Is the term ‘coconut’ controversial, racist – or both?

The insult is commonly used to attack people in minoritised communities but debate persists as to whether it is racist

Nadine White
Race Correspondent
Saturday 18 November 2023 09:19 GMT
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Widespread debate is raging over a police investigation into a woman at a pro-Palestine march who was spotted carrying a poster that depicted Rishi Sunak and Suella Braverman as “coconuts”.

The image has fuelled a row over whether the term is a racist slur as the now-axed home secretary came under fire for repeatedly stoking racial tensions with inflammatory rhetoric about marginalised communities.

Some argue that it is not comparable with the “N” or “P”-words, which have been used to dehumanise Black and South Asian people for centuries.

But “coconuts” has been used as an insult to describe people from minoritised communities who are perceived as being sympathetic with white supremacist agendas – implying that the person is brown on the outside but white on the inside.

For decades, people from marginalised communities have been prosecuted using supposedly anti-racist legislation. In 1967, the British state charged Black rights activist Michael X, then renowned as “the most famous Black man in Britain”, with inciting racial hatred under the same act designed to protect these communities from discrimination.

Professor Kehinde Andrews says that laws brought into stamp out racism have been used to ‘further criminalise’ Black people

Professor Kehinde Andrews, Britain’s first Black studies undergraduate director at Birmingham City University, said he believes unfair police scrutiny and prosecutions around the use of terms like “coconut” have increased since the Black Lives Matter demonstrations in 2020.

“Unfortunately, these laws haven’t always been used to protect Black people; they’ve been used to further criminalise us. As far as race in the UK, we’re in a worse place since George Floyd than before.

“Talking about racism isn’t always a good thing and 2020 brought those conversations about structural racism to the fore. We thought that was progress but, actually, it just reminded institutions like the government and the Met about race. The backlash has been quite severe and we see that with the Met going after people for nonsense like this.”

Lawyer Dr Shola Mos-Shogbamimu said the term did not amount to a hate crime, but argued the “misappropriation of ‘coconut’ by institutional racist structures like the police is intentional and solely to push an agenda of white supremacy”.

Braverman stood by policies and used rhetoric that was detrimental to the plight of racial equality in her time as home secretary

“Black and brown people call racial gatekeepers like Braverman and Sunak ‘coconut’ for the hate they perpetuate on their communities,” she said.

The term “racial gatekeepers” describes public figures of ethnic minority backgrounds who support policies that disenfranchise marginalised groups, but manage to evade criticism for doing so because they are members of said group.

The Met Police has faced criticism that its probe into the placard-bearing protester, who has been interviewed under caution on suspicion of a racially aggravated public order act offence, is a waste of resources. But many still hold the view that it is a racist slur.

One such person is Sunder Katwala, director of think tank British Future, who wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter: “I find a worryingly large number of people seem to be unaware that ‘coconut’ is not just deplorable – and no way to make a political argument – but that it is unlawful racist abuse, that can be prosecuted and has been prosecuted.”

GB News presenter Albie Amankona also called it “a degrading and dehumanising racist slur”.

“​​As someone who has been called a coconut and told ‘they aren’t black enough’ since they could speak,” he posted online, “If we’re criminalising ‘hate’, I’m glad we’re making an example of this teacher who held up a ‘coconuts’ sign at the pro march.”

Critics of the word point to legal precedent to support this assertion.

Shirley Brown was prosecuted for using the word ‘coconut’ in a 2009 political debate

In 2010, Liberal Democrat councillor Shirley Brown was found guilty of racial harassment after she called her political opponent, South Asian Conservative Jay Jethwa, a “coconut” during a debate at Bristol City Council the year before.

Ms Brown is a Black woman and it has been argued that the case is another example of the judicial system being weaponised against a Black person in a country that is statistically more likely to arrest and prosecute people from these communities. Some 12 per cent of the prison population is Black compared with 4 per cent of the UK population.

Nels Abbey, writer and founder of Uppity: The Intellectual Playground, told The Independent: “Hate crime legislation was supposed to protect minorities. The extremely dubious, racially ignorant and culturally tone-deaf 2010 ruling in the case of Brown vs Jethwa, has changed that.

“The ruling has effectively resulted in hate crime legislation going from a means of protecting minorities to a method of persecuting some racial minorities. It reflects how unsafe the British court system is on matters of race that require cultural nuance.”

Black-rights activist Michael X was among the first people to be prosecuted under the Race Relations Act of 1965

Mr Abbey, author of Think Like a White Man: A Satirical Guide to Conquering the World…While Black, said: “‘Coconut’, like ‘Uncle Tom’, is not a racist term – when uttered within the community.

“It is a form of in-group, satirical political critique – one rooted in this history of formerly colonised people. It is a way of calling out behaviour that may well be harmful to other minorities. It is more often than not an anti-racist statement.

“It may certainly be impolite, but to call it racist, to have someone prosecuted by a culturally illiterate and predominantly white court system, punished and then labelled a convicted hate criminal – which massively damages their life chances – is nothing short of absolutely insane.”

“To do so is a crime against the prosecuted person and a crime against free speech – yet it is happening.”

The murder of George Floyd resulted in protests in the UK against racism, especially within organisations like the police

Dr Mos-Shogbamimu said that part of the issue was that British laws do not address the nuances of racism.

She said: “When we come to questions around what racism is, who is objectively a racist, who is an enabler of racism and how language steeped in white supremacy plays a role in our society between races, the law is yet to catch up.

“So, because the law is not reflective of what racism is, it tries to simplify the matter to suggest everybody can be racist if you treat everybody the same which is utter bull**** – nonsense.”

“What the police and courts are doing is aiding the miseducation of the British public. The more people, especially white people who are desperate to claim racism, who see that this language can be used to silence Black people, the more this will happen.”

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