Resisting Whiteness or Resisting Racism?

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Would you believe that here in our country – and it’s 2019, remember – an event is being held today where a group of people are being told they cannot ask questions from the floor of the meeting and are being prevented from entering a particular safe space room at the event due to the colour of their skin?

Yes, that’s what we have come to. The University of Edinburgh is allowing a meeting today called Resisting Whiteness. Got that, folks?

Here’s a thought. Two first year students, Angus and Morag of Glasgow, who worked hard and got their places at Edinburgh through a ‘widening social inclusion’ programme, want to organise a meeting later in the week at the same site. Their meeting is called Resisting Blackness. Shall we encourage their application to hold this meeting and see what happens? No doubt the Boys in Blue will be knocking on their doors and arresting them for hate speech as fast as a self-identified oppressed person can shout ‘racism!’ and dial 999.

Not only is this Resisting Whiteness meeting in Edinburgh being held today, but it is the second one of its kind. Apparently the ‘Resisting Whiteness Collective’ held its inaugural event last year ‘to understand the importance of anti-racist action in the UK, and to facilitate radical organizing.’

This year they plan to ‘explore…how has austerity has affected crucial resources for women and gender non-conforming people of colour, and what are the interpersonal struggles that exist within these indispensable organisations? What abolitionist methods, outlooks and tactics are currently challenging existing systems of criminalisation, incarceration and detention? What does it mean to be a queer and/or trans person of colour in a society that frequently does not want to see us?’

The organisers apparently planned to allow only ‘people of colour’ to ask questions from the floor. How the University chose to approve the event when this was clear beats me. A blurb about the event (which appears to have been removed from the event’s website) said: ‘We will therefore not be giving the microphone to white people during the Q&As, not because we don’t think white people have anything to offer to the discussion, but because we want to amplify the voices of people of colour. If you are a white person with a question, please share it with a member of the committee or our speakers after the panel discussion.’

That’s an interesting approach. But it gets better. Details were also given to explain why white people had been originally barred from one of the ‘safe spaces’ for people to retreat to ‘if they feel overwhelmed/overstimulated or uncomfortable’. ‘The Braid room is a safe space for only people of colour, and the Cheviot room is available for anyone who needs it.’

After concerns were raised (by whom, I wonder), officials at the University of Edinburgh ‘expressed our concerns to them about certain aspects of the format of the event and they are revising their ‘safe space’ policy for the conference as a result.’ Presumably this means that distressed white attendees can now take refuge in both ‘safe space’ rooms rather than just in one. But no mention of the revision of the non-white questions from the floor.

Why should we be surprised by any of this? It has become more and more apparent that UK public discourse, led by the media, politicians, ‘activists’ and assorted other noise-makers, operates on a tacit acceptance that racism against white people gets a free pass. It seems that our vocal ‘leaders’ – self-appointed or elected – are either so blinded by their ideology, or so dim, that they don’t realise just how out of touch with the average man and woman in the street their view is.

Racism is wrong. Most reasonable people agree with this. But now we can’t even discuss racism or pass comment on it without being called racist. Worse, anti-white racism is allowed to go unchallenged.  Racism has to work both ways.  People can no longer expect preferential treatment – or disadvantaging treatment – based on the colour of their skin.

Just yesterday a large number of black and ethnic minority public figures and journalists signed an open letter to the BBC, criticising it for finding that the BBC presenter Naga Munchetty had breached BBC editorial guidelines by her impartiality over comments she made about some of President Trump’s words. Apparently the signatories believe they have a right to dictate the aspects of society and culture that the BBC can be impartial about. In fact, they ‘demanded’ that the BBC revisit its decision against Munchetty. Because of the colour of her skin. Interesting.

The open letter in the Guardian stated: ‘Racism is not a valid opinion on which an “impartial” stance can or should be maintained.’

True, but that is not the point here. Yet again, activists make statements based on what they want the issue to be about rather than what the topic in hand is actually about. The BBC is not expecting its presenters to be impartial about the concept of racism itself, but simply to be careful to be impartial when reporting on people who may be displaying it. These issues are not the same thing.

The open letter continues:

  • For communities and individuals who experience racist abuse – including Munchetty – being expected to treat racist ideas as potentially valid has devastating and maybe illegal consequences for our dignity and ability to work in a professional environment, as well as being contrary to race equality and human rights legislation;

  • To suggest a journalist can “talk about her own experiences of racism” while withholding a critique on the author of racism (in this case President Trump) has the ludicrous implication that such racism may be legitimate and should be contemplated as such.

Firstly, remaining impartial when doing your public broadcasting job does not mean that you agree with what you are reporting on. You are reporting, not making personal comment. To imply that it does so is disingenuous and a weak argument. We see presenters and newsreaders every day telling us about terrible things without them feeling they have to nail their own colours to the mast to show that they don’t agree with the topic in question. Why should they feel they can do so about racism? What about a single mother reporting on criticisms of single mums living on welfare? Should she be able to tell viewers where she stands on that because she is a ‘victim’ of it?

Secondly, the statement that if a presenter withholds a critique of something of which she or he has experience then this is tantamount to validating the topic in question is preposterous. Do we now have to have presenters lay out their personal experiences or views on TV or radio whenever they report on a challenging subject?

The BBC has, since publishing its findings after the complaint against Munchetty, issued a letter to its staff in which it praises Munchetty for ‘her honesty’. It has also sought, it seems, to shift some of the ‘blame’ for her impartiality onto her white co-presenter Dan Walker. Amazing.

Incidentally, one of the signatories to this open letter is Lenny Henry. No problem with that. He’s a public figure who also belongs to an ethnic minority and as such has every right to comment on racism. However, I wonder what he thinks about his own activities in the light of the racism debate. In 1989 as part of his show Live and Unleashed, he wore white face while masquerading as Steve Martin. In 1991 in the Hollywood film True Identity he wore whiteface again.

How does that work, Lenny? If Justin Trudeau wore blackface at small-scale or private events around the same time yet is now universally panned for it, how come was it ok for you to wear whiteface in a Hollywood film and on stage? As you have signed the open letter to the BBC, we can only assume you believe your own actions were acceptable. And that’s before we consider your appearance on The Black and White Minstrel Show in the 1970s.

Is Henry being required to apologise for his professional whiteface appearances? Why not? He made a joke about Trudeau recently when speaking at a public event, introducing himself as Justin Trudeau, to laughter from his audience. What exactly would be the response if a white speaker introduced himself to an audience as Lenny Henry? Are we to now call out every white actor or public figure who has ever played a person from another ethnicity? Yes, it is unacceptable today, but in years past it was not. So why the one-way outrage?

Depressingly, this is where we’re at today in the UK. Anti-white racism is allowed. Anti-any other colour isn’t. White folks can be silenced in favour of non-white folks. A public event doing this is allowed to go ahead. One of our respected broadsheets publishes an open letter demanding that the BBC retract a decision on a breach of impartiality by one of its presenters based on the colour of her skin.

Are you worried? You should be.

Update, 1/10/19:

Surprise, surprise.  The DG of the BBC, Tony Hall, has bowed to the loudest shouters and ‘overturned’ the editorial decision that found against Munchetty.  Apparently he has now conducted his own review of the decision and has concluded that:

“I don’t think Naga’s words were sufficient to merit a partial uphold of the complaint around the comments she made…”

The Times went on to say:

“Although the statement did not explicitly state that the censure of Munchetty had been overturned or rescinded, BBC sources made clear that “what Tony says goes” and the ruling would be set aside”.

Quite where this puts the BBC’s complaints procedures is unclear.  We will now, no doubt, see a creeping expansion of presenters, news readers and others with a microphone telling us their views on what they are reporting.  Do we need this?

If Naga Munchetty had been writing her views in a column for which she was paid for her opinion, I would happily read it.  But she made comments implying that someone in the public eye was racist (Trump), when she was in a presenting position.  Personally I think her co-presenter Dan Walker was also at fault for asking her how she felt about Trump’s words. Who cares?  We all know that Trump is keen on expressing views that most of us don’t espouse.  But we are not all employed by the BBC to present rather than comment.  

Naga is perfectly entitled to her views, but I don’t want to hear them from a BBC presenter’s chair.  That’s the whole point of impartiality – or what is left of it at the Beeb.

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