Is this the UK's first post-race election? I posed this question first to my cousin, and regretted asking it almost immediately. She told me she went to a Liberal Democrat campaign dinner recently, attended by Nick Clegg, only to be asked by a well-meaning party member: "So, how long have you been here?"
My cousin, who is mixed-race and was born and raised in the UK, at first misunderstood the question. When she finally realised that the assumption, due to her colour, was that she must be a recent immigrant, she replied that she had never lived anywhere else.
"Oh", the party member replied. "And do you like it here?"
Welcome to the UK, 2010. This is not a post-racial society, despite jubilant claims to the contrary at every sign of progress.
There has been progress, however limited. Since the historic election of four minority MPs in 1987 – when Labour's Bernie Grant, Keith Vaz and Diane Abbott and Paul Boateng all entered parliament – the number of minority MPs has risen, to 15 after the 2005 election.
Thirteen of those were Labour, historically the party with the strongest connection to the black electorate. The Fabian Society estimates that the number of new minority MPs in Labour-held seats is likely to rise by a further five this election.
But the most visible change has been in the Conservative party – which is now fielding 44 candidates from minority backgrounds, with estimates that between four and 10 are standing in winnable seats.
"This is the biggest breakthrough for black communities in British politics," said Simon Woolley, national co-ordinator of Operation Black Vote. "There is a record number of candidates from minority backgrounds, and they really do have the potential to shake up this centuries-old institution. Not just internally, but externally – by telling our community this belongs to us too."
The presence of minority MPs in the palace of Westminster is progress that any minority person who achieves a level of success recognises. All the UK's elite institutions – Oxbridge, the bar, city boardrooms, senior positions in the media – are still, to repeat the phrase of BBC director general Mark Thompson – "hideously white". To be an ethnic minority person in any of these institutions is to stand out, which also means that more is required to succeed, and less is required to fail.
If this holds true throughout the establishment, then there is a particular symbolism surrounding diversity in the House of Commons. I was only five years old when Bernie Grant was elected in 1987, but his decision to wear a West African bubu for his first state opening of parliament still has legendary status for my generation – an audacious challenge to the unspoken rule that if, as a black person, you do get in, you do so quietly and gratefully.
It is hard now to imagine the kind of overtly racist taunts Grant faced in the House of Commons. In his biography he describes being told by a Tory MP during a debate on immigration, that black MPs were "sycophantic, subservient and grovelling, always coming to white people with their begging bowls".
But a subtler resistance to the reality of a diverse parliament remains. Labour MP Dawn Butler still tells the story of being directed to the Commons's public entrance, in the building where she has worked as an MP for five years.
Even by these standards, the Tories have not had a reputation for an enlightened stance on diversity. I barely remember the 1992 election, when the Tory candidate for Cheltenham, John Taylor, lost what should have been a safe seat amid racist abuse from local party members, but the episode has nevertheless left a residual scepticism in my mind about the commitment to diversity amongst the rank and file of the party 20 years on. Others who better remember those events are scornful of Cameron's "Obama army" – as the Daily Mail described it – as an attempt to cash in on the new-found benefits of appearing diverse.
One black Tory candidate told me – off the record – of a persistent pressure to appear in photoshoots when they would rather be out on the doorstep, while some opponents are scathing. "What Cameron is doing boasting of diversity in his party is laughable," said Neville Watson, an independent candidate for Tottenham, north London. "The Conservatives think it's very clever to manipulate the minds of people with these black candidates, but I remember the racism of the past – they are not fooling anyone by putting up these candidates now."
But there is no denying that the Tories have upped their game on race. Journalists for Afro-Caribbbean, Asian and Muslim publications say this is the first election where they have been given access to the party leader, and even the arrival of a dedicated press officer, who now monitors slip-ups by the other parties on race, has been welcomed.
"All the parties have played the race card in this election; they're all guilty of using race to get our votes," said black journalist and broadcaster Dotun Adebayo. "Before, the Conservatives didn't bother with us, and now they're using the black media in the way they use all other media. That represents progress."
Even some of the Tories' most vociferous opponents welcome the fact the party now seems serious about winning the ethnic minority vote. "I think it's entirely healthy that the Conservatives want to reflect the country they seek to represent," said Chuka Umunna, Labour candidate for Streatham. "It's in all our interests that all of the political parties are putting forward candidates who look like modern Britain."
"It's a question of critical mass – the more the better," said Diane Abbott, one of the victors in the historic 1987 election, and the Labour MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington. "Not that one expects a lot from Tory candidates on race, but ethnic minority candidates are still part of the process that changes the face of politics on race."
"On the doorstep, I'm finding that ethnic minorities really see the Conservatives as a party for everyone," said Kemi Adegoke, Tory candidate for Dulwich and West Norwood in south London. "Some of my colleagues, like Shaun Bailey, have become household names and the stereotype of us being a party for the rich and privileged has finally been broken."
But for me, and many other black voters, changing the face of politics is a necessary but not sufficient step towards change. Some of the black MPs who have been in power under Labour demonstrated clearly that not all minority politicians will represent the interests of the communities that elected them. And, unlike the 1987 election, where identity politics served an urgent purpose in the face of palpable racism and policy-entrenched inequality, minority voters are no longer aligned to a cohesive set of "minority issues".
"The black community is no longer homogenous, and that is a good thing," Woolley argues. "But there are issues that are of community concern: race, inequality within education, within unemployment and the criminal justice system. The sophisticated minority vote will be asking which of the candidates and which parties will effectively address these issues."
In this respect, there is a confusing mixed-message in the three main parties' approach. The higher numbers of minority candidates suggest that these are political parties serious about inclusion and representation. But the debate about policy sends the opposite signal. Only the Liberal Democrats have any substantial policy designed to tackle inequality, such as on the DNA database (on which people from ethnic minorities are substantially over-represented), immigration rules and race discrimination in employment.
Although Labour recently produced landmark legislation on equality, there is no mention of future proposals in the party's manifesto. The Tory manifesto references civil partnerships, marriage, and helping disabled people, but nothing on race equality or discrimination.
Meanwhile none of the three party leaders have addressed the specific concerns among minority communities about cuts in public sector jobs and spending, issues that affect those groups disproportionately throughboth the delivery of services, and by their much higher levels representation in public-sector employment.
"One man's public sector cut is another man's lifeline, and thousands of black and Asian heads of household are facing losing their jobs," said Abbott. "There needs to be more debate about how public-sector cutbacks will be a double whammy for minority communities."
Despite the frenzy about "Cleggmania" after the leaders' debate, many ethnic minority voters increasingly felt like outsiders listening in. The tone was clearly and deliberately pitched at middle England. Where were the references to the policies that disproportionately affect minority communities? Where were the positive references to diversity and equality? Where, even, were the black members of the audience? Cameron's single use of the phrase "black man" did more to alienate minority voters than if he had said nothing at all, and the debate about immigration fed into the politics of fear.
"I found the aspect of using immigration in the negative to woo votes nauseating and a step backwards," said Wooley. "What the black electorate is going to be looking for in the final leadership debate is leadership – the courage to tackle difficult challenges, and ensure that you are inclusive at the cost of alienating cheap votes."
Instead, the leaders' debates have produced a love-affair with the Liberal Democrats that has barely paused to question the party's record on diversity. Although popular with Muslim voters in many constituencies, due in large part to its stance against the war in Iraq, and in spite of its mini-manifesto on equality, the Liberal Democrats are the only party whose MPs are likely to be entirely white. Of the 36 Liberal Democrat candidates from minority backgrounds, not a single one has been fielded for a winnable seat.
The Lib Dems' poor record on minority representation has been noted by minority voters, but so has the media's failure to reflect those concerns. The press coverage of the election has left many minority voters feeling that, at its highest level, politics is still a conversation between white men in suits.
Not only are the three leaders white men, but so are the journalists conducting the debates. The fact that there has been an incremental increase in the numbers of minority journalists over recent years becomes a surreal proposition watching election coverage.
BBC radio station 5 Live, for example, has decided not to have any of its black broadcasters covering election night, but last Monday invited Nick Griffin as a guest, in which he took phone calls from listeners and several supporters.
I find this profoundly depressing – but the important question is what impact it has on participation in the election among minority voters, something which is difficult to measure. On the one hand the reactionary debate about immigration, and the prospect of BNP success could provoke more minority people to exercise their vote. Operation Black Vote – which works to increase the numbers of minority people participating in elections – says it has had record numbers of queries over recent weeks about voter registration.
But the Electoral Commission estimates that while Asian voters are equally – or more likely – to vote than white people, potential voters of black African descent have remained the least likely to be registered, with more than 30% not on the electoral register.
It is difficult to say what difference it would make to the black community if there were more black MPs. Class is a factor here too, and there are mixed views about whether the number of minority candidates in this election is undermined by the fact that many have similarly elite educations. Mobilisation happens from the bottom up, and it's hard to imagine that privileged black MPs descending on to the doorsteps of black people in deprived communities would represent fundamental change.
On the other hand, the relationship between race and class is more subtle than that, and politics is about aspiration.
"I'm weary of people who are dismissive of me as a black person because I have a degree," said Abbott. "I have experienced this all my working life. I went to Cambridge but people never stop to think that my father left school at 14.
"Underlying that is the notion that you are not a real black person if you are educated and articulated – that is something I will always push against."
"Why do we always have to be street to be accepted?" asked Adebayo. "The reason we have made progress is not because the white elite gave it to us. The black elite pushed down the doors."
The doors are coming down; there is a genuine sense of progress, with more minority candidates than ever before, and the power of the minority vote to determine the outcome – on one estimate – of 120 constituencies. Maybe therefore, it's the obsession with the party leaders and their wives which is responsible for the one question I keep on hearing: why does this election feel so white?
The guy at the top is David Lammy, my MP. Dude is awesome, as was his predecessor, and I <3 my constituency for voting them both in.