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Christina Patterson

Christina Patterson

Posted: October 30, 2010 07:11 AM

It isn't much fun being monstered. Poor Katharine Birbalsingh, the former Marxist who was hailed as a messiah at the Tory party conference, has returned to liberal London as Judas.

Bad enough, one might think, to have the surreal experience of being clutched to the matronly bosom of Middle England, and to have photos of one's pupils met with the kind of braying you might expect in a zoo, or perhaps in a parliament, but then to get back to find that you're suspended, and then sacked, and that your name, in the metropolitan liberal circles you move in, is now mud - well, that's what one of your new friends might call a jolly poor show.

Birbalsingh is, apparently, black. This is not immediately evident from her photo, but in a country in which a perma-tanned former prime minister is categorised as white, and many pretty pallid mixed-race people, including a friend of mine I always thought was white until she told me she was black, are always categorised in line with their darker parent, it's regarded as important. It means you can't go round saying "as a white woman", which people tend not to anyway, but you can go round saying "as a black woman", though Birbalsingh, as far as I can gather, doesn't.

It also means that the so-called BME (black and minority ethnic) representation at the Tory conference was massively increased, though Samantha Cameron happened to be filmed sitting next to a nice-looking Asian couple and there may, as well as the Indian dancers brought on for the occasion, also have been David Cameron's black man.

But Birbalsingh, perhaps because she is black, and therefore much more likely to end up in prison, committed a crime. She mentioned "black underachievement", which you're allowed to mention, because it's the kind of thing you can put on a form, but then she said something terrible. She said that black underachievement wasn't due to "institutional racism", which you're also allowed to put on a form, but, at least in part, to "accusations of racism", which you're not. She said that when lawyers argue against the exclusion of a black boy in a school, and succeed in getting him re-admitted, then all the other black boys "look to this invincible child, and copy his bad example". Black children underachieve, she said, "because of what the well-meaning liberal does to him".

Well, this is so many crimes that we might need an employment tribunal to sort them out. You can't say things like "all the other black boys" do this or that, because it's generalising, and it's stereotyping, and it's racist. And you can't say things like "the well-meaning liberal", because, to the well-meaning liberal (but not to the not-particularly-well-meaning Tory), it sounds like a label, and labels are for other people, on the forms you give them, with boxes to tick, and well-meaning liberals are, like, trying to help black people, yeah?, and they're, like, not racist, and some of their best friends are black. But not, perhaps, any more.

Birbalsingh's black friends are, apparently, untroubled by her unvarnished truths. It's her "white liberal middle-class friends" who have waltzed off with the smelling salts. It's lucky they weren't with me when a friend of mine announced, after an afternoon of chaos that had us both at risk of being charged with GBH, that he can't stand doing business with black people because they're so bloody disorganised, and that he can't stand doing work for them, because they're always demanding a discount. I assume he wasn't talking about every black person on the face of the planet, but in fairly general terms, according to his experience of black people, which, since he's black, is quite extensive.

I assume that he wasn't really talking about skin colour, either. What he was talking about was culture, which, in this case, was largely Caribbean, like his parents', and one in which, for example, time isn't like a gate that slams behind you but a lovely door you can swing open at any time, and favours are something you give freely to friends and family, and ask for freely, even sometimes from someone who is only in the remotest sense a "brother", and hospitality to distant relatives is, as various exhausted friends of mine can testify, offered and given without limit.

If you choose to stick to some aspects of this culture even when you're in another culture then you might, for example, be a great person to have as a friend or a relative, but you might not be such a good person to have running your business. And if you're part of a group in a class which prefers to get into trouble than do any work, and then, when you do get into trouble, scream racism, so you can carry on not doing any work, and make sure no one else can either, then you might enjoy the brief buzz of power, but probably not of the type that might lead to anything that anyone else might call success.

And if you're the kind of person who has black friends so that you can say you have black friends, black friends you drop when they stop being pets and start having opinions, and you use the word "racism" an awful lot, then you're probably going to spend a lot of time in a lovely haze of self-righteousness, but you're also not very likely to do much to make the lives of black, brown, or any other people, better.

Last week, at an event on multiculturalism and integration, organised by a wonderful organisation called Faith Matters, I, too, was monstered. A very rude Jewish man, who had sent me abusive emails, accused me of anti-Semitism. A very polite Muslim woman, who hadn't sent me any emails, asked about the responsibilities of the media and whether, in writing about female genital mutilation and forced marriages in the Muslim community, I was guilty of peddling stereotypes and myths. You could, I suppose, call something that doesn't happen all that often a stereotype or a myth, but the usual word for it, I explained, is a fact.

 

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