Ethnic minorities have every right to call people ‘coconuts’

Faisal Bodi of the Islamic Human Rights Commission argues that minorities should not shy away from using communal vernacular to express political dissent, despite the decision to prosecute Mareiha Hussain for comparing Rishi Sunak and Suella Braverman to coconuts.

I have a very personal interest in the case against Mareiha Hussain. This week, the 37 year-old schoolteacher was charged with a racially aggravated public order offence for holding up a satirical banner during a demonstration depicting the PM and ex-home secretary as coconuts.

Her prosecution brings back memories of another inquisition much closer to home. In 2006 I was excommunicated by The Guardian, for whom I had been a guest columnist for several years, after I hurled the same pejorative at a fellow commentator. It made me the UK’s first ever victim of coconut abuse.

I had told the activist Sunny Hundal that he was a “coconut by name, coconut by nature,” in reference to both the Anglicisation of his birth name – Sundeep – and his nauseating reproduction of white supremacist political narratives on issues of race and faith.

According to The Guardian, I had crossed the line separating legitimate criticism from racist slurs.

The summary dismissal came as a shock if only because “coconut” is routinely used by people of colour to describe those in their communities who affect or assume the attitudes and behaviours of white people. But here, for the first time, it was being weaponised by a supposedly liberal newspaper against the very people who coined it and whom it served.

Brown on outside, white on inside

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“Coconut” is a racial metaphor used by South Asians to describe someone who is brown on the outside and white on the inside. At its most inoffensive, the term – interchangeable with “Bounty bar” or “brown sahib” – denotes someone who has become too assimilated or acculturated to the dominant “white” culture.

But it’s when the term is deployed in a political sense that controversy arises. There is no agreed definition of coconut nor is there a socio/psychological typology. In communities of colour, it is something that is intuitively understood more than strictly defined.

Mareiha Hussain was charged with a racially aggravated public order offence for holding up a satirical banner during a demonstration depicting the PM and ex-home secretary as coconuts.

In practice, coconut recognition is a process of social conditioning, an acquired knowledge by which we can instinctively differentiate between those who are loyal to the struggles of our sub-group and those who want nothing to do with them, or worse still, have crossed to the other side.

Essentially, there are two grades of coconut. The first type (Grade B) is someone who has internalised racial inferiority and who downplays or denies his/her own heritage in a bid to get ahead. Anglicising one’s name or using skin whitening cream to appear lighter and more “British” would land you in that category.

While I can’t excuse this kind of “coconut,” they are less dangerous than the Grade A’s who use their elevated position to attack their own community. They are typified by Sunak and Braverman, both fruits of the same diseased tree who eagerly provide a veneer of acceptability for white supremacism. They are traitors to people of South Asian heritage in the UK, as well as much of the Global South, who oppose the slaughter in Gaza and are themselves victims of structural racism.

A racist smear?

The claim that “coconut” is a racist smear doesn’t hold much water. It problematises a wholly reasonable expectation of conformity to an expected group belief or standard. We don’t censure white nationalists who brand white anti-racism campaigners as traitors or Zionist Jews who denounce their anti-Zionist co-religionists as “self-hating Jews”.

It goes without saying that none of these analogous examples are called racist, let alone prosecuted as such. Expecting members of your own ethnic group to side with you on the grounds that you share the same experience of victimisation is hardly racism, as it is normally understood.

Seeking to criminalise “coconut” is nothing and everything to do with racism. It is politically motivated and serves two purposes. Firstly, it perpetuates the Islamophobic narrative of “hate marches” led by extremist Muslims, a mainstay of political/MSM commentary ever since the first pro-Palestine protests last October. It is also intended to send the message to everyone who supports Palestinian emancipation that the authorities will not hesitate to instrumentalise the law to silence them.

Looking back, I don’t think The Guardian’s decision to drop me was anything to do with racism, either alleged or actual. Over the seven or so years I’d written for the publication, I had built a reputation for being an outspoken anti-Zionist and advocate for Palestinian rights. In particular, my argument for the dissolution of Israel as an ethno-supremacist state – Israel simply has no right to exist – marked me out as a target.

In the same way that Belle Donati and Sangita Myska have been quietly chopped by their respective news networks for not toeing the pro-Zionist line on Gaza, I was dropped because I refused to sing from the Zionist hymn sheet.

If I was Mareiha Hussain I’d be celebrating a moral and political victory. Regardless of the outcome of her case, the attempt by the state to appropriate and weaponise communal language has only succeeded in amplifying the linkage between white supremacist Britain and the racist, genocidal ideology of Zionism. It has also exposed the fragility and desperation of a state struggling to control the narrative on Palestine.

Faisal Bodi is a former journalist who now works as a media officer for the Islamic Human Rights Commission. This article first appeared on the IHRC website.

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