Widespread debate is raging over a police investigation into a woman at a pro-Palestine march who was spotted holding a poster depicting Rishi Sunak and Suella Braverman as “coconuts”.
The image has sparked a row over whether the term is a racial slur as the now-out-of-touch home secretary has come under fire for repeatedly stoking racial tensions with inflammatory rhetoric about marginalized communities.
Some argue that it is not comparable to the “N” or “P” words that have been used to dehumanize Blacks and South Asians for centuries.
But the word “coconuts” has been used as an insult to describe people from minority communities who are perceived to have white sensibilities – implying that the person is brown on the outside but white on the inside.
For decades, people from marginalized communities have been prosecuted using supposedly anti-racist legislation. In 1967, the British state charged Black rights activist Michael X, then known as “Britain's most famous black man,” with inciting racial hatred under the same act intended to protect those communities from discrimination.
Professor Kehinde Andrews, Britain's first black man is studying for an undergraduate directorship at the University of Birminghamsaid he believes unfair policing and prosecutions over the use of terms like “coconut” have increased since the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020.
“Unfortunately, these laws were not always used to protect Black people. have been used to further criminalize us. When it comes to race in the UK, we are worse off than George Floyd was before.
“Talking about racism isn't always a good thing, and 2020 brought these conversations about structural racism to the fore. We thought it was progress but, in reality, it was just a reminder of race in institutions like the government and the Met. The backlash has been pretty strong 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 that “the misuse of ‘coconut' by institutional racist structures such as the police is deliberate and solely to promote a white supremacist agenda”.
“Black and brown people call racial vigilantes like Braverman and Sunak ‘coconuts' for the hate they perpetuate in their communities,” he said.
The term “racial gatekeepers” describes ethnic minority public figures who support policies that disenfranchise marginalized groups, but manage to avoid criticism because they do so because they are members of said group.
The Met Police have come under criticism that their investigation into the placard-carrying protester, who was interviewed under caution on suspicion of a racially aggravated public order offence, is a waste of resources. But many still support the view that it is a racial slur.
One such person is Sunder Katawala, director of thinktank British Future, who wrote on Twitter/X: “I find a worryingly large number of people seem to be unaware that ‘coconut' is not just deplorable – and there is no way to project a political argument – but that this is illegal racial abuse, which can be prosecuted and has been prosecuted.
GB News presenter Albie Amancona also called it “a degrading and dehumanizing racist slur”.
“As someone who was called a coconut and told ‘not black enough' after being able to speak,” he posted online, “If we're criminalizing ‘hate', I'm glad we're making an example of this teacher who held up a sign ‘coconuts “in propaganda”.
Critics of the word cite legal precedent to support this claim.
In 2010, Liberal Democrat councilor Shirley Brown was found guilty of racial harassment after calling her political opponent, the South Asian conservative Jay Jethua, a “coconut” during a debate at Bristol City Council last year.
Ms Brown is a black woman and it has been argued that the case is another example of the justice system being weaponized against a black person in a country that is statistically more likely to arrest and deport people from these communities. About 12 percent of the prison population is black compared to 4 percent of the UK population.
Nels Abbey, author and founder Uppity: The Intellectual Playgroundhe said The independent: “Hate crime legislation is supposed to protect minorities. The highly dubious, racially ignorant and culturally deaf 2010 decision in Brown vs Jethwa changed that.
“The decision effectively turned hate crime legislation from a means of protecting minorities into a method of persecuting certain racial minorities. It reflects how insecure the British justice system is on racial issues that require cultural nuance.”
Mr. Abbey, author of Think Like A White Man: A Satirical Guide to Conquering the World…While Blacksaid: “‘Coconut', like Uncle Tom, is not a racist term – when spoken within the community.
“It's a form of collective satirical political criticism – one rooted in this history of formerly colonized people. It is a way of invoking behavior that may well be harmful to other minorities. Most of the time it is an anti-racist statement.
“It may certainly be rude, but to call it racist, to have someone prosecuted by a culturally illiterate and predominantly white justice system, punished and then labeled a convicted hate criminal – which massively damages their life chances – it's nothing short of crazy.”
“To do so is a crime against the person being prosecuted and a crime against free speech – yet it happens”
Dr Mos-Shogbamimu said part of the issue was that British laws did not address the nuances of racism.
He said: “When it comes to questions about what racism is, who is objectively racist, who is racist, and how language steeped in white supremacy plays into our interracial society, the law has yet to cover it.
“So because the law doesn't reflect what racism is, it tries to simplify the issue to suggest that everyone can be racist if you treat everyone the same which is absolute bulls*** – nonsense.”
“What the police and the courts are doing is helping to miseducate 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.”