by Tomiwa Owolade
Tuesday, 9
March 2021

Why Naga Munchetty’s racism documentary falls short

It covers too much ground in too little time
by Tomiwa Owolade
The documentary highlights vital issues but there is no such thing as a singular ‘black community’. Credit: BBC

Naga Munchetty’s recent BBC Panorama documentary on racism is interesting, but it tries to cover too much ground in so little time. She talks about white privilege, institutional racism, police injustice, overt and covert racism; and interviews people ranging from a young black basketball player, to a British-Pakistani doctor, to a couple of white residents in the northern town of Blyth. Which is all well and good: the problem is such an approach is teasing rather than genuinely exploratory.

Race and racism in Britain are complex topics that require more granular analysis than this approach permits. Take the topic of white privilege. To be fair to the documentary, it doesn’t approach this through a tendentious perspective, but tries to get a few points of view.

However, an interview with Andrea Thompson, the editor-in-chief of the lifestyle magazine Marie Claire, really stood out in encapsulating the problems with many contemporary conversations on race. Thompson acknowledges that white privilege does not mean that all white people are privileged and all black people lack privilege — in fact, she says the opportunities of a black Etonian would be different from that of a white person in a council estate. Nevertheless, she posits, black people are still judged on the basis of their race; their blackness is still a fundamental factor in their life outcomes. This may sound intuitively true, but it skirts over a multilayered picture.

Which black people? The son of Somali refugees or the daughter of a Nigerian doctor? The British-Ghanaian pupil barrister or an unemployed black person of West Indian heritage? Around two-thirds of Somali pupils are on Free School meals compared to about 20% of British-Nigerian pupils; British West Indian pupils are twice as likely to be excluded from school as British West African pupils.

Of course, there are many British-Somalis and British-Caribbean people who have done extremely well in education and employment: two contemporary names that spring to mind are Hashi Mohammed and Alexandra Wilson. But people from these particular backgrounds have worse outcomes — in terms of educational and employment, two key markers of “privilege” — than people from west African backgrounds.

However, they are all lumped under the label “black British”, with the implication that there is such a thing as a singular “black community”, as opposed to a conglomerate of communities with different customs, languages, histories, and experiences. This is understandable — racial prejudice still exists in our society, and this documentary does well to highlight the particular grief of being ostracised on something over which you have no control.

But it’s possible to highlight and try to root out these prejudices without invoking concepts that obscure the complex realities of black people and other ethnic minority communities. Munchetty’s documentary is an interesting starter of the conversation; in order to get to the main course, we need sharper analysis.

Join the discussion

  • The longer this racism inquiry occurs in the West the more I think this is a case of an elite in search of a following. Wealthy educated individuals of colour seem to be perusing the racism narrative to help create a “black community” that will legitimate their lofty position in the social hierarchy. And, they are being met by powerful supporters at the top of our corporations and institutions who see them as an asset to use against any political force that would challenge the status quo, by labeling the challengers “racist” and painting a target; the activist class will do the rest.
    The utter cynicism of our ruling oligarchy on full display.

  • A while ago, just after apartheid, cricket had been for white people only. It was realised that non-whites needed time to build up in practice and musculature.

    This isn’t a very good argument. Any individual beginner at a sport needs time to learn, develop, practise, and so on. That is equally true for a white beginner and a non-white beginner.

    … as with all sports, non-white people turned out to be better.‘ Problem with that statement, is that it risks determining an individual’s success by race, doesn’t it?

    If it’s true (according to your argument, at least) that non-white people are better at all sports, then your argument turns on its head. If that’s true, white players are now the ones who need preferential treatment … to allow them to compete on equal terms with the non-white players.

    This itchy obsession with dividing us all up by skin colour just goes round and round without any logic and without any hope of resolution.

  • The key word is “industry.” That’s precisely what it is. There are livelihoods invested in the perpetuation of the myths you cited and more, and like any other activist cause, it has no goal or end game. This is not going to stop. A new cohort of racial warlords will be making the same tired arguments 50 years hence.

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