Representation has become a bit of a buzzword these days. Rightly so – the growing realisation that something must be done to remedy the huge lack of diversity in positions of ‘power’ is a move towards a fairer society. Visibility matters in today’s world and so when Humza Yousaf was announced as the First Minister of Scotland after Nicola Sturgeon, British Asians across the country, and indeed the globe, rejoiced to see the highest political office attained by a man who looks like them. Rishi Sunak’s appointment to the office of Prime Minister had a similar reaction. Indian social media was awash with memes celebrating Sunak’s cultural heritage and his social mobility in a post-colonial context. Though Sunak is as unlikely to return the Koh-i-Noor diamond as any of his predecessors, it is undeniable that an Indian at the head of a country that historically believed Indians to be incapable of self-governance seems to be the perfect instance of poetic justice – the colonisers have been colonised. However, race is only one aspect of diversity – disability, class, sexuality, gender, etc are all equally important. This intersectionality complicates things – representation, in reality, is hardly straightforward or one-dimensional.
What do Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and First Minister Humza Yousaf have in common beyond their British Asian identity? The fact that they were both educated at prestigious private schools: Yousaf at Hutcheson’s Grammar School in Glasgow and Sunak at the elite Winchester College. Immediately, this makes their lived experience radically different from the average immigrant story. Both men have some of the same privileges afforded to their white male counterparts: wealth and the plethora of doors it opens. This is not to say that race is not an important factor here, and should not be celebrated. Instead, the point is that their success cannot be used as proof that the UK is a place of perfect equal opportunity. Though at first glance these national leaders are the poster boys of a new, diverse age of British politics, it would be a complete blunder to see them as the endgame of true inclusivity. We must be conscious that PoC (people of colour) in politics tend to be from a very narrow subsection of PoC in general.
Both Sunak and Yousaf represent a socio-economic elite – an elite that has always been overrepresented in the political sphere. Research published by the Sutton Trust in 2019 found that 29% of MPs at the time had attended a private school. Statistics from the same year show that only 7% of the UK population have been privately educated. These shocking discrepancies advantage Sunak and Yousaf in a way that cannot be minimised by their British Asian identities – one aspect of diversity should not be used to brush over another key one. This is not a question of ‘hardship Olympics’ – when sociopolitical disadvantages are pitted against each other. Rather, it highlights a need for a more nuanced attitude towards representation or the lack thereof. We crave visible relatability but many British Indians have questioned how relatable Sunak really is. His wife, Akshata Murthy, is the daughter of the billionaire Narayana Murthy. She managed to avoid 20m in UK tax before last year and has a net worth greater than that of the late Queen Elizabeth II. To any normal person, these numbers are nearly beyond comprehension. As a child of Indian immigrants myself, I am sceptical that Sunak in any shape or form is looking after my interests any better than any of the white Eton boys who preceded him. Our apparently shared cultural heritage hardly matters in the grand scheme of things.
Perhaps this is a little harsh. There are undeniable positives of seeing change with your own eyes. It is hugely inspiring for minority communities to see people who look like them, though their financial backgrounds may not be the same. It is a start in the right direction – Yousaf is the first Scottish-Asian and Muslim to be elected as First Minister and Rishi Sunak is the first British Indian and Hindu. To see 10 Downing Street decorated with traditional Diwali regalia goes a long way in normalising other cultures and helping promote practises that historically have been looked down on and mocked. Many children from diasporas have a deep-seated insecurity about their heritage and are made to feel ‘other’ – oftentimes it is not as simplistic as the colour of your skin but extends to the accent you speak in or the way you dress or how your food smells. Similarly, Yousaf’s tweet – 157K views and counting – explaining why he fasts for Ramadan helps cultivate a more accepting attitude towards something that is alien to the majority of the Scottish population. Additionally, there is little doubt that Yousaf, Sunak and countless other PoC in politics, and the wider professional world, have had to work harder to achieve the same milestones as their white colleagues. They have had to overcome systemic racism and are testament to the fact that it can and will be done. As visible figures of diversity, their presence and success help engender a sense of self-confidence in young people, which in turn will help push against the deeply entrenched prejudices that must be destroyed before true equality can be achieved.
Essentially, there is a need for logical balance – we need to be cognizant that these figures are good for a certain type of representation but they are not all-encompassing. Politics is notoriously closed-off to those from less financially privileged backgrounds and even more so to PoC from working-class families. This must be addressed at its root level – Rishi Sunak and Humza Yousaf cannot be used as proof that British politics has achieved its optimal diversity quota. The myth of representation is a complicated one but steps in the right direction mean that we are closer than ever to making true equality a reality.
Image credit: Scottish Government/ CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons