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Suella Braverman isn’t dog-whistling on ‘grooming gangs’ – she’s sounding the call of colonialism

OPINION: It would be a mistake to only respond to the Home Secretary on her own terms – there’s a much bigger conversation to be had here.

Suella Braverman
Wikimedia Commons/Simon Dawson, 10 Downing Street via CC 2.0

Last week Home Secretary Suella Braverman claimed that members of so-called ‘grooming gangs’ are “almost all British Pakistani” men. She referred to well-known grooming scandals in Rotherham and Rochdale. Braverman drew attention to the:

predominance of certain ethnic groups – and I say British Pakistani males – who hold cultural values totally at odds with British values, who see women in a demeaned and illegitimate way and pursue an outdated and frankly heinous approach in terms of the way they behave.

When Braverman was challenged on her views, she doubled down, saying that “the vast majority of British Pakistanis are law-abiding and straightforward people, but it is also clear to say that in these towns … there have been cultural trends in the practices that we’ve seen and authorities and professionals have turned a blind eye out of fear of being called racist.”

As the Guardian reported, a 2020 report from the Home Office itself found that it was impossible to say if any particular ethnic group was overrepresented in grooming offences. That matters little, especially as Braverman is treading very familiar ground here. She aligns British Pakistani men as being incompatible with British values, drew Pakistani communities as uniquely sexist, and made a connection between Pakistanis as a group prone to grooming. In short, Braverman is using the very common tactic of alluding to Pakistani culture as a whole as regressive, backwards and strange.

Much has been written about how the Prime Minister hasn’t explicitly supported Braverman’s comments. The Evening Standard claimed that Sunak didn’t back Braverman as he didn’t repeat her comments. Instead, he repeated another falsehood – that “political correctness” was why these gangs hadn’t been challenged in the past.

It’s tempting here to jump into explanations of how Braverman is wrong about Pakistani men and Pakistani culture – explanations rooted in an understanding of British history alive to the Islamophobia, racism and xenophobia that underpin both Braverman and Sunak’s comments. Explanations which would also take stock of the numerous times politicians from both major political parties have made similar comments. In fact, such comments are commonplace across media outlets. How many times have we all seen columnists and media personalities say the same thing?

The entrenched nature of these views means there’s little point in patiently explaining why Pakistanis aren’t like that, or how it’s racist to group communities like that. There’s little point because it’s been said plenty of times before and it will be said plenty of times again. Newspaper headlines have described Braverman’s comments as dog-whistling. It barely matters if she genuinely believes that all grooming gangs are made up of majority Pakistani men, because ultimately she’s telling us that Pakistanis are regressive and will never be fully British.

Sometimes it’s worth spelling out exactly why a politician is wrong, and which lies they’re peddling. It’s also exhausting and infuriating to keep patiently engaging with discourse from racists, be they politicians or otherwise. And, really, who is afraid to be racist in the British Empire? It’s what this country has been built on. Instead, let’s look at the bigger picture; the image Braverman conjures up of brown men as uncontrollable, sexist, abusive savages comes directly from a colonial mindset.

In his seminal work Decolonising the Mind, Ngúgí wa Thiong'o writes that the “most important area of domination was the mental universe of the colonised, the control through culture, of how people perceived themselves and their relationship to the world.”

Our very ways of being in the world, of perceiving others and recognising patterns, are structured through colonial thinking. Braverman’s comments have a weight and a clear history to them. It would be a mistake to only respond on her own terms. The conversation needs to be bigger than a Home Secretary more interested in criminalising people for political gain than protecting them.

Facts don’t matter to Braverman’s rhetoric. It doesn’t matter to her if Pakistanis are actually making up the majority of grooming gangs – they’re not. Instead, her comments continue the work of colonisation: the work of domination and power.

Some of us may well need to respond directly to her comments. Some of us also need to think deeply about how colonial dimensions are replicated in how we relate to one another. Naturally, media outlets will report Braverman’s comments and highlight dissenting opinions. In and of itself, that doesn’t really challenge the root of Braverman’s toxic rhetoric. Instead, it’s incumbent on independent media to allow writers the freedom to demonstrate the rotten roots of her thinking.

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