'I don't think black people or Jews should be solely defined by their race'

The writer who sparked the Diane Abbott Observer row on the reasons he is calling out the 'anti-racism' movement


I meet Tomiwa Owolade outside Woolwich Arsenal train station in south east London a few weeks before the publication of his hotly anticipated book, This Is Not America: Why Black Lives in Britain Matter.

“I like to call this the African Riviera,” he jokes, gesturing at the Thames as he leads me through Plumstead, where he grew up after his politician father took the family to England from Nigeria when he was nine.

"We pass a Costcutter at the end of a long road of Victorian semis. “This is where I came to buy The Times when I had my first article published in the paper, a book review,” he tells me, proudly.

Owolade has come a long way. Today a first-rank essayist and author at just 26 years old, he was at the centre of a big row in April after he wrote an article for The Observer saying that Jews were among the most abused minorities in Britain.

The article prompted Corbynite MP Diane Abbott to write a letter to the paper claiming that Jews could not suffer racism, just prejudice like that faced by “redheads”.

Owolade’s demands that Labour should expel Abbott, made to the JC at the time, marked him out as one of the few — of any colour or creed — with the courage and intellectual nous to call out the Jew-hate that often characterises the “anti-racism” movement.

He rounds on prominent figures in black America — Kanye West, Ice Cube, Whoopie Goldberg and Nation of Islam leaders — who have all been accused of antisemitism. “These people all think that they are being anti-racist.

But the main antisemitic conspiracy theory is that Jewish people are behind the slave trade. They fashion the antisemitism [as an objection] to the pernicious legacy of the slave trade, and when people think about racism against African Americans, that [the slave trade] is the gold standard.

“But Jews were prominent in both the US civil rights movement and anti-apartheid in South Africa, in part because of a shared history of persecution, and the shared enemy, which is white supremacy. It’s a shame that it’s shaken down into antisemitism from those would-be allies.”

The Diane Abbott fracas illuminated this point perfectly, as did Corbyn’s Labour, which repeatedly vowed it wanted to end racism, and then attacked Jews viciously.

“What made [the Diane Abbott affair] absurd was that to illustrate why Jewish people can’t be victims of racism, she looked to a country 3,000 miles away, when she is MP of a country that nearly 1,000 years ago that expelled its Jewish population and she lives on a continent that exterminated the vast majority of its population within living memory.

“It’s also not true that Jews haven’t been persecuted in the UK,” he adds.

He also makes the point that ought to be a depth-charge against “anti-racist” ideology. “The majority of Jews in Israel are ‘non-white’ so to speak,” he says, “and yet Israel is seen as a ‘settler colonial’ enterprise.

In the case of Britain, where the left sometimes labels Jews as white supremacists, labelling Jewish people as white and therefore privileged is consistent with the antisemitic trope that Jewish people exercise disproportionate power in society. For them, being white means that someone is privileged.”

Soon the reviews will be rolling in for Owolade’s debut effort, published next week by Atlantic Books. In This is Not Ameri ca, the writer and critic argues that in our rush to address inequality, prejudice and Britain’s colonial history, we have followed America’s lead, ignoring and denying the specificity, nuance and range of black British experiences.

Sudden fame among British Jews aside, Owolade has, over the past few years, been making a name for himself as a thoughtful but thorough critic of the idea that Britain is an inherently racist state, whose colonial history will taint everything until its remnants are destroyed and its history is rewritten.

In particular, Owolade, who has both undergraduate and master’s degrees in English, has passionately defended works by Philip Larkin and Shakespeare — and other parts of the British literary canon — that are now decried as racist.

I am fascinated by how the young Owalade discovered such ideas and, of course, books, seemingly entirely under his own steam. He tells me he developed a “passion for reading” at primary school — a handsome Edwardian building in the middle of a leafy housing estate in Abbey Wood and the next stop, after the Costcutter, on our walking tour of his childhood.

His first literary love, he tells me, was Anthony Horowitz’s Alex Rider series, about a teenage spy. Through these novels, he discovered that “reading wasn’t just something for school but pleasurable in itself”.

It was in his teens that Owolade discovered proper literature. He set his mind on becoming a literary critic after discovering Christopher Hitchens, and lost himself in the works of Tolstoy, Austen and Joyce.

“My gateway drug was War and Peace,” he says.

Does he agree with some other critics that certain literary classics are alienating and offensive to young black people because they don’t feature characters that reflect their own lives, or because they contain racist or imperialist tropes?

Owolade scoffs. “I dispute ideas that role models need to look like you. My role model was Christopher Hitchens, who was very different to me in terms of racial background [and] also in terms of school. But we shared an affinity in terms of knowledge and ideas and culture.

It’s patronising to say we need representation. I’m just a curious person.”

I am curious about his unorthodox political development. Did it track along the same line as his hero Christopher Hitchens, a peacenik left-winger who became firmly pro-Iraq War?

It wasn’t so different. Owolade also started out left wing. “There was a time when I was 15 when I admired Owen Jones,” he says, referring to The Guardian’s flagship Corbynista.

“At this time, I was a big leftie, or a pseudo-Marxist. I was into Chomsky, while still being fascinated by Hitchens. I just thought left-wing people were nice and right-wing people were evil. That was the ambient noise to my education and upbringing, which was ironic as my parents and family espouse many socially conservative views. But they were Labour supporters.”

This is Not America is an erudite book, full of clear, courageous, common-sense observations about the different histories and patterns of racism that divide Britain and the US.

Among them is the fact that most of Britain’s black population arrived from the West Indies after the Second World War, and more recently, from Africa. In the US, much of the black population is descended from Africans enslaved in America, with their roots in the country going back 200 years or more.

Black Britons should focus on home-grown scandals such as Windrush rather than US injustices, says Owolade.

Generally, he suggests, Britain has been less systemically brutal towards its black inhabitants and visitors than America.

He quotes the celebrated black abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who said on a visit to Britain in 1845: “Everything is so different here to what I have been accustomed to in the United States. No insults to encounter, no prejudice to encounter, but all is smooth. I am treated as a man, an equal brother… The change is wonderful.”

Above all, Owolade wants anti-racists to stop lumping black people together in one victimised bundle, ignoring the enormous differences between the very many types of black Britons, from wealthy second-generation Ghanaians to fifth-generation West Indian migrants.

This sounds to me like something we can also be aware of when we talk about Jews, who are also sometimes seen as a homogenous bloc. The “black community” is a term that galls Owolade. “As if that’s a singular thing as if black people have a single perspective on these issues,” he exclaims.

“Not all black people are the same… If you are genuinely anti-racist, you would surely push back against that assumption and the notion that all people because of racial identity espouse the same perspectives.”

Reflecting on the way he has tackled these issues so thoroughly and visibly, Owolade says: “I didn’t want to simply be a race man. One of the central arguments of my book is that black people and any other racial group should not be defined by their race.

“Of course, the risk in writing about these issues is that I reinforce the things I’m trying to fight against.”

But, he adds, he felt he had to weigh in because his frustration at “the number of bad arguments on this issue” was so great. “Ignorance, lack of curiosity, lack of nuance, intellectual laziness — what I may say can’t be any worse,” he smiles.

‘This is Not America: Why Black Lives in Britain Matter’ by Tomiwa Owolade (Atlantic Books, £18.99)

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