“It is watching student movements and debates that makes the work I do worth it”, Gopal tells me. Earlier this summer, English Faculty Professor Priyamvada Gopal fell victim to a twitter storm and online hate campaign for her tweet: “White lives don’t matter. As white lives.” Over Zoom, the enthusiastic Gopal openly discusses the recent controversy - and talked to me about the rise of the authoritarian right, decolonizing the curriculum and student activism.

“The point is that whiteness should not be the criterion on which lives are made to matter,” Gopal says. 

“The point is that currently all lives do not matter. There is a racial hierarchy in the valuing of life and white lives are given more importance. When we say Black Lives Matter, we are pointing out that black lives have not been given sufficient value. When we say White Lives Matter, we are giving them extra value.”

The Professor describes the way her tweet was taken out of context – its first sentence, “white lives don’t matter”, being quoted without the second half, “as white lives”. She also says a right-wing group created a fake tweet under her name “literally calling for a race war”. 

“This fake tweet was very lazily done”, she tells me. “It was a quotation from Stalin talking about the kulaks. They replaced kulaks with whites. So, it reported me to be calling on God knows who to launch an offensive against whites.” The fake tweet circulated on conservative media such Breitbart and made its way to various 4chan threads. This Stalin-paraphrase was then picked up by the Daily Mail and published in a column by Sarah Vine. Vine withdrew her column when the tweet’s fake nature was exposed.

“Whiteness is an ideological and cultural formation.”

Another of Gopal’s tweets that sparked outrage, “abolish whiteness”, she admits, was meant to echo the “great scholar’s Noel Ignatieff’s work”. Ignatieff, a white American academic, worked on the ways in which the Irish progressively became “whites” in the US and integrated the dominant culture. She did not think this tweet calling for the abolition of whiteness, which is an “ideological and cultural formation”, would be received as “deeply controversial”. Gopal pointed out that when a white scholar published an article entitled abolish whiteness earlier this year, it went unnoticed.

Scholar Marc Owens Jones charted the hate tweets Gopal was a victim of.

The Professor makes parallels with her own background too. “It should be noted that I am Brahmin – the most privileged class in India. And I equally state that Brahmin lives don’t matter, as Brahmin lives. And Brahminess, as a system of racial hierarchy, should be abolished”, she affirms.

Six hours after her tweets on white lives and whiteness, hate mail – including death threats and racist slurs – crashed her email server. The day after, posters with her picture and affiliation appeared throughout Cambridge, which she argues were “probably enticements of some sort”.

And though the hate campaign neither scared nor intimidated her, she says it has made her “cognisant of the relationship between social media and the rise of the authoritarian right”. Gopal said she watched “disinformation being made in front of my eyes and being shared by people with large and powerful platforms, with no control about what was being said about me.”


Mountain View

Cambridge Police investigating threats against Professor Gopal after racist posters left on King’s Parade

The day after hate mail made her inbox crash, the University issued a statement supporting the right of its academics to “express their lawful opinions which others might find controversial”. Some said this show of support was insufficient given the amount of abuse Gopal was receiving. “I am grateful for any expression of support”, Gopal told Varsity. “My past experience of controversy is of zero support.”

In a past interview with George the Poet, Gopal said it had taken her 15 years to begin talking about race at Cambridge. When I ask her what pushed her to start that conversation, she tells me that “in the last four years, race became an issue on campus, brought up largely but not only by students of colour. There I began to feel there was a constituency with whom I could ally myself. Without any constituency, speaking out only means being considered the madwoman in the attic”.

“Scholarship should be available as a resource for activists. But I do absolutely not see myself as an activist.”

In fact Gopal argues students and young people inspired her most recent book, Insurgent Empire. Her aim was to nothing less than to redraft the narrative around colonization and show how imperialism was criticized in its own times. She hopes one result will be to immunise student activists against counter accusations claiming they are “not cognisant of history because colonization was okay in its own times”. 

“For instance”, she continues, “I point out in the book that Rhodes was fiercely criticized in his own times, and he was refused an honorary doctorate by Oxford dons. So, I wanted to show that students criticizing Rhodes at Oxford were actually part of a long tradition of criticism, stretching back to imperial Britain”. Cecil Rhodes was an 19th Century businessman, politician and staunch imperialist who oversaw the creation of the British colony Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe and Zambia.

She says current student movements give her hope. She has seen a revival of student politics since “the fees protests in 2010 in which Cambridge students were very active”. She says she would never define herself as an activist, but she hopes her scholarship can hope shape the public debate and inform activist movements.

But with so much knowledge and passion for history, why specialise in English literature? Gopal answers “that too has something to do with the history of Empire. Brahmins were chosen by the colonizers to serve as interpreters between the British and those they ruled over, and so English was passed on from generation to generation in my Brahmin family”. She insists that “it is not at all unusual for upper-caste Indian women to study English, as it is also viewed as a subject suitable for women”.


But her choice was a political one, too. “I must have felt”, she says, “that choosing the humanities would leave me scope to think about social and political issues. Scope for experimentation and youthful rebellion”.

“When I arrived at Cambridge, there was zero awareness about race and Empire. So the only way was forward. I would say the conversation has opened, but it still has a long way to go.”

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