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...because it's not always black & white
Picturing Immigration: The Dangers of Indiscriminate Language

On the day that the newly-appointed Clandestine Channel Threat Commander (apparently, we're now living out a Thunderbirds script) appears before the Home Affairs Committee, it's as good a time as any to talk about the fiery language of immigration.

The Banksy-funded rescue boat, Louise Michel, has fuelled even more debate around migrants and refugees. Both the artist and the boat's skipper have been criticised for its crowded conditions and the discussion around the need for such boats has been diminished. Think back too, to the voyeuristic live coverage of these crossings in early August. In a video explaining the reasons behind the boat's charter, Banksy said: "... because EU authorities deliberately ignore distress calls, from non-Europeans." Intriguing too, that many of us seem to have gotten distracted from the government's latest coronavirus failures ("OVER HERE! These brown people are trying to take your jobs!")

Maybe though, it goes deeper. If images of ‘different’ people seeking a new life or fleeing persecution (using frighteningly risky means, often via unscrupulous people-smugglers) stoke feelings of fear and resentment, is it because they’re tapping into a bias we didn’t know we had?

Last week, in a now-deleted video, the UK Home office subtly devalued legal representatives of asylum seekers by deliberately calling them “activist lawyers”. Boris Johnson recently used the term "illegal immigrants" to describe people who may have been asylum seekers and eventual refugees, while Donald Trump uses the term "illegal aliens" indiscriminately. Not only are these terms factually incorrect, they’re dehumanising. In 2013, Associated Press (AP) informed AP Stylebook users that the terms ‘illegal immigrant’ or 'illegal’ were no longer approved, while Al Jazeera switched from Mediterranean 'migrant crisis' to a 'refugee crisis'.

So, let’s break it right down. An ‘asylum seeker’ is someone seeking refuge, whose claim hasn’t yet been evaluated; not all receive refugee status. Every refugee was initially an asylum seeker, who believed returning home would lead to persecution (usually around armed conflicts, poverty, violence and dictatorial regimes). Seeking asylum is, categorically, not a crime. According to Home Office statistics, nearly three-quarters of asylum seeker claims in the UK show they’ve fled genuine persecution or danger. There’s also no law against people choosing where to seek asylum, and the reason some choose Britain is because they speak English (that’s what happens when one colonises a quarter of the world’s population...) or because they know people here (see above.) Before hand-wringing, it's worth remembering that Britain built its empire by docking boats without permission, and worse, with the intention to take what wasn't theirs. So, context and research are necessary.

It’s particularly interesting to note the language allocated to various groups. The terms ‘immigrant’ and 'economic migrant' can both bear bias. Is that how we refer to a British person who has moved to Singapore for work? No. We call them an ‘expatriate’ and wistfully discuss tax breaks. We also—particularly us lot in the travel industry—promote exploration through literature and media; does this then mean that emigrating should be reserved for those of certain racial or socio-economic groups? If a term is applied incorrectly—or worse, in an inflammatory way—enough times, it will catch on. And the debate can be framed in such a way that many people end up viewing immigration as something toxic. There’s no doubt that these terms shape public lexicon and when they come from the mouths or pens of people with clout, they worm their way into conversation and become legitimised.

In the end, it’s not just semantics. The danger is that polarising language polarises us, making people ‘for’ or ‘against’ something that’s far more nuanced and complex than yes or no—so, those words deserve to be both thoughtful and accurate. If we say the pen is mightier than the sword, spilling ink and not cleaning it up just ain’t on.

Shivani and Meera

P.S. If you missed the first issue of our newsletter, you can read it here.

Writing Tip of the Day

Analyse the headline—and any social media content you have control over—as carefully as you would the body copy. Last week, a tweet from a UK newspaper went viral for all the wrong reasons; framing a Caucasian killer in America as a “bullied teenager who revered the police and [had] found purpose as a vigilante.”

Careful not to perpetuate dangerous stereotypes (in this case, that a white man is troubled and a brown man is a terrorist) with victim-blaming or unnecessary emotion. Call it what it is and remember, you don’t have a dog in the fight. Unless, the 'vigilante' you’re referring to is Batman.

The Sense Check

"So, where are you 'really' from?"

The mother of all questions. It can be loaded with suspicion or hostility yet many times, it can be perfectly valid, showing genuine interest or curiosity. But why does it irk so much?

Anjali Mya Chadha

Anjali Mya Chadha,
ctor, writer and producer

“There are many ways to get to know me, to understand who I am. If the first and the only thing a person can think to say to me is, ‘Where are you originally from?' they have immediately ‘othered’ me in their mind.

I have been on the receiving end of this thought pattern in many ways... ‘Are you allowed to cut your hair?’ through to ‘Do you have to have an arranged marriage?’

And please don't say you don't see colour, you only see people, because if you did, we'd be talking about the latest series of 'This is us,' and how many times each episode makes you cry.”

Mita Mistry

Mita Mistry, columnist, mindfulness-based cognitive therapist and acupuncturist

"I love it when people are genuinely interested to learn about my heritage. And I’m happy to answer questions about it. But asking, 'Where are you from?' is often problematic. It can imply that I'm not from the UK despite being born in Britain. It can reinforce racist messages like, 'Go home, you don't belong here' which I and many grew up with during the 1970s.

Often, this questioning is worsened by following up with, 'But where are you really from?' This is effectively asking a person of colour to explain their existence.

Moving forward, before asking someone, 'Where are you from?' perhaps ask why you need to know this, how the person of colour may feel about your curiosity and would you ask your white friends this question? Asking 'What's your heritage or cultural background?' may be more appropriate.

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?

Ethiopia is one of only two African countries to have not been colonised (the other is Liberia, which was established by the American Colonization Society as part of a bid to displace freed slaves from the USA and repatriate them). Ethiopia’s ability to resist Italian colonisation is largely due to Haile Selassie I and his 44-year reign.

The name 'Haile Selassie' may ring through your ears with a soft Jamaican lilt. Probably thanks to Bob Marley and others from the Rastafarian faith, which is named after him (Selassie's real name, Ras Tafari). They regarded him as a messiah of the African race, as prophesised by Pan-African pioneer, Marcus Garvey (“Look to Africa, where a black king shall be crowned, he shall be the Redeemer.”) 

Shortly afterwards, Selassie’s ascension to Emperor of Ethiopia—as a Black messiah—further compounded the Rastafarian belief that Jesus is Black. This belief is rooted in Biblical scripture, where he is described as ‘a man whose appearance was like bronze’ (Ezekiel 40:3) with ‘the hair of his head like pure wool’ (Daniel 7:9).

Spotlight on...

If you want to support the refugee crisis, the Choose Love store is the world's first shop where you can buy anything from wash bags and medical care to tents and even trauma support for refugees. Choose Love provides emergency aid and long-term solutions where it's most needed, with 89% of donations going directly to the frontline.

We're also championing the new ABC Travel Greenbook by Martinique Lewis which highlights Black-owned businesses all over the world. Head north in Quito, Ecuador, to visit the Afro-Ecuadorians (known as the Esmeraldas), take a Black history tour in Israel or get a haircut in Budapest at a Black-owned salon.

Reading Room
Grazia Daily: Stop sharing videos of Jacob Blake being shot by police Grazia: Stop sharing videos of Jacob Blake

We can't 'love and light' our way out of systemic racism, writes Kelechi Okafor.

Granta: Image by Eva Blue/Unplash Granta: How to write about Africa

Binyavanga Wainaina gathers up all the tropes and stereotypes in this fine essay.

David Olusoga Watch David Olusoga talk diversity in television

"I’m here because a handful of people used their power and their privilege to help me."

The Guardian Guardian: I'm a Black journalist in the UK

Niellah Arboine on the need for more diversity in British journalism's top roles.

“We all know what it’s like to be told that there is not a place for you to be featured. Yet you are young, gifted and Black [referring to Nina Simone’s 1969 civil rights anthem]. We know what it’s like to be told there’s not a screen for you to be featured on, a stage for you to be featured on. We know what it’s like to be the tail and not the head. We know what it’s like to be beneath and not above.

That is what we went to work with every day, because we knew we had something special that we wanted to give the world; that we could be full human beings in the roles that we were playing. That we could create a world that exemplified a world that we wanted to see.”

Chadwick Boseman, 1976-2020

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Unpacking Media Bias
United Kingdom

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