It covers too much ground in too little time
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.