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Political Blackness in Multiracial Britain

Political Blackness in Multiracial Britain shows how the deep processes of everyday political whiteness shape the state's failure to provide effective remedies for ethnic, racial, and religious minorities who continue to face violence and institutional racism.

Political Blackness in Multiracial Britain

Mohan Ambikaipaker

2018 | 272 pages | Cloth $65.00
Anthropology / Sociology
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Table of Contents

Prelude. The parable of "Paki Ali"

Chapter 1. "There Is Nothing Nice to See Here, Sir. You Go to Central London." The Colonial-Racial Zone of East London
Chapter 2. "They Do Not Look like People Who Would Do This." Amina's Struggles Against Everyday Political Whiteness
Chapter 3. "Would They Do This to Tony Blair's Daughter?" Gillian's Struggle Against Intersectional Racial Violence
Chapter 4. "We Are Terrified of You!" British Muslim Women and Gendered Anti-Muslim Racism
Chapter 5. "The War on Terror Has Become a War on Us" The Forest Gate Anti-Terror Raid and Counter-Terror Citizenship
Chapter 6. "If Political Blackness Is So Damn Difficult, Why Do You Keep It?" Cilius's Passage to Postwar on Terror Political Blackness
Conclusion. Endings and Beginnings


Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]

Prelude. The Parable of "Paki Ali"

Amina did not tell me her family's story of arrival in Britain until our very last meeting. In some ways this was to be expected. Why would people who you meet as part of fieldwork want to confide their family secrets to you? And yet, the strange thing about doing my fieldwork among people who had suffered racial and state violence was that it seemed to lead to such moments when folks would narrate their personal account of British history. These were histories that arose from intergenerational memories of confronting race and racism.

Amina was of British Indian descent, in her thirties, and lived with her eleven-year old son in a small public housing apartment block. She had been suffering abuse and harassment from a set of white neighbors for over a year.

In desperation, she had turned to the Newham Monitoring Project (NMP), a community-based antiracist organization, located in the east London borough of Newham. I was her caseworker and our work together consisted in engaging the police, the local council and the courts to remedy her situation.

It all began when neighbors were caught making fraudulent claims for welfare benefits. They were convinced that it was Amina who had "grassed" on them.

Her comings and goings were met with daily verbal abuse and her front door had recently been scrawled over with racist graffiti. One of her neighbors, who claimed to be HIV positive, had also smeared his blood on the door and threatened to infect her son.

Luckily, Amina had videotaped this particular attack through her peephole and the evidence led to charges that were before Snaresbrook Crown Court. But the abuse did not end and we were still trying to find a way to ensure her safety. I was attempting to convince various authorities to place a restraining order against her neighbors.

The story of her father's journey to Britain was not directly connected to her present predicament, and perhaps this is why she had not told me before. But in a few weeks I would return to the United States and another caseworker would take over. It seemed important for her to unburden this tale.

Her father, Mr. Azlan was in his early twenties when he first came to London in the late 1960s. Mr. Azlan was from a rural village that was located between the once thriving medieval Islamic trading ports of Surat and Ahmedabad in the state of Gujarat in India. This region had become severely impoverished during successive western imperial conquests and colonial rule.

Amina remembered her dad recounting that his childhood village was a place where "people didn't know what they were going to eat until the day."

Some of Mr. Azlan's village friends had already migrated to London. They called him to come over, saying that there was loads of work that English people did not want to do. He could sweep airport floors and work in factories, they said.

When he first arrived, it was difficult for Amina's dad to find a room to rent. English people did not want blacks in their houses, he told her.

They had notices on their doors that read, "No Wogs," he explained. "Wog" was a racist slur that white Britons use against any nonwhite person.

Eventually Amina's father secured steady factory work. He married and had five daughters, including Amina. The family was assigned their first public housing flat in a project in North Woolwich.

As one of the first South Asians in the area, he was nicknamed "Paki Ali" by his neighbors.

"That was normal," Amina explained. "They weren't trying to be funny."

"Whenever people talked about him they would say 'Paki Ali.' Women liked him. He was a handsome man."

"Old ladies loved my dad!" Amina said and then became pensive.

"It is—really easy. To call someone "Paki."

"Even if that person is Sikh, Hindu" and then looking up at me, she added, "Malaysian, Sri Lankan or whatever."

"How sad," she added becoming thoughtful again.

"I used to get told—what was it—'oh, you're all right, we don't mean you, you're one of us.'"

"But I'm not. Definitely. I'm not one of them," she said.

"At the end of the day I have brown skin and I am very proud of who I am, of my background."

"Black people were called 'gollywogs,' it was awful," she continued.

"But people used to come around though! To have my mom's cooking. She was such a fantastic cook," Amina said breaking into a smile again.

"And dad used to do odd jobs for people around there. He was such a good gardener," she added.

Amina grew up in east London in the 1970s and 80s when they were one of only three South Asian families in her school. There was one other African Caribbean family.

"I remember a song that comes to mind. It was 'Ding dong the bells are ringing, we're a going a-Paki-bashing!'"

"The people upstairs, they were singing it. And you know we were probably the cleanest family there. I mean they talk about Asians being smelly and all, but we were the cleanest family there. Simply ridiculous."

"My dad did not see himself as a black man, other people—they just see a wog," Amina continued. "I mean when push came to shove, they make everyone a Paki or a black bastard. To them you're not white, so you're all these other things because you're not white. Because they are superior."

Despite the racism he experienced, Amina's father did not want to isolate himself or his family. He took a "liberal" approach, Amina explained.

He allowed his daughters to dress as they pleased and to mix widely. Amina described her social circle growing up as comprised of people from many different racial backgrounds, which included many white friends from school.

Amina married her son's father, a white man, who had also converted to her family's Islamic faith. The marriage had not worked out and she had recently divorced her husband.

In contrast to the stereotypes of British Asians and Muslims as self-segregating communities, Amina pointed to her own cosmopolitan family: one of her sisters was married to a black Grenadian man; another was married to a Pakistani man; and another had married a man from South Africa and emigrated there.

She described her family's openness in her upbringing where her parents had taught her not to look down on anybody. She remembered her father telling her, "You've got to take people as they come."

According to Amina her father initially didn't care about the racism he faced.

"He would go down to the local pub and have drinks with these people, play darts and even bowl," Amina said.

Victoria Park, near where Amina lived as a child, had a lawn bowling club. But it did not allow African Caribbean or South Asian people to play. And yet, she remembered how her father would simply enter uninvited and join in the games.

One day, however, Mr. Azlan's nonchalance reached its breaking point.

"Well, the people who lived above us, in the flat above, they used to call my dad names. Racial comments and stuff like that," Amina said.

"My dad would always stick up for himself and his family, you know, protect his family and whatnot," she added.

"We came home from school one day, well, I came home from nursery and my elder sisters came home from school. Our mum was walking with us, and we could see smoke coming out. They had put all our things, well, my dad's things in the middle of the room, poured something on there and set them on fire," she said.

"And wrote 'Paki' on the wall and things like that," she added. "Other people were making off with our things," she remembered.

The year was 1978. Amina was four years old.

"They basically wanted us out, wanted us out of the area," she said.

"Before this I didn't take anything on board really. My sisters were tough cookies because they had become immune to being called names and things. My eldest sister went to Cumberland School in Canning Town and experienced such bad bad racism," Amina said.

"It was unbelievable—putting things in her hair, setting her bag on fire, calling her names all the time," she added.

"Things were really turning around for my dad before then. Although men were threatened by him because, you know, in their eyes, he was a black man or whatever," Amina said.

After the fire, Mr. Azlan's life and outlook changed. Amina did not want to get into the details, and I did not have the heart to press on.

She said that eventually he ended up in prison.

And there, when Amina was nine years old, he hanged himself with his belt and socks.

In his last letter from prison, he told his family that he was killing himself to spare them any further pain.

"Was he right in doing this?" Amina asked.

"Little did he know what would happen to us. I don't know. Maybe it would have been worse if he had been around," Amina added, sinking deeper into her own thoughts.

But then, remembering my presence, she looked up.

"I have been through a lot, haven't I?" she asked.

Noticing my fallen look, she broke out into a smile and told me, "Don't take all of this on board."


This ethnography starts with the reality that, under present racial-political conditions in Britain, Mr. Azlan, Amina and many others whose stories I will tell lack the power to right the wrongs they endured. Ethnography has been critiqued as a colonial form of knowledge production, rooted in the performance of dispassionate objectivity and objectification of the people we work with (Harrison, ed. 1997, Smith 2012). Heeding these critiques I situated my research ethics and methodology within an activist anthropology approach, where I would carry out "observant participation" in the frontlines of the struggle for racial justice in Britain (Hale 2006; Vargas 2008). In contrast to positivistic arguments that view advocacy and activism as impediments to research about race, I agreed with Satya P. Mohanty's (1997:127) formulation that the very task of trying to objectively explain racism is "necessarily continuous with oppositional political struggle." I had hoped that by departing from a 'fly on the wall' objectivistic approach in fieldwork research I would be able to contribute to more positive racial justice outcomes for the people I worked with. However, the more I experienced my work as an antiracist activist working within the liberal channels of justice in Britain, the more elusive the outcomes of racial justice seemed to be. I discovered that these official antiracist processes that purport to preside over and adjudicate racism are themselves race-making sites, embedded in domination. They rarely provided effective remedies for ethnic, racial and religious minorities who experienced white racial violence or state violence.

This ethnography cross-culturally examines the lived experiences of racial violence and racialized state violence as well as the lived experience of engaging in antiracist activism against these forms of violence in Britain. People don't simply experience racism passively or uncritically, but rather they are actively involved in constructing meaning and narratives about their experiences of oppression and their collective efforts to resist and recover their violated humanity.

In 2005 and 2006 I worked as a caseworker and carried out self-reflective fieldwork as I observed and participated daily in NMP's antiracist activism. I was an unpaid caseworker along with three other full-time caseworkers. I initially apprenticed myself to a senior activist, Zareena Mustapha, and later teamed up with another caseworker, Titilayo Folashade Aloba, in working with the east Londoners that I describe in this book. There was also a white British director, Estelle du Boulay, who did casework and was responsible for grant writing and development. Community outreach workshops and high profile campaigning leadership drew upon a close-knit circle of senior NMP activists, most of whom chose to live in Newham. These senior activists contributed their labor to the organization through their mentoring and supervision work on the management council.

NMP's staff included a cadre of activists focused on two forms of antiracist mobilizations. They constructed casework for victims of racial violence and police abuse that sought immediate remedies from the institutions of the British state. They also campaigned for justice in high-profile cases of police abuse and racial attacks. Campaigning work pursued changes to collective patterns of institutional racism and discrimination found in state policies and practices.

From 2003 to 2016 I built a relationship with NMP, its circle of activists and residents of the Newham community. NMP often engaged antiracist politics at a national level, but its day-to-day work was grounded in the local realities of racial, religious and ethnic minorities in Newham, both recent immigrant and second or third-generation British. The stories in this book come from my interactions with people of who have complex identities: they are British Indian and Muslim; African Caribbean/St. Lucian and British; Tanzanian and Gujarati/Pakistani and Palestinian; Bangladeshi and Muslim; Sri Lankan Tamil and Malaysian; Nigerian and German, white British and Jewish, and many others. These identities, however, are not the subject of this ethnography, which focuses instead on the lived experiences of white British racism and British state violence.

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