Published by Hodder & Stoughton General Division on May 17th 2018
A searing modern polemic from the BAFTA- and MOBO-award-winning musician and political commentator, Akala
From the first time he was stopped and searched as a child, to the day he realised his mum was white, to his first encounters with racist teachers - race and class have shaped Akala's life and outlook. In this unique book he takes his own experiences and widens them out to look at the social, historical and political factors that have left us where we are today.
Covering everything from the police, education and identity to politics, sexual objectification and the far right, Natives will speak directly to British denial and squeamishness when it comes to confronting issues of race and class that are at the heart of the legacy of Britain's racialised empire.
Within the contemporary period, there have been a number of contributions to our understandings of the complexity of race, and the way that racism, both hidden and overt, exists within society. Michelle Alexander’s ‘The New Jim Crow’ pioneered a new brand of scholarship, that was picked up by others in a US context. In the UK, as I’ve mentioned on this blog before, there have been excellent books by many, including Reni Edo-Lodge and Afua Hirsch.
Akala writes on similar issues to all those above, but with a much wider and historical look at racism. What makes his book so unique though, is the tone that he takes throughout, mixing his brand of wit and irony to the very serious points he is making. Even through his sarcasm, the weight of his knowledge and experience is evident, and thus the strength of his arguments are not lost in any way.
I can’t quite say that I related to Akala’s book in the way I did with Afua Hirsch’s, and that is largely due to the middle-class upbringing I had in South London. Don’t get me wrong, I experienced many different layers of racism including getting into fights with skin-heads, but the kind of environment of growing up in London that Akala describes, is an alien world to me:
“I was born in the 1980s, before mixed-race children had become an acceptable fashion accessory. A nurse in the hospital promised to give my white mother ‘nigger blood’ when she needed a transfusion after giving birth; yeah, the 1980s was a decade bereft of political correctness.” (p.2)
It is this weaving of the personal experience with the wider historical narrative that becomes such an effective form of teaching – as racism does not remain something that is only studied in ivory towers, but something that is leaved as an experience. Akala’s references of to the controversy over Linford’s Lunchbox isn’t just called out for being a moment of racism, but rather linked back to the scientific racism of Edward Long (p.120).
Akala’s book is not so much interested in the overt forms of racism, as much as he is in the many ways in which racism has become structural, from its ideological roots, to its current manifestations:
“Thus even the most pro-empire of historians would probably admit that some football hooligan calling a Premier League player a ‘black cunt’ is a bad thing, even while they spend their entire academic careers explaining away, downplaying and essentially cheering for the mass- murdering white-supremacist piracy of the British Empire, which starved millions to death in India, enslaved and tortured millions more in countless locations and often used its power to crush, not enhance, popular democracy and economic development in its non-white colonies, especially when doing so suited larger aims.” (p.11)
It isn’t just colonial history that is highlighted. I was forced to wince during passages about the history of Muslim empires and their relationship with slavery, with even the widely well-regarded scholar Ibn Khaldun coming under fire for some racist statements he made in his works. Literally, no one is given a pass. If you say something racist, or even something that has the hue of racism, it will be called out, and so both Hollywood actors Morgan Freeman and Samuel L Jackson are highlighted for having made problematic statements, ones which reinforce racist ideas, not end them.
Perhaps one of the most important chapters, is the FAQ-style response chapter to the usual tropes that are directed towards black people, such as ‘stop playing the race card’ and ‘you have a chip on your shoulder’. Akala systematically dismantles these accusations, showing how they exist in a framing that covers their own actions:
“‘Stop playing the race card.’
Racism is apparently a card to be played; much like the joker it’s a very versatile card that can be used in any situation that might require it. Only non-white people ever play this card to excuse their own personal failings – even those of us that are materially successful. Humans racialised as white cannot play the race card – just like they cannot be terrorists – so European national empires colonizing almost the entire globe and enacting centuries of unapologetically and openly racist legislation and practices, churning out an impressively large body of proudly racist justificatory literature and cinema and much else…” (p.24)
This book does not just deal with race though, it also intersects race with class, reminding us of the many different layers of struggle that exist. Perhaps the most fitting example of that, is the way Akala juxtaposes the value of the Muslim lives lost at the Grenfell Tower with the permissive way that Gulf Arabs are treated in the centre of London, the differences could not be more stark.
The power of this book lies not only in its ability to expose the historical connections to racism of the past, but how that history finds itself as a lived reality on the streets of London, and the wider political and social debates. If you want to understand racism contemporary Britain, this book goes a long way to helping our understanding.1