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The Issue Is Not Kenya: An Open Letter to Boris Johnson

Dear Mayor Johnson,

I think you know why I’m writing.

Over the weekend, you penned a piece suggesting that my president, one Barack Obama, is against the former British Empire because he is half-Kenyan, and that this is why he wants your country to remain in the European Union and not, as you are urging, to vote for a “Brexit,” which you say would restore your country to its former position of economic power.

There is a lot to unpack here. However, much of this is, as you say in your piece, your own country’s business—your luggage, if you will (although it’s fine if you won’t), so what I will focus on is this: I spent a couple of years in your fair country—in fact, at your tony alma mater, with its balls and formal dinners and correct methods for passing cheese plates and port. And I moved back home just in time to see my own country enter the ever-interesting 2016 election cycle. So I feel that I can say with some perspective that your comment is not the shocking one-off some would like us to believe. It’s common classism disguised as national pride. By which I mean that our countries—yours and mine, Mister Mayor—are, in past and present alike, steeped in both socioeconomic and racial inequality. And defenses offered of countries’ racist (calling imperialism “racist” isn’t politically correct; just correct) pasts allow those making them to do nothing about the racial and socioeconomic holdovers thereof.

Take, for example, the controversy over the Cecil Rhodes statue at Oxford’s Oriel College. The Oxford Union, of which you, during your late boyhood days, were president, voted to remove it; Oriel College decided to leave it standing, but with a “clear historical context to explain why it is there.” Now, Cecil Rhodes was a highly influential historical figure, responsible for what is arguably the world’s most prestigious scholarship fund. Unfortunately, he set up said prestigious scholarship fund for the express purpose of perpetuating the “colonial project” (Rhodes wanted the whole world united under the Anglo-Saxon race, which he believed the “first race in the world”) and, oh, also laid the groundwork for apartheid and the Second Boer War. The general argument of those who would have the statue removed is that it has no place on the campus of a global university that seeks to have a racially, socioeconomically, and intellectually diverse population. The general argument against removing the statue is that people in the present should focus not on the past, but on the here and now.

Except that I'm not sure the donors who threatened to write Oriel College out of their wills if the Rhodes statue were removed want to improve the here and now, just as I’m not sure you want to make Great Britain greater for more Britons. Because the donors, like you, former member of the elite Bullingdon Club that you are, are the beneficiaries of an incredibly class-based system, one in which half of the Cabinet went to Oxford or Cambridge and over thirty percent of new members of Parliament went to private schools (as opposed to seven percent of the adult population). Now, to have the well-educated in positions of power would be a fine and mighty thing, but students from fee-paying secondary schools are twice as likely to attend one of your country’s elite universities, and five times as likely to attend Oxford. You, Mister Mayor, had pathways to prosperity and power. Most in your country, as in my country, do not.

There are ways that you could change this. To focus, as Rhodes’s defenders suggest, on improving the present. To tangibly make life better for your citizens.  You could change your elite university admittance policies for undergraduates such that they’re not based on interviews for which one has to be properly prepped for years. You could consider what it means for students that elite university towns have some of the highest rent in the country. You could rethink giving up on your efforts to get more students from poorer backgrounds into the schools and universities that feed into positions of power.

Or you could distract from the issue of rampant classism that makes so much so unfair for so many with a campaign built on xenophobia—a campaign that blames immigrants for all of the above inequalities—led by individuals who know better. Such as yourself.

I enjoyed my time in your country. I enjoy my time in my country, too. But I also thought there and think here that you—with your lofty education and bike riding and book writing and coolly uncombed hair—know better than this. And should be better than this, too.

The shorter version is that you’re an elitist pretender and that political parties on both sides of the Atlantic are filled with clowns turning phrases just like yours.

All best,

Emily

Author:

Emily Tamkin is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Previously, she was the associate editor at New America. Her writing has appeared in The Economist and Slate, among other publications. She received her bachelor's in Russian Literature from Columbia and her master's in Russian and East European Studies from Oxford. She has conducted independent research on the topic of Soviet dissidence in Moscow, Tbilisi, and, as a Fulbright grantee, in Bremen, Germany.