell the story of state neglect differently, from the ground up and looking at what people are actually doing to live well together, rather than relying solely on legal rights, which are under threat.

‘Radical friendship’ is based not in legal rights but in claiming a right through practices of care and counter-conduct. It observes an obligation towards others. Critical re-imaginings of given concepts are key here. Under the shadow of white supremacy, we must find ways to re-tool received concepts. This imperative towards conceptual production from sites of struggle in most of the world allows for ideas such as haq and hukam to inform ways of life.

The concept of hukam – a term that features in Old Punjabi, Old Hindi, Sanskrit, Persian and Arabic meaning ‘(divine) command’ – can be used to argue for an obligation towards the ‘stranger’. If you look, for instance, at practices within Sikhi (where I take the word from but use it as a political-spiritual tool rather than a religious one) hukam is a political-spiritual way of life to be practiced where codes such as rights fail.

Can we use hukam to argue for an obligation towards Britain’s racially minoritised communities such as those working in the ‘dark factories’ in Leicester, towards citizens that are estranged, like Shamima Begum, and towards those perilously crossing the Channel to seek refuge? This is radical friendship based in a true ethics of seva – a way of life that is not about Patel’s political posturing but lives out a care for others as care for the self.

How is this work of radical friendship to be done? How do we, in Gracie Mae Bradley’s words, ‘mobilise as an ecosystem’ to resist border violence? We must organise at the site of struggle because it is our hukam rather than our right. These sites might be peripheral and provincial – such as the vernacular cultures of civil society groups, and the historical and personal memory of small organisations on the ground, like FAB-L (Fashion-workers Advice Bureau Leicester).

Or they may be more visible and international, such as the Kisaan Andolan (Farmers’ Protests) in India. Collective and creative action is what will eventually re-story Britain as belonging to immigrants. It is how we will hold the racial gatekeepers to account.

This article first appeared in issue #240, Summer 2023, Debt. Subscribe today to get your magazine delivered hot off the press!

Bal Sokhi-Bulley is a legal academic at the University of Sussex

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