It isn’t just the Tories weaponising ‘diversity’ – it’s all of us
Uncritical politics of ‘looks like me’ leaves us celebrating Black and Brown faces doing work of white supremacy
The UK Conservative Party has been rightly criticised for its weaponisation of identity politics in recent weeks, with cheerleaders for this patently racist institution praising the number of Black and Brown faces running to be leader.
But this doesn’t begin or end with the Tories. It would be more useful to see this discussion as the extension of a ‘diversity and inclusion’ (D&I) agenda that has taken the place of more nuanced conversations about white supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism, cisheteronormativity culture and more.
What bell hooks called “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” envelops the world over, so we should be unsurprised when there are some Black and Brown people acting like their white managers. After all, as Monisha Rajesh tweeted: “If empire was taught at schools you’d all know that the British didn’t colonise without the willing assistance of upper class brown and Black people who stood to gain. This is nothing new.”
Author-academic Emma Dabiri tweeted back in May: “I really think we need to replace ‘people who look like me’ politics with ‘people who are structurally positioned like me’. ‘Looks like me’ alone obscures way too much about class, as well as access to opportunities and resources.”
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What we saw in the Tory leadership race – the celebration of racial diversity, as half of nominated candidates came from the Global Majority – is the result of years of “looks like me politics” being uncritically implemented. Meanwhile, D&I has simply become the neoliberal face of white supremacy. D&I is fundamentally about the inclusion of the historically excluded, but centring capitalist modes of production, with ‘looks like me politics’ only assigning value to people as far as how institutions see them in terms of their worth in labour.
The celebration of Black and Brown candidates to lead the Conservative Party mirror prior celebrations about the diversification of the Honours list – as TikToker @chantayyjayy put it: “Representation in the pits of hell.” Clearly, bootlicking the British Empire is not a dealbreaker for many ‘activists’ who seem to care more about state recognition over liberation. Here, ‘activists’ (of all colours) continue to accept imperialist medals from the state, showing how ‘looks like me’ does not always mean ‘structurally positioned like me’, and how inclusion into white supremacy comes in tandem with D&I.
‘Looks like me’ does not always mean ‘structurally positioned like me’
As Prishita Maheshwari-Aplin wrote for Gal-Dem: “Of course, people of colour don’t automatically represent or hold a great responsibility to change the political landscape for their entire communities. But when those who have made their names from challenging the lingering evils of the empire jump at the chance of being superficially validated by it, the hypocrisy is extremely grating.”
In media, Netflix’s Bridgerton was criticised by academics such as Kerry Sinanan and Sunny Singh, as well as author Chimene Suleyman, for shoehorning Black and Brown faces into a story written for white people. The streaming giant also gave capitalism a Black face with Simon the Duke, not unlike the Black and Brown Tories co-opted to safeguard against critiques of racism. The weaponisation of D&I is not only reflected here, but also in the criminal justice system where police continue to use their position to violently discriminate, while using Black and Brown faces on recruitment posters.
Dabiri’s tweet calls out ‘diversity as marketing’, also intersecting with the ‘diversification’ of colonial Honours, and Black and Brown MPs fronting racist policymaking. It is also covertly a criticism of the peddling of ‘Black excellence’ in dominant narratives of Black British history.
In short, there is a continued framing of Black British history as far as assimilation, respectability politics, and ‘good immigrants’ (for instance, inclusion into colonial Honours) as ‘good history’ – while Black protest is seen as bad. So, to actually be seen as human is contingent on capacities to labour centring ableist white supremacist values of ‘excellence’.
As Guilaine Kinouani writes for her D&I-disrupting organisation Race Reflections: “There are very few processes, drives or social discourses that have applied to disabled people which have not been applied or continue to be applied to black people and vice versa. The capacity (or incapacity) to labour and to be used for the purpose of white patriarchal capitalist interests lays at the centre of both colonial logics and ableism.”
It is right that we should be challenging the Conservatives for their weaponisation of D&I. But let’s not pretend this exists in a void – from Black and Brown police maintaining unjust laws (like the Nationality and Borders Act and Policing Act), to some Black and Brown education staff who will continue to project their own internalised racism onto people who look like us. As Michel Foucault argued in Discipline and Punish, punitive practices of pushing “obedience through discipline and routine'' continue to pervade through all levels of institutional life.
Our institutions are products of the society that created them. Using superficial diversity in this way is not exclusive to the Conservatives – they are just (elected) official low-hanging fruit – all sectors do this. It just so happens the Tories fanned the flames and got caught on camera.
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