When will we stop 'whitesplaining' the British brand of bigotry?
Now seems about as good a time—now, during this hell week—to talk about the accusation of ‘pulling the race card’. It’s that invisible, get-out-of-jail-free card that many assume people of colour have, next to their Caffè Nero loyalty stamps, ready to wield at any given opportunity. Five racist slurs and you'll believe the sixth one freely.
This week, unless you’ve been living under a massive rock (and if you have, do us a solid and tell us which one, cos we wanna go for our next holiday), you will have seen the circus around Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s Oprah interview. Media gaslighting has gone into overdrive: from Loose Women’s Jane Moore using the term ‘casual racism’ (wake up, Jane, there’s no such thing) to dismiss an unnamed royal’s ‘concerns’ about how dark the child’s skin might be, to journalists stating they ‘didn’t care’ to hear more about Markle, while projecting feminist slogans into the ether on International Women's Day.
Alas, women of colour—particularly Black women—don’t have the privilege of tapping out of such conversations, because these issues, particularly surrounding race and mental health, follow us around offline. While most of us don’t know Markle, we *do* know the issues that she spoke of—and that it takes courage to call them out. This is particularly true in a media landscape where some use every trick in the book to silence you. And when someone, anyone, shares that they felt suicidal, is, “I don’t believe you,” ever an appropriate response?
"But it’s not necessarily about race…" we hear some starting to whisper. Well, strap in, because the evidence is splashed across many a front page. The ‘how dare she…’ brand of misogynoir is particularly pervasive: for Markle, her proximity to Blackness means that coded sneers (that were “straight outta Compton”) and tropes are often deployed to put the ‘uppity Black woman’ back in her place. And it stretches back to when Markle first started dating Harry—whatever some may claim about the ‘support’ afforded to the couple around their wedding. It’s stitched into her narrative and has shaped how we talk about her, persisting in the many iterations of that old, xenophobic favourite, ‘I can’t put my finger on why I don’t like her, there’s just something…’. Did we miss Avocado-gate?
The night before the interview aired in the US, The Times fell over themselves to substantiate the couple’s criticisms of the British press: going H.A.M. with the ‘angry Black woman’ trope in ‘breaking’ a story about accusations from 2018 that Markle was a ‘bully’ to former staff. The timing of those palace sources, eh? While we don’t know if there was truth behind the claims, we do know that the paper’s bias jumped out unchecked in their reporting—not least, in their segway from the nut of the bullying story into a hatchet job about charity work and some earrings (an official wedding gift from Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince). Where is the same energy and context in saying that the Queen (and two of her PM's) hosted the same Crown Prince for dinner or that the UK sells arms to Saudi? We *should* talk about that. And, if you want to talk about unethical origins of royal jewellery, we’ve got all day.
Lest we forget, it is indeed possible to find someone’s California therapy speech grating and her comparison of palace life to lockdown unpalatable, while not acting like a biracial woman’s abuse is something unworthy of our time and consideration. This isn’t about whether or not you’d go to the pub with Markle; it’s about whether ingrained racism and bigotry have shaped the coverage about her.
It is unacceptable for white people (some of whom claim they didn’t know that racism still existed in Britain until last summer) to gate-keep what is and isn’t racist, much less to ‘whitesplain’ or try to create a hierarchy of racism that discredits experiences outside their own. It suggests, once again, that the term is more offensive than the issue itself and reinforces the problem.
So, have a word with the Society of Editors (SoE) who they released a sinister blanket statement—and subsequently retracted it, after pushback from some board members and journalists of colour—insisting that the British press was 'not bigoted’ and 'certainly not racist'. The broadcaster, Charlene White pulled out of hosting the SoE's upcoming awards, highlighting that the UK press should not be exempt while other institutions are examining their own failings, and several nominees have withdrawn their entries. The SoE's executive director, after initially doubling down on his initial sentiment during an interview with the BBC's Victoria Derbyshire, has since resigned. To say that not one part of the British press is bigoted is as ludicrous as to say that every part of it is.
Their initial response was despite, just two weeks ago, the SoE shoehorning most of (the few) writers of colour shortlisted for their 2021 awards into a ‘diversity reporting’ category and, according to the NCTJ, despite UK journalism being 94% white. Have a word with Talk Radio, who, shortly after the Home Office’s ruling to render a Muslim teenager (that was groomed on their soil) stateless, felt emboldened enough to ask their listeners whether Markle and Prince Harry should be stripped of their citizenship. Have a word with the royal commentators who gave their opinions on the Oprah interview—and parroting the same narrative we hear on a loop—before it had even aired, and the newspapers who passed on the story because, we assume, they rely on such sources to give their posturing a sheen of authenticity.
We cannot ask to foster inclusivity and diversity in newsrooms or on staff, then publish ‘casually’ discriminatory content and gaslight people of colour when they call it out—it is counterintuitive and disingenuous. Dedicated publications for people of colour—such as Gal Dem, Black Ballad, Azeema Magazine and Burnt Roti—areincreasingly popular, in part, because their readership trusts ‘the media’ less and less, even when it comes to reporting on issues like the efficacy of the COVID-19 vaccines. At this point, there are no prizes for guessing why.
Accusing anyone of 'pulling the race card' is to silence the. No-one enjoys trying to prove the existence of institutional racism because it's exhausting and, at times, including this week, triggering. They don’t want to have to explain that white privilege means that your words aren’t subconsciously questioned on account of your skin colour, to suggest that you ought to refer to a history book or various recent tours before calling the Royal Family ‘classy’, or to have to point out that yes, Britain has been built on the bloodied backs of people of colour. And, ultimately, what card do you expect people to ‘pull’ when the deck is stacked against them?
PS If you want to support our newsletters, you can always buy us a digital cuppa!
Writing Tip of the Day
We’ve all looked at other writers’ work and wished we could pull at the same invisible thread, or noted down a particularly clever turn of phrase. It happens to us all the time and, we think, it’s a process that makes us all up our game. But part of that process is giving credit where it’s due and properly acknowledging other people’s content or ideas.
Inspired by this tweet from travel writer Caroline Eden, we feel it's important to emphasise the importance of credit. Take the time to reference other writers in your work, where their ideas and research have helped shape the end result, just as you would in academic writing. And, don’t assume it goes unnoticed either way: people can tell a mile off when you’ve appropriated their words or ideas.
The Sense Check
"I often see editors (across all sections/topics) seeking pitches from writers of colour only. I understand the need for more diverse voices in their publications, but does this 'only' approach not end up tokenistic? Is it not better to actively encourage marginalised writers to pitch, instead of making it exclusive?"
Monisha Rajesh is the author of Around the World in 80 Trains and has written for The Guardian, The New York Times, Vanity Fair, Conde Nast Traveller and Travel + Leisure.
"The British journalism industry is 94% white. Travel sections of magazines and newspapers narrow that margin even further with barely a handful of brown and Black writers featuring in their pages or on staff.
Unless it's overtly stated, is there any way to know that a writer is Black or a person of colour from their pitch? Some travel writers don't want to be boxed in and don't feel the need to write about their race, so their pitches can often disappear among the influx of emails that editors receive every day.
It's not 'exclusive' to ask for brown and Black writers only; it's the very opposite. Tokenism is featuring one brown or Black writer in the contributors section every few months without making a concerted effort to build a bank of strong writers whose voices add much-needed dynamics to the stale traditions of travel writing. By inviting writers to pitch, you're levelling up the imbalance and that can only be a good thing.”
Isabella Silvers Isabella Silvers is a multi-award-winning editor and journalist at Hearst UK, who also writes a weekly newsletter, Mixed Messages, on the mixed-race experience.
"It’s not legally sound for editors to specify that they only want to hear from a subset of marginalised writers, unless it’s directly relevant to the piece, but a call-out for writers of colour is often a well-intentioned, if long-overdue, effort from staffers to increase the diversity people they are commissioning.
I would prefer to see people encouraging marginalised writers to pitch, no matter the subject call-out, but in a time where inclusion awareness is seemingly at an all-time high, I can sometimes see this tokenism as a means to a positive end.
It's conflicting, and your decision on whether to pitch or not is down to what and who you personally feel comfortable writing for.”
Want to ask a question (anonymously)? Send away! Please email us here and we'll try and tackle it in an upcoming newsletter. We also welcome any feedback or comments.
Did You Know?
The first Asian elected to the UK Parliament was Dadabhai Naoroji (1825-1917) in 1892. It’s a name that should be better-known: he was also India’s most influential voice before Mahatma Gandhi, for his anti-racist and anti-imperialist views.
Born in Mumbai and from a poor family, he was given free public schooling. To show his gratitude, he entered public service as a way to repay his education, with a raft of progressive ideas such as opening schools for Indian girls. When he first visited Britain in 1855, he began to wonder how there could be so much wealth yet so little in India. His subsequent economic analysis undermined one of the key ideas that underpin imperialism: that it was ‘good’ for the colonised. He discovered the opposite was true.
As a British colonial subject, he was entitled to stand for Parliament which he did. His first attempt in 1886 was unsuccessful but in 1892, he was elected by a five-vote margin in Central Finsbury, London, as a Liberal Party MP, with Irish home rule, women’s suffrage, workers’ rights, and addressing colonial bureaucracy on his agenda. Of course, not everyone was chuffed. British prime minister, Lord Salisbury believed English people were not ready to elect a "black man".
Unfortunately for Naoroji, he was not re-elected in 1895 nor in 1906 but he stuck to his aims, eventually deciding that self-rule or swaraj was the only solution for India to stop the “drain of wealth”. But Britain was at the height of its powers, and famine and poverty in India meant the average citizen had more pressing issues on their mind… But he pressed on and his ideas around reform filtered around the world, including to Ghandi, then in South Africa.
Naoroji made his last speech aged 81 where he talked of perseverance in the face of disappointments. He died in India in 1917 and became known as the ‘Grand Old Man of India’.
We know the media is 94% white, that 0.2% of it is made up of Black journalists, that only 10% are from a working-class background. So too, do New Writing North and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, who, in partnership with the New Statesman and the Daily Mirror, are launching A Writing Chance, a bursary for historically marginalised voices, aimed at breaking barriers to entry in a persistently elitist industry. Apply here. ‘Who’s Loving You’ is a new anthology of short stories that celebrates and centres women of colour, in a powerful and much-needed way. Its 10 ferociously talented writers—including Kelechi Okafor, Rowan Hisayo Buchanan, Amna Saleem and Dorothy Koomson—explore the full spectrum of love, in all its guises, with intensity and longing. Editor, Sareeta Domingo, says, "It is vital that we see ourselves portrayed in this way. Seeing love of all kinds represented fully, in art as in life, allows us to relate on a level that can be dangerous when lacking." We couldn’t agree more.