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Priyamvada Gopal’s ‘white lives’ tweet matters. Here’s why

The Cambridge University academic is caught in an ugly controversy over her views on race and the Black Lives Matter movement

Cambridge academic Priyamvada Gopal. Courtesy: Twitter.
Cambridge academic Priyamvada Gopal. Courtesy: Twitter.

I’ll say it again. White lives don’t matter. As white lives.

With those eleven words in a tweet, the Cambridge University academic Priyamvada Gopal unleashed a storm that temporarily banished her from Twitter and Facebook. She received hundreds of abusive, racist messages dripping with misogyny and graphic threats of sexual and physical violence. Over the weekend, posters with her name reportedly appeared in Cambridge. In the subterranean internet of anonymous bulletin boards, some people posted details of what they thought was her address – erroneous, it turned out – endangering both Gopal and whoever lives at the place, besides attempting to violate her privacy. The Cambridge Constabulary, as the local police are known, are investigating the threats. Gopal has threatened legal action against those abusing her. Threatening violence and sending abusive communication is a crime in Britain.

Around the world, spontaneous protests have erupted after a police officer in the United States killed George Floyd, an unarmed black man suspected of passing off a fake $20 bill. On June 22, footballers of Burnley and Manchester City clubs took the knee in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, in their match at Manchester’s Etihad Stadium. An airplane flew by, unfurling a banner that said, ‘White Lives Matter Burnley.’ A day earlier in Reading, a town between London and Oxford, a Libyan man had gone on a stabbing spree, killing three and injuring others. Those murdered were white. White supremacists have responded to the BLM movement by saying ‘all’ lives matter or ‘white’ lives matter. Gopal is an expert in postcolonial literature and history, and her tweet was a pithy response to that backlash.

The airplane stunt was the idea of Jack Hepple, a 24-year-old welder who is a Burnley supporter. He pooled together £600 with friends for the adventure. His employer, Precision Paradigm, promptly sacked him. Burnley’s players and team management said they were ‘ashamed and embarrassed’ by the banner, and the club banned him from its matches and facilities for life.

Gopal’s tweet, saying white lives don’t matter as white lives (emphasis added) was making a broader point. As she told me in an email interview: “The original tweet was challenging the ubiquitous 'White Lives Matter' slogan and the banner flown over the Burnley stadium and saying, quite explicitly, that whiteness per se cannot be the basis on which lives matter. I also made the explicit comparison in a subsequent tweet to my Brahmin background and said we cannot say Brahmin Lives Matter in the same way that Dalit Lives Matter."

Statistics in the US and the UK show that blacks are more likely to get stopped and searched, face racial abuse, and be subjected to violence when arrested. In the US, they are sometimes killed by the police during or after arrest, are treated inhumanely in prison, and more likely to end up on the death row and get executed. Asserting that white lives matter (or also matter) ignores, or is callous about, that reality.

Gopal is no stranger to controversies. The Harvard academic Niall Ferguson called her ‘obscure’ after a famous radio debate in 2006 over the legacy of the British empire. In 2018, she had a spirited argument with the Cambridge classicist Mary Beard, who appeared to make light of the scandal at Oxfam where the aid agency was accused of covering up for sexual exploitation of Haitian victims after the 2010 earthquake. Gopal’s academic work has focused on the voices not being heard. Her recent book, Insurgent Empire, argues that not only were rebels in British colonies responsible for their own liberation, but that their activism also influenced ideas about liberty back in Britain.

Twitter is not the medium for nuance. Her tweet was misinterpreted out of ignorance or design, and a concerted campaign was mounted against Gopal, with Twitter and Facebook receiving complaints against her tweets, accusing her of hate speech. Mark Owen Jones, who teaches digital humanities at the Hamad Bin Khalifa University in Qatar, showed in a series of tweets that over two days there were 35,000 interactions with her account from 15,000 unique accounts, “much of it racist bile." Most of those accounts were pro-Brexit and pro-Trump, many of them created in June, suggesting these were artificial accounts or people joining Twitter due to a specific event.

Some committed forgery, publishing fake, hate-filled and nonsensical tweets in Gopal’s name with her photograph. Claiming she wasn’t aware of this, Sarah Vine, a columnist for the Daily Mail (who is married to Michael Gove, a senior minister in the Cabinet office), gave wings to one such tweet by retweeting it with a wry comment dripping with false modesty, which could in theory goad her more than 29,000 followers to target Gopal if they wished. When Vine learned that what she had retweeted was fake, she apologised to nobody in particular (and pointedly not to Gopal).

Gopal is not white and she is a woman, and many of the people who are itching to fight battles on Twitter are not generally kind to either. Research from Amnesty International has shown how women activists, politicians, journalists, and human rights defenders face vast amounts of abuse, with a view to silence them and force them to leave the space. Gopal is feisty and engages in arguments spiritedly. But regardless of whether one agrees with her views, she deserves protection from threats of potential violence. Disclosure: as chair of the writers in prison committee at PEN International, I support her unconditionally. I know her and we have written an article together for the Guardian. Her tone may seem too strident for some, but that misses the point she is making: that repeating ‘all lives matter’ is odd because all lives have not mattered; some lives have been dehumanised. When I asked her about nuance, she told me: “I've learned that nuance is in the mind of the reader as much as the writer: many people either understood instinctively or thought it through. Others came prepared for crude culture wars they were already fighting. One can otherwise be as nuanced in short form as in long form."

The slogan ‘Black Lives Matter’ unnerves the advantaged because it reminds them of their privilege. It triggers what the University of Washington academic Robin DiAngelo called ‘white fragility’ in 2011. In her book White Fragility, DiAngelo explained that American whites find it hard to talk about racism because they inhabit a social environment that insulates them from race-based stress. That insularity is not uniquely American. Reni Eddo-Lodge, a black British writer, turned her powerful blog into a book, Why I am No Longer Talking to White People about Race, underscoring the exasperation blacks feel over white reluctance to address their complicity in an unjust system. Reinforcing Gopal’s point, when a Dalit activist asked Twitter’s chief executive Jack Dorsey to hold aloft a banner saying ‘Smash Brahminical Patriarchy' (meaning the patriarchy, not Brahmins per se, needed to be smashed) there was backlash in India – from some upper caste Indians.

Gopal punctures British complacency about race. Britain abolished slavery before Americans did and to many, that seems enough. But the issue is far more complex. Race is an ideology constructed not by science but by politics, and its purpose is to create a hierarchy to justify economic models and political control, including colonisation. The colonial project was based on the belief that white-skinned, lighter-toned people were superior to the darker-toned, black people. Rudyard Kipling urged America to take control of the Philippines in the infamous poem, White Man’s Burden. Colonisation was often justified as a civilising mission; British schools still do not teach about the havoc colonisation caused; little is known about what British troops did in Africa and Asia; most believe that colonisation was a force of good, bringing cricket, the rule of law, railways, and the English language to the colonies – the Amritsar massacre or the Bengal famine are believed to be exceptions, if remembered at all.

Gopal has persistently criticised the normalisation of the idea of white superiority. As Nicholas Guyatt, who teaches American history at Cambridge, put it in a series of tweets in defence of Gopal, “White people have the privilege of never being defined by their race … (being white) is not and never has been a category of disadvantage." When some commentators say, of course white lives matter, they seek to reassure that what happened in the past – slavery, for example – is not the fault of this generation. This line of thinking comforts those already comfortable. What “we white people" should do, Guyatt says, is not just create more space for blacks, but interrogate “the entire system of race which has done horrific damage across centuries".

Gopal is not the first one to warn, but what she says is profound and it can’t be squeezed in 280 characters. And even if it is, the response to it can’t be a Pavlovian reflex, but one made after reflection. What Gopal said sounded shocking and it was meant to shock – so that we reflect on the world around us and dismantle the structures which perpetuate the idea that some lives matter more.

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in New York.

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