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Questions of identity

Husain Husaini | 15:39 UK time, Monday, 30 July 2007

What is a "coconut?"

BBC Asian Network logoIt's perhaps a new term to you, but when we went on the street and talked to British Asians about their concerns, it was something that came up time and time again. "Coconut" is used by Asian people to describe other Asians who act or think like white people. The idea is that you may be brown on the outside but on the inside you are white - it can be used teasingly or it can be a deep insult.

We decided to do some more rigorous research about "coconuts" and a number of other issues of identity for the Asian Network's "Asian Nation" project. We commissioned a poll from ICM who asked Asians if they would describe themselves as a coconut. Perhaps not surprisingly for a term that is undoubtedly derogatory only 12 per cent did. But a third said that they thought you needed to BE a coconut to get on in British society. To find more about our poll have a look here.

If you listen to the Asian Network you will know that the issues of identity crop up again and again as first, second, and now a third generation of people born and brought up here wrestle with their cultural identity. They all have to balance their cultural heritage with the influences they get from modern day British society.

The Asian Network project is our contribution to the BBC's commemoration of the 60th Anniversary of partition. Other parts of the BBC are looking closely at the events of 60 years ago and their effect on India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. We felt that our focus should be on our British Asian audience and we've asked them to send their thoughts on their lives now to be put up on our special website, which we've launched today.


  • 1.
  • At 04:40 PM on 30 Jul 2007,
  • Nigel Doran wrote:

So what exactly does 'white' mean? You don't explain. What does being 'Asian' mean? I have no idea.To truly know what a 'coconut' is, then those two identities have to be defined as clearly as possible.
Why is it an insult to be white? I truly want to know! Are people of Asian backgrounds' identities so fragile that to be likened to the majority of people in this country is considered offensive? A good look at that standpoint would make an interesting topic, and would involve more of the population.
Over to you, Asian Network.

  • 2.
  • At 11:54 AM on 31 Jul 2007,
  • towcestarian wrote:

I for one find the term "coconut" to be unpleasantly racist in nature, and it is rather telling that the BBC seem to accept its use by an ethnic minority without question.

If the same word was being used by non-asians to describe asians, it would be lambasted by the media-liberal BBC. The fact that is is being used by asians as something of an insult is no less vile and racist. Unless of course, like the BBC, you think that only "whites" (whatever that means) can be racist.

  • 3.
  • At 01:40 PM on 31 Jul 2007,
  • David wrote:

So 'acting white' is something massive numbers of asians consider bad? Is that not an outrageously racist statement? You don't seem concerned that it may be deemed offensive to anybody.

How do 'white people' act anyway? If you are actually talking about the way people generally behave in society then we have a problem as mainstream British values are now being defined by asians as 'white' values.

It seems asians are increasingly turning away from the rest of us, putting two fingers up and saying 'what are you going to do about it?'

  • 4.
  • At 03:35 PM on 31 Jul 2007,
  • John wrote:

I think that it is unhelpful that you use the term 'asian' without clarification. I have not heard the term 'coconut' in common use amongst my friends/co-workers of British/Indian ethnicity. When you report that 'asians' use this terminology, do you actually mean pakistani youths? In the current climate I think it is very important that you do not falsely associate large numbers of very hardworking/successful people with attitudes and language of a failing minority.

  • 5.
  • At 01:41 PM on 01 Aug 2007,
  • John wrote:

Of course 'coconut' is a term that has been used by SOME elements of the black community for many years. Usually it is only used by people who are failing - no qualifications, no job etc. The black people I know who worked hard at school, got qualifications, got a good job never seem to use it - it is other people using it to describe them. I always think it smacks of racism - the idea that if someone works hard and does well they are like a white person and that is a bad thing. I think it's sad that SOME 'asians' in Britain want to adopt attitudes so similar to other people who have failed.

  • 6.
  • At 10:15 PM on 01 Aug 2007,
  • Alex Murray wrote:

Coconut, a new term? It's been in use in and against the West Indian community as an insult for years, as far as I can remember. The sort of person it might be applied to was sent up in the character of Michael in Desmond's on Channel 4 back in the 90s.

It's been used as a insult for years against mixed race kids and anyone who is seen to have betrayed their "roots". It was a slur commonly levelled at Paul Boateng when he first came to prominence.

Back then it was "bounty bar" as often as it was "coconut". It's in use in just about every non-white community in exactly the same way, just witness the number of entries on urban dictionary for it with a similar description:

So to recap: it's not just an Asian thing, it's common to any non-white community where it's seen as anathema to dare to step outside of the accepted cultural norms.

  • 7.
  • At 08:31 AM on 05 Aug 2007,
  • Ned Langer, England wrote:

I think the basic 'pigeon holing' of a huge amount of people is a blunt tool in the first place. The term 'British Asians' is a very crude classification and is out of step with a huge swathe of society. The majority of 'white' people would class them selves as English, Scottish, or Welsh. To understand the 'Asian' community the clasifications have to be more acute. For instance I,m certain that feeback from the more intergrated Anglo Indian community would be far differnt from that of the Scottish Bangledeshi community etc.

The first post is correct.

To be something you have to define what it is.

There is no such thing as a static indian or british culture. It is always changing and noone can even agree on what it means to be asian or british.

All of these concepts are arbitrary and have no meaning whatsoever.

The asian community need to stop being drones, blindly obeying their parents or their friends wishes out of fear or peer pressure- stop accepting definitions of Indian culture and define your own.

If your DNA shows you to be Indian. You are Indian - that is all that matters.

Everyone should be themselves and question everything you think is absolute.

Sex is natural. Relationships are natural. Asian society needs to wake up and take responsibility for raising a whole generation of oppressed teenagers and young adults.

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