Malia Bouattia, Stuart Hall, and Carlton from The Fresh Prince: Identity Crises and the Corbynite Left
In an early Fresh Prince of Bel-Air episode, the street-wise Philadelphian Will embarks on a cross-California car journey with his preppy cousin Carlton.
Driving through the sticks in Uncle Phil’s Mercedes, they’re pulled over by a couple of state troopers. Will knows the drill, but Carlton is outraged that they’ve been stopped without cause, and speaks to the officers as he would any other functionaries. Unfortunately for him, he’s no longer in Bel-Air, and they’re taken to jail.
After their release, Carlton expresses his continued bafflement that the police pulled them over without them committing any crime. Will gives his entitled cousin a lecture about privilege and racial profiling, but Carlton scoffs and refuses to believe that the police would arrest them merely for driving a fancy car while black. At this point Uncle Phil steps in and confirms that Will’s right. He tells his son that he once had the same faith in the police, but it was comprehensively removed by a lifetime of unwarranted traffic stops.
For Carlton this is a profound and humbling moment. All of his life he has been a nerd, a square; a rich kid in a neighbourhood and school surrounded by other rich kids. It was only through being pulled over by the cops that he had his first taste of being ‘black’ in America.
The Jamaican philosopher Stuart Hall used to tell an anecdote of how, after his move to Britain to study at Oxford, his mother would anxiously enquire: ‘I do hope they don’t think you’re an immigrant over there.' Hall was from one of the finest families on the island, and the thought of white Britons assuming he was just another West Indian migrant worker caused a great deal of upset for Mrs Hall.
Like Carlton, her son was experiencing the unnerving identity transition from being a deracinated pillar of the local middle-class to being a black man in a racist country.
Every September, thousands of students from Northern cities descend on elite universities in the South and, surrounded by people from the Home Counties, have a similar experience to Carlton and Stuart Hall; they’ve go from being a bog-standard middle-class eighteen year old, to being ‘the Northern one’.
By banging on endlessly about Blairites and austerity, Zionism and the Iraq War, they believe they can obviate their whiteness, their blandness
Many of the black students at the same institutions undergo the same phenomenon: although from perfectly ordinary middle-class backgrounds, they are now the ‘black’ one in an overwhelmingly white environment.
For some this will be a discombobulating and unpleasant experience; for others it is exhilarating, and they play up to it: hardening their accent and acting up to the stereotype in a way that would horrify their parents back home.
The out-going President of the NUS, Malia Bouattia, is clearly one of the latter. Except, unlike Carlton and Stuart Hall, she’s not actually black.
Until the age of seven, she had a wonderfully privileged childhood in Algeria, where the Arab majority treats black people disgracefully, before her academic parents moved to the UK.
But through adopting the mantle of ‘political blackness’, by making herself the scourge of the Zionists, she transcends her comfortable middle-class upbringing and the fact she isn’t black, and becomes one of the oppressed, an underdog, a new Frantz Fanon (who was himself, not coincidentally a doctor from one of the most prestiguous families in Martinique).
The same is true for so many others on the Corbynite, postmodernist Left. By banging on endlessly about Blairites and austerity, Zionism and the Iraq War, they believe they can obviate their whiteness, their blandness, and the boring realities of the Home Counties upbringing.
Yet for nearly all of them it is only a phase. They are not actually black. They are not actually working-class. After university there will be jobs and taxes and families, and they will make the weary and well-travelled progression towards the centre and the Right (it is rare to find a Tory or New Labour political commentator who wasn’t a Trot at university).
Last year, Corbyn addressed the SOAS student union. He was in his element, among people from the cultural and social milieu most likely to support his politics. The sad thing is that by the time the students who cheered him to the rafters are his age, most of them will have politically evolved beyond recognition.
As the dismal results from the local elections come in, presaging the even worse results on 9 June, Labour must learn that we cannot orientate our image squarely on a tiny, unrepresentative group undergoing an identity crisis.
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