Black-facing and the white man’s burden


Miranda Husain
Sitting with a group of women, some known others not, for a rare London meet-up in Lahore, I was surprised by the sudden turn in conversation. They were scandalised. And not in that understated way that invites mere tutting for dramatic effect. No, this was the real deal.
A young Lahori woman in their circle, from a wealthy and well-connected family, was marrying beneath her. Whatever this meant I would soon come to know. Her paramour, after all, could not have had a more different upbringing; somewhere in the north of England perhaps. Not only that, but the gentleman in question had the sheer audacity to be born on a council estate to a single mother. No matter that it must have taken a lot of gumption for her to raise a family on her own; particularly in the absence of certain socio-economic privilege. But the group remained unanimous in their verdict. The would-be groom only had one thing going for him: his whiteness.
Now it was my turn to be shocked. Not least because one of the women present came from, as I understood, a typical working-class immigrant background somewhere in East London. Yet upon returning to Pakistan with her family while still a teen she almost immediately found herself moving in elite circles. Thus the disparaging remarks about race and class were likely the result of years of feeling like a second-class citizen in England’s green and, at times, unpleasant land. And now that the white man was on her turf she felt sufficiently empowered to give him a taste of ‘his’ own medicine.
This may or may not have also been a subconscious push back against the black-facing of the white man’s burden. A phenomenon that plays on the brown man internalising white supremacy to the point whereby he happily slips into the role of native dissenter. Confident in the misguided belief that this is what multiculturalism demands of him. In real terms, this translates into the co-opting of people of colour in the West or else the international and cosmopolitan elite of the Global South whereby the latter are encouraged to regurgitate a traditional white right-wing and xenophobic agenda. Full of hope that by doing so, they will be fast-tracked towards acceptance and the mainstream. Naturally, this is an unbalanced trade-off. For it effectively affords nationalist groups the chance to wipe the racism card clean of any incriminating fingerprints before passing it along.
All of which reminds me of the well-heeled British Pakistani chap I found myself having coffee with just after the last election here. He had supposedly been something big in the investment banking scene in London. Before giving it all up to work as a lobbyist for the Pakistan diplomatic mission during the last PPP government. Soon he was lecturing me on the short-memory of the people of this country. On the basis that they had re-elected Nawaz Sharif. For the third time, no less. This, he argued, demonstrated a total lack of understanding of what true accountability means. As if the Brits didn’t afford Tony Blair the same courtesy; only consecutively so. And it was his own volition that saw him leave office. Not electoral comeuppance. Similarly, Thatcher was not ousted by the power of the ballot but, rather, by her own party doing the dirty. Yet the white man is not liable in the same way for the leaders he chooses.
This black-facing of the white man’s burden is also keenly felt in the cultural realm. Which sees many British writers of South Asian origin finding themselves cast in the role of multicultural ambassador. Looked at another way, this is tantamount to portraying ethnic minorities as the only identifiable stakeholders when it comes to sustaining this integrational paradigm. The fallout is mirrored narratives focusing almost exclusively on the struggle to assimilate. Often laughing at — not with — the parental generation that forever remains cultural outsider. And so, the transformation into tolerable Britishness nears completion. Except that the white man is still lording it over the brown; making him do all the dirty work.