The Backlash

Arianne Shahvisi

On hot weekends when I was child we’d go to the paddling pool in Burnley’s Thompson Park. We’d drive over from our house in Accrington and leave the car near Burnley College, where my father taught photography. On the way home I’d beg for a detour past Turf Moor, the home of Burnley Football Club.

Burnley is overlooked by the distinctive curve of Pendle Hill, the site of the 1612 Pendle witch trials, when ten people were hanged as scapegoats for the various woes of their neighbours. More than a century later, during and after the Industrial Revolution, Burnley boomed as one of the world’s leading producers of cotton cloth. In the 1960s and 1970s, as the textile industry struggled, Pakistani and Bangladeshi workers were invited to come and work in the mills. They were given the least desirable shifts, often working nights. By the 1980s the industry had collapsed, the mills were closed, and the town has since been left to slide into poverty, its Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities some of the most deprived in the country.

Burnley is now one of the most racially segregated towns in the UK. Nineteen years ago, on 23 June 2001, during a bout of unseasonably hot weather, a weekend of violent riots broke out. It has long been a stronghold of the British National Party, and in the 1990s, when my father (a person of colour) worked there, was also home to a large contingent of the BNP’s violent paramilitary wing, Combat 18. Much of the BNP’s support base has since shifted towards Ukip and the Brexit Party, which is not so much defanging as dormancy.

Earlier this week, Burnley FC lost 5-0 to Manchester City in an away game at the Etihad Stadium. Before kick-off, both teams took the knee in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, as has become customary since the playing season resumed after lockdown. During the match, a small plane crossed the sky over the empty stands, dragging along a banner bearing the slogan ‘White Lives Matter Burnley’. It was funded and organised by 60 Burnley football fans, their ringleader a man who has been pictured with his arm slung around the shoulders of the English Defence League founder, Tommy Robinson. He has since been fired from his job, and Burnley FC have condemned the stunt, as have many locals.

A police investigation found that no crime was committed, but the moral wrong should be obvious to anyone whose powers of reasoning stretch further than playing opposites. Black Lives Matter means Black lives ought to matter. The murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of the police in the US, and the deaths in custody of Sarah Reed and Sean Rigg in the UK, among countless others, are a reminder that the statement is one of hope: we must fight under this banner until Black lives do matter. Accordingly, ‘all lives matter’ is either false, if it’s supposed to be a descriptive statement, since the lives of very many marginalised groups more or less don’t matter; or is trivially true if it’s intended as a normative statement, because, yes, most of us would prefer for all lives to matter. It has become the talisman of the self-identified ‘colour-blind’, who resent being reminded of the failures of a society that they mostly find to be fair. It always reminds me of the letter Martin Luther King wrote from Birmingham Jail in 1963:

I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action.’

And then there’s ‘white lives matter,’ which makes the ‘all lives matter’ choir look almost as harmless as they think they are. There are two ways to take it. You can be charitable (read: naive or complicit) and take it as a mere misunderstanding; when we said ‘Black lives matter,’ they thought we meant only Black lives matter, and they’re just pointing out that other lives matter too. Yet if that’s what they intended, they’d have gone for ‘all lives matter.’ Instead, we should take it as it’s clearly meant: not merely as an effort to distract from or trivialise Black Lives Matter, but an attempt to contradict it.

In response to the incident, Priyamvada Gopal tweeted: ‘White Lives Don’t Matter. As white lives.’ In other words, the lives of white people matter not because they are white, but because, for want of a better term, all lives matter. If white people’s lives were to matter because they are white, then we’d be contending that whiteness is what makes lives matter, which amounts to a strong form of white supremacy. Gopal has since received torrents of racist abuse, including death threats and attempts to ‘dox’ her (publish her whereabouts in order to enable offline attacks). The language used by her detractors is enough to dishearten anyone who dared to believe that we are in a moment of cultural change, and gives the lie to claims that the football fans’ stunt was anything other than a highly audible dog-whistle for white supremacists.

So here it is: the backlash. We should have seen it coming. In times of change, those who have a stake in the old ways will find their witches. And little surprise that the hate has landed where it so often does, on the shoulders of a woman of colour.


  • 27 June 2020 at 5:56pm
    Marmaduke Jinks says:
    The chap who organised the banner at the football is either a fool or a knave but I do wonder whether, its being confirmed that he committed no offence, being sacked from his job was fully deserved. Do I take it that no-one even suspected of ‘inappropriate’ behaviour should be allowed to earn a living?
    Your upbringing in Burnley has no doubt exposed you to the under-educated, under-employed, left-behind white lumpenproletariat who probably resent the allegation of white privilege. That epithet no doubt grates and may be part of the reason for the thinking behind that stunt (which was, indeed, crass in the extreme).
    Death threats are vile but, in contrast to our Burnley buffoon, I note that Ms Ghopal suffered no loss of position, rather the opposite I understand.

    • 29 June 2020 at 9:40am
      Robin Durie says: @ Marmaduke Jinks
      "The chap who organised the banner at the football is either a fool or a knave...our Burnley buffoon"

      The thing is, if you wrap him up in these inoffensive, jocular, terms, you're able to cover over what he really is - which is, plainly & simply, a racist.

      And with all due respect, racism is not tomfoolery, or knavery, or bufoonery.

    • 29 June 2020 at 10:13am
      Marmaduke Jinks says: @ Robin Durie
      You may be right.
      But what about my other point? Should a racist, so long as he commits no crime, be allowed to earn a living?

    • 29 June 2020 at 11:16am
      Amateur Emigrant says: @ Marmaduke Jinks
      Do you need to commit a crime to bring your employer into disrepute or breach their policies on racial discrimination or commit an act of gross misconduct? I think you better have a look at the small print of your employment contract if you have one and familiarise yourself with the myriad ways in which you can get yourself sacked without breaking any laws.

    • 29 June 2020 at 1:39pm
      Marmaduke Jinks says: @ Amateur Emigrant
      Yes I am acquainted with the small print of employment contracts; it’s bloody terrifying isn’t it? The extent to which employees must suppress any expression of opinion contrary to an arbitrary ‘agreed’ standard is breathtaking. I am aware that free speech, in all places and at all times, has never been completely ‘free’, but today’s shackles seem forever to be tightening.

    • 29 June 2020 at 2:46pm
      Joe Morison says: @ Marmaduke Jinks
      Racists who express their views in public make it frightening and difficult for the minority they are attacking to work alongside them, for that alone they should be sacked. If they keep their vile opinions to themselves, they should be left alone.

    • 29 June 2020 at 3:53pm
      Marmaduke Jinks says: @ Joe Morison
      Yes, agreed

    • 30 June 2020 at 3:38pm
      bikethru says: @ Marmaduke Jinks
      Not quite so readily agreed. Does an employer own an employee? If an employee uses company time or resources for political activity, maybe discipline is in order. But outside hours? It seems fine when an employer sanctions views we abhor, such as racism. But if our own strong views fell foul of the boss, would we still think the sack was justified?

    • 30 June 2020 at 6:11pm
      M Cushman says: @ Amateur Emigrant
      If the stunt led to the employer looking at how the guy behaved at work towards BAME fellow workers and clients and found it wanting then take it through disciplinary procedures and if it is gross misconduct, sack him. Then get the employer to ask themselves why they hadn't bothered to notice this before.

      Rights at work, like human rights everywhere, belong to everyone. If you start short-circuiting them, even for the most abject offenders you put all of us at risk.. That is why we have to defend the Human Rights Act against those who would rip it up because rapists, paedophiles, illegal immigrants, red heads, chose your object of scorn, benefit from it.

      I was involved in a case where someone was accused, on extremely flimsy grounds of antisemitism far removed from the workplace. The local Conservative MP wrote to the Labour Leader of the council and the employee was sacked. The local union official was of the anti-Corby tendency and refused union support.

      It ended up at an Employment Tribunal where the dismissal was ruled unfair on every ground raised but we are still waiting for re-instatement.

      Be careful of what you wish for.

  • 27 June 2020 at 6:19pm
    freshborn says:
    I agree with everything in the article, but Gopal's post was clearly intended to be inflammatory. I'm not sure anybody could contend that the post makes any sense without significant explication. Even then, the point seems to be utterly irrelevant and intentionally provocative in a racialised way. She dug herself in deeper afterwards, posting that all right-wingers are "fragile", "racist", and have "poor reading comprehension".

    The attacks on her are not justified in any way, but she didn't start from a place of civility, and I get the impression she derives some sort of enjoyment or pride from the antagonism. I don't think it parallels "All lives matter" which is an attempt to silence people campaigning against a specific injustice for no other reason than racism.

    • 28 June 2020 at 10:52am
      holografLRB says: @ freshborn
      I, and probably a number of others, would say that Priyamvada Gopal's post makes clear sense without significant explication to all but those with poor comprehension of English or of the society we live in.

    • 29 June 2020 at 12:23pm
      Charles Evans says: @ holografLRB
      On the contrary, Gopal's post was deliberately meant to be inflammatory. It isn't a matter of reading comprehension - the lame justification that her meaning is far more complex requires an intellectual leap unjustified by what she wrote. Find a white person in the UK who holds racist preconceptions. Tell them that "White lives don't matter". What do you think that'll achieve?

      This is a serious issue with this debate - broadly, Gopal makes a good critique. Deliberately using language that she knows will polarise people isn't helpful, but actually harmful to the goals of BLM.

      If someone has an intelligent, helpful contribution to make on an issue, then make it. Deliberately trying to anger the people whose attitudes you need to change isn't going to get anyone anywhere.

  • 28 June 2020 at 8:10pm
    David Gordon says:
    I think we should not refer to Stephen Yaxley-Lennon by his nom de guerre. To quote Wikipedia, "the nom de guerre successfully hid Robinson's identity as Stephen Yaxley-Lennon and his criminal history".

    • 28 June 2020 at 9:41pm
      Marmaduke Jinks says: @ David Gordon
      Yes, quite so. No more references to Lenin, Stalin or Trotsky either I hope

    • 29 June 2020 at 7:16am
      holografLRB says: @ Marmaduke Jinks
      Or to Christ or Buddha.

    • 29 June 2020 at 10:49am
      David Gordon says: @ holografLRB
      Christ and the Buddha were not hiding from a "criminal history", and Lenin, Stalin and Trotsky are significant individuals who had sound political reasons for taking assumed names - and again, not hiding from a history of low-level crime.

    • 29 June 2020 at 1:11pm
      holografLRB says: @ David Gordon
      And my extension of the prohibition to Jesus of Nazareth and Siddhattha Gotama wa apagogical.

    • 29 June 2020 at 3:19pm
      Graucho says: @ David Gordon
      Well Stalin used to be a bank robber, though that may not be why he changed his name. He was pretty effective at hiding his contemporary high level crimes from the west of course.

    • 29 June 2020 at 9:34pm
      David Gordon says: @ Graucho
      Of course, Jugashvili was a top-class crook - are you saying that Yaxley-Lennon is a "top-class crook"? Slightly lower in the crookery pecking order I suspect.

  • 29 June 2020 at 4:36pm
    AVK says:
    Thanks for this post.

    Telling that so many of the comments refuse to focus on the threats Professor (not Ms) Gopal faced (many criminal) and the wider point sheand the post) are making. Instead, they seem most concerned about whether the white man who organized the banner deserved to lose his job. And besides, wasn't Gopal was asking for it?

    • 30 June 2020 at 5:34pm
      bikethru says: @ AVK
      I'm equivocal about sacking people for nasty political views, even racist ones, but unequivocal about the people who threatened Dr Gopal: they ought to be prosecuted.

  • 30 June 2020 at 7:29pm
    D. Sean Li says:
    Gopal's comment was deliberately inflammatory because deliberately ambiguous (all the more clearly so since Shahvisi has phrased it with precision lacking hostility).
    On social media outside the UK, it was presented without the context of this "White lives matter" stunt (indeed, I am learning of it only today), and as a demonstration of the alleged hypocrisy of academia, juxtaposed with screenshots of Cambridge's statement defending Gopal's right of self-expression, and some other uni's condemnation of its own academic's critique of BLM. The context may explain a large part of the backlash.

  • 30 June 2020 at 8:07pm
    Lesley Keay says:
    It might have been more helpful if the author had undertaken some research into the number of deaths in police custody before writing this piece. The emotive suggestion that there are "countless" deaths in in custody, and the intimation that they are all black is just not true. During 2018-19, there were 16 deaths in police custody. Of those 16, one was black. Six of the deaths involved some use of force (either by police or others) during arrest. Of the six, none were black. The data is freely available on the IPCO website. Unfortunately the majority of people who die as a result of incarceration have mental health problems, often coupled with drug and/or alcohol abuse. But unfortunately they get ignored.

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