Musa Okwonga explores race, privilege and the vestiges of Empire in his Eton College memoir writes Tomiwa Owolade
A significant part of the culture wars in Britain today is a reckoning with our past: removing statues of historical figures associated with slavery; ‘decolonising’ the school curriculum by offering a more diverse range of authors to study.
What these demands speak to, more than anything else, is greater inclusion. Racial minorities want to be included in Britain’s national story.
They can’t, however, if this story continues to obscure the pernicious legacies of colonialism and the slave trade. Only an honest reckoning with the past can ensure the necessary mutual respect between Britain’s establishment and its racial minorities.
Musa Okwonga, in his memoir about his time at Eton College, One of Them, finds himself torn between inclusion and alienation. He recounts his schooldays with studied ambivalence.
Okwonga clearly enjoyed many aspects of his time at Eton. Nevertheless, there remains the lingering impression of an outsider. He is the son of Ugandan refugees. His father died when he was four, and he was raised by a single mother in a town just outside London.
When he was a child, his mum instructed him: ‘If you’re black you need to work twice as hard to get a half of what white people get.’ At Eton, he was likewise torn about his career options.
The book starts with him considering whether or not to attend a 20th-anniversary school reunion. He doesn’t want to attend, and this is partly out of shame: ‘My schooling was a ticket to prosperity, and yet I ripped it to shreds.’
As the eldest son of refugees, he felt a particular responsibility to follow a career path that would make him rich. This is why, despite his love of literature, he chose to study law at university. He later got a place at a law firm in the City, but he quit in order to be a poet, journalist, and musician.
He spent some of his time in London organising poetry events, and now lives in Berlin; he chose the bohemian lifestyle over wealth accumulation. But the most striking thing about the book is that, despite his ostensibly unconventional career path, Okwonga remains very much an Etonian. He often refers to Eton as ‘my school’.
There is also a sense in which his love of Eton is consistent with his itinerant lifestyle.
‘The school,’ he writes, ‘has the same quality that will later make me fall in love with several major cities, which is that it is bottomless; I can lose myself in it.’ Eton is often pictured as a repressive and confining environment. But the impression Okwonga gives is of dizzying liberation.
He loves Eton like he loves Berlin: a place where you can realise your fantasies. His adaptation was seamless. As a teenager, his adoption of the English public school voice was unforced. (It’s also lasting; he writes that he has retained it in adulthood.) Having put on a uniform every day that ‘many men only wear once in their lives’, he notes that, now, ‘when I put on a business suit for work or any formal occasion, I look as relaxed as if I’m wearing a pair of pyjamas’.
At Eton he was a prefect, chosen to be among the select cadre of pupils picked not through a democratic process, but by the prefects in the year above. In one striking passage, after he has had dinner with his schoolmates, Okwonga writes: ‘I briefly wished I had allowed myself to enjoy it a bit more, to dissolve myself in that world for a short while, to indulge in its traditions.’
What makes this odd is that the very possibility to ‘dissolve’ oneself was what he most admired in Eton, and what he seemed to take most advantage of. He was not only a prefect; he was also a passionate member of Eton’s sporting teams, and a prominent member of several of its clubs and societies.
Why this tension? Because Okwonga is also an Etonian in a deeper sense. ‘Visible effort,’ he writes, ‘is mocked at my school – the trick is to achieve without seeming to try.’ The instinct for suppressing success and achievement, earned or unearned, is a particularly British sensibility.
It is often used, Okwonga suggests, as a mask for vicious competitiveness.
When writing about the tension between an apparently coy Britain and the large empire it possessed, he writes: ‘This apparent bashfulness hides a ferociously competitive spirit.’ Although racism certainly still exists in British society, the country has made progress when it comes to representation of, and opportunity for, people from ethnic minority backgrounds.
The educational achievements of British Indians, British Chinese and British West Africans are well established. One in 10 MPs now comes from an ethnic minority background. (The ethnic minority population in Britain is 14 per cent, but MPs tend to be of a certain age, and a significant chunk of ethnic minority people are under 30.) Some 46 per cent of doctors are from an ethnic minority background – many of them British Asians.
Of course, there is still much more to be done; but progress has clearly been made in terms of education, employment, and greater representation in politics. It’s still not difficult to find a flagwaving jingoist ready to proclaim the excellence of the British Empire.
But many people, Okwonga argues, don’t pay enough attention to its history, perhaps out of embarrassment. This attitude means we can’t properly confront the horrors of the slave trade and colonialism.
But it has another consequence. Just like Okwonga, many people demanding measures for greater racial inclusivity exhibit twin tendencies, which are profoundly British: to understate how much has already been achieved, and to loudly express embarrassment at the perceived shortfall.
The achievements, however – like the wealth and social capital of many Old Etonians – continue to accumulate.