“To her subjects, Prince Philip was the longest-serving royal consort in British history—an often crochety figure, offending people with gaffes about slitty eyes, even if secretly we rather enjoyed them.”
And there we have it. On the front page of the Sunday Times. It’s was swiftly edited for online—although the edit was not much of an improvement (“Just take out the ‘slitty eyes’ bit and we’re good” approach). How did it even get there? ‘There’s no institutional racism’, we’re repeatedly told... OK. So, just organisations that have racist elements? How far do we travel down the road of semantics before we admit there’s a problem? That this sentiment made it onto the front page of a broadsheet, particularly after the conversations of the last 12 months, shows the road is still long.
We’re not here to take down Prince Philip’s character—whatever our views on him, the monarchy and the institution of monarchy. But we can talk openly about how we continue to cover up and put a patina on the past; not only, in some cases, pretending events didn’t happen, but to go so far as to put ‘casual’ racism into some sort of entertainment category. If I’d known racism was funny, how I might have laughed harder all these years.
It’s the “we” and the “secretly” that are especially telling. But let's start with 'secret'. Not all racist experiences are name-calling, front-of-house performances. Sometimes, it isn’t obvious at all. If you had to provide ‘evidence’, it would be impossible—in some cases, youjust know. And why? Because it’s done, as the words say, secretly. Behind your back, hidden in smiles and smirks and comments, under the guise of “I know I shouldn’t say that but it’s funny because it’s a bit true” or “It’s just a joke...”
And now the “we”. Assuming it’s not the royal ‘we’ but equally, it’s unclear who the writer, Christina Lamb, is referring to. Surely the ‘we’ is offensive to what we hope is a majority (and if not a majority, then a helluva lot of people) who do not enjoy and have not enjoyed remarks, tinged, laced, dipped or drowned in racism—no matter what generation the speaker is from. So who is the “we”? The ‘proper’ Brits? The closet bigots? Some clique that we don’t know about? More importantly, what exactly is funny about “slitty eyes” when East Asian hate crimes are at an all-time high?
We’re not projecting everything we think about the problems in the press on this one paragraph. However, it is reflective of the issues we face. And that these words went past editors, sub-editors and the like, shows that we do have a problem. That it was edited out without so much as an acknowledgment—never mind an apology (which came much later following a petition)—is also revealing. That’s even more brushing under the carpet. Presumably where the secret enjoyment of racism is.
When Sunday Times’ Letters Editor, Stephen Bleach, replied to a complaint about this, he wrote (shared via a tweet): “The intention here was to reflect the affection in which Prince Philip was held, despite his imperfections.”Has racism been rebranded as an ‘imperfection’ now? And the “even if secretly we rather enjoyed them,” doesn’t suggest ‘despite’ at all. It suggests the opposite; the imperfections were really rather enjoyable even though we know we shouldn’t find them so, guffaw guffaw. A bit like Metro running a feature about ‘Phil’s best gaffes’—why is commenting on inherent traits like appearance and ability funny? Don’t we have enough quality comedy and satire already in this country?
“Better out than in” is something my mum would say when I was sick as a kid; in later years, it would be flatmates after a night out. Now, it applies to society. Let’s get it all out; all the racism and bigotry and bias, so we can see it, hear it, feel it, know it. And then, just maybe, we can all admit there’s a problem. Because when a paper like the Sunday Times starts encouraging its readers to stoke the fire—while using the death of a senior Royal to sidestep criticism—we're going backwards.
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Writing Tip of the Day
“Colonial charm”. We’ve just got to get this one off our chests, again. We’ve come across so many travel features that talk of beautiful plazas and colourful houses in Central and South America, as if the Spanish Crown was benevolently spending money to improve the urban environment for the citizens of Nicaragua, Mexico, Panama and co.
These cities were hubs of power for the Spanish colonisers, and the region’s ‘rich’ history came at a price. Of course, we don't think every travel article has to go deep into this, but equally, if you’re going to write about how the Spanish lavished their money on spectacular architecture, don’t you have to say whose communities they dug into and whose labour they used to create it? Be it indigenous people, many of whom died from disease, or enslaved people brought over from West Africa? You can’t say one thing without the other, so let's park the historical shame. Context and honesty, always.
The Sense Check
“Should you identify someone in copy, when a label may not be relevant for the piece? For example, referring to someone as ‘British Zimbabwean’ when that person isn’t discussing their heritage or culture. I see religion, race and nationality mentioned in passing often and wondered when and where it was necessary.”
Ash Bhardwaj Broadcaster, filmmaker and Telegraph Travel columnist. Ash also co-hosts The First Mileimmersive travel podcast. Twitter: @ashbhardwaj "I believe that ethnicity, race or religion should be mentioned if it is relevant to a story. Would that background add context? If so, then it matters, and you should include it. If not, don’t mention it.
For example, if I’m writing a travel piece about India, then my ethnicity matters: I’m half-Indian, so I might notice different things, or feel differently about colonial history, compared to a white British person. Similarly, a British Ghanaian writer might have specific feelings about travelling through the American South that a Norwegian writer would not
The same goes for the people you are interviewing. If the story is about the price of fish, then the ethnicity of your interviewee is probably irrelevant; but whether they work for a supermarket or fishing fleet is hugely important."
"I don’t think there should be a blanket approach, in which we label every person in every piece. What I do think is that it should always be a question that everyone should be asked: “Is there a label you believe important enough to mention here?”
When identity is mentioned in a discussion and we see it as odd or unrelated, chances are it’s because we don’t identify with that label and that mention was not for us. We’ll see it as irrelevant.
For example, take a discussion about holidays. I’m Black and so are many of my friends. Dream holiday picks usually involve the ‘Do they even like black people?’ talk. This comes naturally, without thought.
When a Black person writes about their favourite holiday picks, it’s likely they’ve also done this. This means that a Black reader who’s wondering where to go has a little more confidence reading a piece written by a ‘British Zimbabwean’."
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Did You Know?
The other Partition: As events unfold in Northern Ireland, Monday 3rd May will mark the centenary of the partition that created the country in 1921, which happened during the Irish War of Independence between 1919 and 1921, a guerrilla war between the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and the British army.
The partition of Ireland is essentially how the government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland separated the island into the self-governing entities of Northern and Southern Ireland. Initially, that meant home rule within the UK with a plan for reunification. However, most of its citizens didn’t recognise Southern Ireland, and supported the self-declared Irish Republic—which became the Republic of Ireland as we know it today.
And why? 17th century British colonisation meant what became Northern Ireland had a Protestant and Unionist majority who wanted to stick with Britain, while the rest of Ireland, with its Catholic and Irish nationalist majority, sought independence. Partition, of course, was no peaceful affair—with terrible violence, particularly in Belfast—resulting in over 500 dead and over 10,000 refugees, mostly Catholic.
Today, many people, including republicans, continue to campaign for a reunited Ireland as an independent state, but others, such as Ulster unionists, want to stay in the UK. The 30-year conflict, ‘The Troubles’ (1969-1998) when over 3.500 people were killed, may be over, with the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 stating there’d be no change to Northern Ireland’s status without a majority-vote among its population, but Brexithas sparked a new set of concerns and controversies—and with it, a new wave of unrest.
In 2022, the International African American Museum opens in Charleston, South Carolina. It will be the first museum of its kind to comprehensively interpret and explore African American history from slavery to the present day—and right in the city where 60% of enslaved people from West Africa would have first arrived. Newsletter co-founder Meera will be chairing a debateabout the museum, hosted by the British Guild of Travel Writers and Explore Charleston, on Tuesday 4th May 2021 from 4pm-5.15pm (free to attend) where she’ll be joined by four experts from the Charleston region who’ll discuss the project's likely impact and legacy.
The Media Trust is a charity that works with the media and creative industry to amplify the voices of charities, under-represented and marginalised groups, and young people. They do this by matching up skilled professionals from the media and creative industry to share time, knowledge and creativity, be it communications training, mentoring or support, and at the same time, gives volunteers an insight into issues they might not have come across. They also have structured volunteering events around a certain theme, and an online volunteer platform which lets charities request assistance from media and other creatives.