Black Lives Matter protesters in London, UK – June, 2020. Photo: Joao Daniel Pereira / Shutterstock.com
Since mid-March, Adam Habib, the new director of SOAS, University of London, has been on leave while under investigation “in the context of anti-Blackness as a structural issue in SOAS.” SOAS launched the investigation after Habib, a South African man of Indian descent, casually used an anti-Black racial slur during a student meeting in response to a question about accountability for SOAS professors who use the term in class.
After being criticized for his own repetition of the term, Habib doubled down, citing his identity as an African man and invoking his history as a former anti-Apartheid activist in South Africa. Yet Habib’s response belies his checkered past of weaponizing identity politics for repressive means. During his tenure as the Vice-Chancellor at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) in South Africa, he frequently invoked his status as an anti-apartheid activist and a radical “Black” man — in the sense of Black Consciousness — to rationalize his actions, including calling militarized police onto campus to crush student protests during the 2014-2016 #FeesMustFall movement.
Habib’s story exemplifies the warping of identity by South Asians and non-Black communities of color to justify anti-Blackness and subvert racial solidarity. These subversions are hardly limited to Habib; his actions sit among many manipulations of identity politics by powerful non-Black people of color to justify anti-Black violence. In order to understand these acts, it is critical to look at the troubled history of political Blackness in the United Kingdom, which illuminates larger struggles around representation, performance, allyship and solidarity.
While the rhetoric of Habib and other South Asians in power downplays anti-Blackness, the very students organizing against Habib at SOAS and Wits provide a counter-example of what genuine solidarity might look like. Instead of appealing to identity, these activists show solidarity through meaningful political action across race and class, as well as through shared analysis that identifies neoliberalism, racial capitalism and heteropatriarchy as common enemies. These Black and Asian youth organizers do solidarity rather than speak it, drawing a roadmap to solidarity that eschews representation in favor of system transformation.
The history of political Blackness provides valuable context to modern debates about representation and shared political action. Emerging in the UK in the 1960s alongside a similar, but divergent Black Consciousness movement in South Africa, political Blackness emphasized the shared struggles that African-descendent and South Asian-descendent communities faced under white supremacy. In the UK, South Asian, Indo- and Black-African, and Indo- and Afro-Caribbean migrants were similarly ghettoized into underfunded communities and targeted for violence by the police and by white fascists. Both labelled “Black” by the state, the two communities reframed the term “Black” as a form of unity in resistance, or what Ambalavaner Sivanandan, a prominent Sri Lankan activist and academic of political Blackness, described as a resistance that centered simultaneously on identity, country and class.
The political Blackness movement birthed powerful mobilizations that stopped racist deportations, countered police violence and created community defense fronts against the National Front and other British white supremacists. In South Africa, the Black Consciousness movement under Steve Biko’s leadership similarly envisioned resistance against white apartheid to include Indian South Africans — many of whom were brought to South Africa through the violence of indenture. The Black Consciousness movement approached Black South Africans as agents of change who could unify South Africa’s African, Colored and Indian oppressed communities.
But in both countries, unity was far from easy. Scholar Nydia Swaby’s research in the UK unveils how politically Black coalitions like the Organization for Women of African and Asian Descent debated the inclusion of Asian women, with some calling it a “mistake.” Similarly, some British Asians like Tariq Modood and Tariq Mehmood found political Blackness to be a terminology that papered over cultural identities and catered to whiteness, serving as, in Mehmood’s words, “a political color that could only exist in a white world.”
Political Blackness was also manipulated by the state to pit Black and Asian communities against each other in the struggle for scarce resources. Oftentimes local Council officials would promise funding to groups if they focused on running community centers, rather than pursuing radical and anti-capitalist agendas. Political Blackness also provided a front for Asian advancement, accruement of wealth and anti-Blackness. For example, MP Marsha Singh traded the Asian Youth Movement’s radical anti-imperialist and politically Black ideology for center-left politics and state-led initiatives for diversity and inclusion within the Labour party, and controversially opposed the AYM’s support of the Bradford 12.
Sivanandan decried the eventual disintegration of political Blackness and the racialized fragmentation of many groups due to state influence. Rather than furthering multiculturalism and people power, he argued that these changes “took politics out of the black struggle and returned it to rhetoric and nationalism on one hand and to the state on the other” and “shattered the broad Black political identity.” In South Africa, disproportionate wealth by sectors of the Indian South African community stoked leaders in the ANC to decry Indian slumlords and call for a South African politics centered on Black Africans.
In today’s South Asian and Black activism in the UK, political Blackness has largely gone out of vogue, with many younger activists seeing it as a potentially racist relic that misunderstands both solidarity and racial politics. In a recent series of interviews that I conducted with British Asian activists, many referred to political Blackness with terms like “a mess,” “a minefield,” and a movement that “had its time and place.” They felt that calling themselves Black would disregard the unique structures of anti-Blackness in British society — structures that Asians, even those who were politically Black, profited from.
One South Asian activist involved in worker-led organizing explained: “South Asians have at times weaponized anti-Blackness, in order to be closer to whiteness, closer to the British. Using the terminology of political Blackness could further Asian wealth creation, to have solidarity with Apne (our own), while keeping Black people at arm’s length.”
But many organizations like trade unions continue to use Blackness in a “politically Black” sense, often sparking controversies. The National Union of Students went through a tense period debating whether to redefine the Black Student Campaign as exclusively for African and Afro-Caribbean descendent British students, but ultimately chose to retain the terminology of political Blackness to preserve solidarity and history.
These conversations became supercharged in the summer of 2020. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, the UK experienced its largest-ever racial justice uprisings. While some groups called for a return to political Blackness, most embraced multiracial solidarity among non-white communities based on shared — yet divergent — experiences. In many activist spaces, young people have searched for alternate terminology to express that solidarity, experimenting with terms like BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic), BME (Black and Minority Ethnic), POC (People of Color), BPOC (Black and People of Color), and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color).
These debates around terminology are more than just semantic; new terms recognize emergent politics such as Afro-Pessimist ideology and acknowledge the unique exclusion of Black people from social life. They also highlight intersectional issues such as the xenophobia and Islamophobic surveillance that many British South Asians experience. This search for multiracial solidarity acknowledges racially and ethnically differentiated experiences but sees shared targets in racial capitalism and heteropatriarchy.
Students at SOAS are currently organizing for Habib’s dismissal under the campaign #FireHabib. This movement has emerged not because of his choice of words, but because of his politics of institutional reform and antipathy to radical dissent. While this student organizing is led by Black students with Art and the African Mind, the multiracial SOAS Student Union and professional services workers in SOAS’s chapter of UNISON have also joined forces to demand Habib’s resignation as well as a deeper inquiry into SOAS’s history of institutional racism.
SOAS student organizers have partnered with South African student activists from #FeesMustFall to shine light on Habib’s history of violently policing activism and his strategy of manipulating identity politics to use his background as a former radical as political cover. This campaign predates Habib’s public use of a racial slur. During his interview process for the past year-and-a-half, students have been organizing and lobbying against his candidacy.
Zooming out from Habib’s language, students are using this incident to point out university policies both in the UK and South Africa that disadvantage working-class Black and South Asian students — requiring young people to ignore microaggressions alongside structural racism as a price for higher learning. They are also linking these student issues to university labor issues such as the exploitation of migrant workers of color serving in outsourced roles as cleaners, janitors, and porters, and the disproportionate representation of women of color scholars in precarious academic “fractional” roles. And they are drawing a vision of solidarity in student organizing that dismantles capital and profit in the higher education sector and beyond.
Many South Asian activists in the diaspora now emphasize “queering” solidarity to center relationship-building, generative organizing, and collective visioning of what we are building towards rather than what we are merely wishing to tear down. These changing points of emphasis not only represent generational differences in understanding Blackness, they position solidarity as an action rather than speech, cultivating comradeship rather than allyship.
SOAS student organizing echoes other moments through which young South Asian activists are rejecting representation from South Asian figureheads in favor of solidarity with Black and other oppressed groups. In recent years, South Asian activists have targeted UK Home Secretary Priti Patel’s overt racism towards the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, emphasized the importance of Dalit, Bahujan, Adivasi and Muslim South Asian leadership in multiracial organizing, and explored the links between casteism, Hindutva and anti-Blackness — to name just a few examples.
In each of these cases, young Black and South Asian activists are finding solidarity based on shared struggle and a common articulation of racial capitalism and heteropatriarchy as the root causes of our ills. They focus on system change as the driver of multiracial solidarity, dismissing the identity politics of Blackness or “Africanness” that former-activists-turned-institutional-actors like Habib rely on.
Habib’s actions represent a warping and weaponizing of political Blackness to claim that people of color cannot be perpetrators. Students who call to #FireHabib reject this shallow representation. Their mobilizing is best understood not as a reactionary cry for political correctness, but as a rejection of performative identity politics. Their demands for racially just higher education and their rejection of Black and brown figureheads show what political Blackness was meant to be: solidarity not through talk, but through praxis for transformative change.