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What do you mean when you call someone a coconut?

20 Apr , 2016  

By  -  
Amit is the co-editor of Consented

A couple of weeks ago we published an article entitled What does it mean to call someone a freshie?, an attempt at picking apart the term and exploring why people use it. The flip side of this is a term that many ethnic minorities will have heard: coconut. If being a freshie is to be un-assimilated and have a thick accent then to be a coconut is the polar opposite. A coconut is someone who is seen to have assimilated too much, to be brown on the outside and white on the inside. Urban dictionary provides the following useful description:


As someone of South Asian descent who grew up in London it often felt like I was a paki to white people but a coconut to brown people, I was incapable of finding a safe middle ground. Being brown enough for South Asian people, yet white enough to avoid being termed a paki seemed to be impossible. Of course, I have since learnt that attempting to ever be white enough for white people is an impossible task, even if we’re constantly told it’s attainable and desirable.

Quote unquote coconuts are people guilty of having assimilated too much. They’ve rejected their own culture in favour of the dominant one: British culture. The term is an insult and one that many people of colour will have had directed at them whilst living in the West. The term is is used as a way to attack people of an ethnic group. That cannot be denied. But those using the term are not guilty of a form of racism or anything of that nature, even if they are in one way or another telling people how to live because of the colour of their skin.

It is far too easy for right wing commentators (who only become champions of anti-racism when it is a person of colour they are attacking) to jump on the term coconut and shake their heads in disapproval. It is in best interest for everyone to be a coconut, given that these people tend to look down on any non-Western cultures and can help reinforce a sense of Western cultural superiority.

But the term coconut, rather than being seen as a form of racism, should be viewed as part of a broader attempt at cultural self defence and viewed within the relevant colonial context. In a post-colonial world in which the dominant global culture, one of whiteness, has been spread aggressively, alternative ways of living are under attack. Western culture has come at the expense of other cultures, not alongside them.

During the colonial period people of colour were persistently told that their way of living was barbaric and inferior. One of the underlying missions of the Empire was a “civilizing” one. Crass pseudo-science was used to back up an idea of white racial superiority and the dominance of western culture today represents a subtle continuation of this.

South Asian culture (in this writer’s experience) has never been viewed as cool or desirable in the West. Instead it’s routinely pushed to the margins with only certain aspects been cherry picked via cultural appropriation and even in this context these aspects are only seen as cool when donned by white people.

If being called a freshie is an insult that plays into colonial racial ideas, then calling someone a coconut is in many ways a defensive rebuttal to this. South Asians, as noted, have struggled to carve out cultural space for themselves in the West. The benefits attached to shedding ones’ own cultural heritage and adopting Western cultural norms are undeniable. More than a third of South Asian’s polled in 2007 agreed that to succeed in the UK they needed to be a coconut.

For immigrant communities in the UK this is particularly true. Attempts to hold onto your own culture lead to attacks from the right for “failing to fit in” and claims of communities “isolating” themselves. Pressure to conform and assimilate is huge with your own native language only to be spoken at home. English, as was the case in the Empire, is always to be spoken in public.

Nigel Farage (married to a German) famously bemoaned the fact that parts of Britain “are like a foreign land” because he heard people on trains speaking other languages! What a prospect!

Those who use the term coconut shouldn’t be regarded as being responsible for any form of racism, even if the insult is misguided. Being a coconut is in many ways forced upon South Asians because of a climate of subtle racism that beats down on other cultures.

The real cause for such terms is the hegemonic nature of whiteness within our globalized world. An increasing emphasis on Western culture has led to a devaluing and undermining of South Asianness. Any attempts to cling on to this and bemoan “coconuts” who do not speak their mother tongue and have little connection to the sub-continent need to be grounded in this context.

South Asians, or any ethnic group, are not to blame for the way in which they assimilate or not. Those who are to blame are the people who force a dominant culture upon everyone else, part of a broader theme of cultural genocide that came out of the colonial era.

The terms “freshie” and “coconut” reflect the difficulties of navigating a country where you are not part of the dominant culture; a culture which is dependent on the destruction of our own. Calls of multiculturalism are nothing more than a smoke screen; all people of colour living in the UK know that their culture can only ever be secondary, and inferior, to British culture (whatever that is).

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