Nottingham East MP, Nadia Whittome, drew sharp criticism last week when she tweeted “Rishi Sunak as Prime Minister isn’t a win for Asian representation.” She went on to identify him as a man from extreme privilege and charged him with not being on the side of those who work for a living. The Labour party then promptly ordered her to delete the post.
As someone who thinks a lot about language and how messages are received by and influence people, I was struck by the poor communications that led to this being an incident and the missed opportunity for Whittome to share her point of view.
As I read the media coverage of this tweet deletion, I recalled Facebook’s chief operating officer Sheryl Sanberg’s 2013 book, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, and particularly the backlash and criticism that followed its publication. In the book, Sanberg aims to answer the question of why women are still underrepresented in the workforce – particularly at senior levels – and encourages women to ‘lean into’ the existing corporate structures in order to achieve the success that often eludes them.
These ideas received extensive criticism from feminists and scholars, most notably from the late Bell Hooks. In her essay, Dig Deep: Beyond Lean In, she branded Sanberg’s ideas ‘faux feminism’ for leaning into a patriarchal system that is intrinsically not built for women, as opposed to reimagining or trying to rebuild the system to be inclusive. Hooks also argued that ‘leaning in’, persevering and succeeding is easier for white, straight women from a privileged class, and that representation doesn’t necessarily take a person’s intersectionality into account.
In their respective positions, both Sanberg and Sunak represent marginalised groups in spaces that haven’t traditionally been open to them. In the most basic sense, they are both ‘wins’ for representation. However, the problem – which Hooks identifies – is that trickle-down representation doesn’t work. Getting yourself to the top of the ladder doesn’t make it easier for others who are like you to climb it, and it certainly doesn’t make it easier for people who experience even greater barriers. When we look at the intersectionality of Sanberg and Sunak, it is hard to deny that wealth and class have played a part in their successes.
We live in a society where we rightly say we want our boardrooms and our parliaments to be inclusive spaces where everyone can participate, and we need diverse participation in order to solve big problems and deliver the most innovative ideas. Therefore, representation is important, and we should celebrate the first prime minister of colour. However, it is equally important to ask – what is he going to do to break down barriers for people of colour and particularly for those who are also women, queer, trans, or for those who experience classism or disability?
When I read Whittome’s tweet, I felt I had an idea of what she might have been trying to say, but her communication was so poor that she only managed to push people away – which is a shame given her experience as a young, Asian woman in politics is important to share. As happens far too often in the world of politics and social media, her words delivered confrontation not conversation, and anything positive she could have contributed to the public discourse on systemic barriers and the failure of trickle-down representation has been lost. She failed to influence anyone and eroded her credibility, all over an ill-advised tweet.
Perhaps Elon Musk is saving humanity by buying Twitter, and maybe he will install some sort of regret-proof filter.