Well, the computer said no; the UK has no ‘institutionalised racism’, just some ‘overt’ prejudice,. Phew. What a relief to hear the official verdict, according to the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities—a government-backed commission set up by No. 10 adviser Munira Mirza who has, in the past, doubted institutional racism, and the report chaired by Dr Tony Sewell, who’s expressed similar thoughts.
Instead of producing a nuanced, carefully considered, forward-thinking document that analysed a complex set of circumstances that have shaped people’s lives today, we have this binary, polarising yes-no result (48-52 anyone?) that may well do more harm than good, by appealing to one set of people and alienating another. And, in another way that also reminds us of Brexit, taking one side suggests you're patriotic, and the other that you have little faith in modern Britain.
The race report’s findings—that the UK does not suffer from institutionalised racism and that it is, allegedly, best-in-class for white-majority countries—are despite many people of colour in Britain experiencing actual racism consistently throughout their lives. And there are hard stats to prove that structural racism, neatly packed into the layers that form our society, affects everything from wealth to health. It is far easier, however, to solve a problem when you identify it, than when you deny its existence. If you say it's class not race that's the issue, you've lost nuance, you're not addressing intersectionality, and you gaslight the people who’ve spent the past however-many years addressing it.
Around the time the report came out, industry publication Press Gazette conducted a survey around race in the media. It found that two in five journalists (of 1,002 respondents) had seen or experienced racism while working in the UK media. Two-thirds of those surveyed said that UK media is, in some way or in some corners, racist or bigoted, and half believed coverage of Meghan Markle was racist. Incidentally, 79% of Press Gazette’s respondents identified as ‘white’.
To those who say the survey was anecdotal or biased, well, it’s easy to throw around accusations of bias when findings don’t fit your agenda. Meanwhile, the race report featured academics who were not consulted, barely mentioned key events that showed structural racism in action (such as the Windrush scandal), and its methodology was criticised by many renowned writers on race and racism. The report also wasn’t sent to the UK’s only race correspondent. It seems shame, embarrassment and denial of racism supersede the fact that it exists, and actual experience disregarded by those for whom it’s in their ‘interest’ to deny, perhaps because they feel unaffected by it, having ‘made it’. And when your mind's made up, you tend to act in a way that reinforces your opinions.
Given the statistics around disproportionate numbers of Black people being stopped and searched, the high number of COVID-19 deaths in communities of colour, the discrepancy in mortality rates by race during childbirth, the rise in Asian hate crime, that white applicants are more likely to get job interviews than non-white ones—to cite a few random examples—it’s quite incredible for such a report to conclude that institutionalised racism does not exist. Of course, other factors play a part, such as socio-economic background, but the report failed to scrutinise these overlaps and appears to have chosen data that backs its agenda.
Throw in our lack of cohesive history education on British history and a nostalgia-tinged view of the UK’s place in the world, and the report is both disingenuous and dangerous. It also said slavery was not just about profits and British schools should tell a “new story”. This is rich, given we're barely told the ‘old story’, which was one of resilience as well as brutality. The report even suggests some people are “haunted by historic racism”—it’s not historic if its ghosts visit you now.
The report even framed colonisation and the slave trade that enabled it as a “Caribbean experience” and suggested schools show how “culturally African people transformed themselves into a re-modelled African/Britain” as if it was the Erasmus-esque cultural exchange of its time. It seems the one thing they don’t suggest—to examine our history and teach it comprehensively (and that doesn’t mean ‘banning white authors’)—is the one sensible thing to do. Please, let’s decolonise, not recolonise.
And where’s the grey line in the report? Can’t good, bad and in-between co-exist in the same space? Think back to the Society of Editors’ statement in March. Saying “the UK media is not bigoted…” is as wayward as saying, “the UK media is 100% bigoted.” Neither are true; the truth often lies somewhere far less exciting (clue: it's usually somewhere grey).
We’re big on nuance, but sometimes it feels like it’s died. When the SoE followed up with, “there is a lot of work to be done in the media to improve diversity and inclusion”, it’s because yes, there are issues around race (and class, religion, disability and so on) in most sectors, including our hallowed newsrooms. Only in 2019, a Muslim Council of Britain report showed much of the coverage of Muslims in British news publications had negative angles. In July 2020, 1,940 readers responded to another Press Gazette online poll, in which 57% felt more needed to be done to address newsroom diversity to ensure balanced coverage.
Does this mean there’s nothing good about our media? Of course not. But ‘the media’ is not one place, one paper, one organisation, one editor. It’s a vast, varied hotbed of people with different agendas, ambitions and agency. How can anything that big be perfect? But does that mean it can’t improve? Just because Britain is ‘less racist’ than 30 or 40 years ago, we can make it less racist, right? And not being ‘a racist nation’ doesn’t mean racism hasn’t shaped some of our structures.
Anyone who believes there is no bias, bigotry, prejudice or racism in our institutions needs to drop their agenda, lower their defences, and peer over the parapet. What ‘that interview’ with Prince Harry and Meghan Markle did (whether or not you agree with them or believe them on specific points), was to force our industry to examine itself in the harsh light of day. It’s in that light we often see the good, bad and the grey.
As the saying goes, “Everyone is entitled to their own opinions but not their own facts.” As journalists, that’s key to our reporting. The race report should re-examine the data and, as a teacher might say, “try harder next time”.
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Writing Tip of the Day
Do you use vague words such as ‘quite’ or ‘almost’ or ‘nearly’ to sound more 'obliging' or not attract attention or because the stats are hard to find? Sometimes, it’s absolutely fine to use abstract terms, but these types of modifiers can lessen the impact of what you’re saying.
If you want to write with confidence, it’s worth taking the time to suss out the facts and stats, and link to them (if writing online) or provide as a source. We know stats and data can be subjective too (more on that another time), but if you can write in specifics and be more intentional with your words, it can be a more powerful read, whatever the subject.
The Sense Check
“How far back in history should journalists go when writing about a place with imperialist roots, in terms of what’s included in final copy? Should some events/issues always be referenced, in some way, and how do you judge it e.g. if I'm writing about the Parthenon/Acropolis in Athens, should I always reference the origins of the Elgin Marbles?"
Heather Greenwood Davis Heather Greenwood Davis is a contributing writer/on-air storyteller for National Geographic, freelance writer for The Globe and Mail, Outside, Travel+Leisure and more, and a trusted expert on US/Canadian TV networks.
“I think it’s unrealistic to expect that journalists are going to be able to reference the origins on every single aspect of every single story–but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be making best efforts to do it where it makes sense.
In my opinion, that’ll be when it impacts the reader’s understanding of events at play. In those cases, raising the question in our readers allows them to begin to think critically about the history involved and I think that’s important.
That being said, it’s also worth remembering that for those of us who freelance for publications owned and run by others, chances are high we won’t be encouraged to wax poetic on every piece we write. Choosing when to push for more and–at least making the effort to consider why we are choosing to (or not to) include it–could change how our editors behave too.”
Paul Clammer Paul Clammer has written more than 40 guidebooks for Lonely Planet, and is the author of the Bradt guide to Haiti. He is currently writing a biography of the Haitian Revolutionary general and king of Haiti, Henry Christophe.
“The past has an unfortunate way of intruding into the present. The British empire abolished slavery in 1834, but the amount the government borrowed to repay owner for the loss of their ‘goods’ was so large that these debt repayments lasted until 2015. That’s just six years ago.
So how can I, as a guidebook writer who often covers the Caribbean, trot out clichés about ‘colonial charm’ or ‘elegant plantation houses’ while ignoring the historical context that helped shape these places?
This isn’t about ordering readers to don sackcloth and ashes as a result, but to offer them the tools to better understand the places they’re visiting. Anything else would be doing them–and the destinations–a disservice.”
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?
Around 200,000 people are currently stateless in the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, due to decades of state-sanctioned racism, anti-Black prejudice and political corruption, fuelled by the government in the Dominican Republic.
In 1937, the Dominican Army killed tens of thousands of Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian ancestry in what’s known as the 1937 Parsley Massacre under then-Dominican Republic dictator Rafael Trujillo who wanted to ‘whiten’ the race and fix the “Haitian problem’. Then, in 2013, the Supreme Court stripped citizenship from anyone with Haitian parents, all the way back to 1929. Yes, 1929.
Decades of nationalist, xenophobic, anti-Black and white supremacist rhetoric is why over 200,000 people are now stateless, with no nationality and minmal rights, in the only place they know as home. These events are explored in the 2020 documentary Stateless by Haitian-Canadian filmmaker Michèle Stephenson: there’s a free online UK viewing and live Q&A next week.
Founded by Zeinab Saleh, Sara Gulamali and Lamisa Khan in 2017—originally as a powerful photo series that captured the spirit of young, Muslim womxn—Muslim Sisterhood is a London-based artistic collective that draws its activism from publishing, photography and events. We love that it provides a safe space for Muslim women and non-binary Muslims to celebrate their identity, while championing creative talent.
Memoir, identity, nature writing and travelogue meet in Anita Sethi’s I Belong Here: A Journey Along the Backbone of Britain, published on 29th April 2021. It’s the story of her journey through the landscapes of northern England as she explores identity, nature, place and belonging after she became the victim of a race-hate crime. Sethi experienced panic attacks, anxiety and claustrophobia but was determined not to let the incident stop her travelling freely and fearlessly.
With democractic norms on the decline worldwide, a new study shows how democracy aid can work, “but it’s not magic”.
"I knew in every bone of my body, in every fibre of my being, that I had to report what had happened, not only for myself but to help stop anyone else having to go through what I did. I knew I could not remain silent, or still, I could not stop walking through the world."
Anita Sethi, from her book I Belong Here: A Journey Along the Backbone of Britain