(This post was originally published by the Independent, 24 October 2012)
More than a decade ago the poet Lemn Sissay visited my sixth form and performed his bittersweet poem Colour Blind. I was 16, contrarian, and determined not to be moved by his plaintive climax: “Why do you say you are colour blind / When you see me?”
My friends and I dismissed the idea that skin colour was important, and pretended to each other that to be colour blind was a good thing. We were cocooned in an insular, bustling world where most of us were a shade of brown, and had yet to feel too keenly our otherness.
Yet deep down I knew it had struck a chord because many of us had experienced racism; sometimes overt taunts and sometimes the other, subtler kinds of intolerance. But we pushed these experiences to the edges of our existence, buried deep with lessons on a distant, tragic history, drowned out by the cacophony of proudly taught lessons on the British Empire.
Then I went to university, embarked on a career in journalism, and my world grew whiter. But simultaneously I learned that, as a journalist, to be colour blind is not an option. You have to see colour, religion, class, and every facet that distinguishes people. If one insists on seeing the world in a certain way then how can one understand and objectively report the experiences of others? But our media is so homogenous that it often forgets that white is not universal or neutral.
It struck home after 9/11, when the media began writing about British Muslims, littering their articles with a casual ignorance that probably had less to do with Islamaphobia and more to do with the lack of Muslims in newsrooms.
The inaccurate generalisations of British Muslim life swept away the myriad of experiences of those I knew who practised the faith; until a terrifying caricature of the British Muslim had etched itself firmly onto the public imagination. So much so that when a group of men who happened to be Muslim abused and raped vulnerable young girls in Rochdale, it fitted perfectly into a dangerous narrative which continually demonizes anyone part of that faith. “While our media continue to exclude minority voices in general, such lazy racial generalisations are likely to continue,” wrote Guardian journalist Joseph Harker in an article on the subject back in July.
Caitlin Moran’s dismissive comments on the experience of black women provides another example of our media’s inability to recognise that white is not universal. Moran said that she “ literally couldn’t give shit about” about the lack of black women in the Brooklyn-based TV show Girls. When criticized for her comments, Moran’s defenders, including high profile journalists and writers, leapt to her defence. One tweeted nauseatingly that Moran’s book was not called How to be ALL Women and Lena Dunham’s TV show was not ALL Girls. How depressing, how patronising, how belittling; I want your understanding not your tokenism.
One positive is we have had a spate of eloquent articles from young black women, voices rarely given a platform, which has enriched the debate. Sadly they have been derided as trolls and dismissed by other feminists.
But what saddened me most is that while I know the media in general does not represent the myriad of experiences that make up modern Britain, I had thought many female journalists were different; in their writing I found what James Baldwin described as “the specialness of my existence [which] could be made to connect me with other people instead of dividing me from them.”
I cling to the idea that humanity and good writing trumps skin tone, as I clung to it in my sixth form common room when Sissay poeticized the reality. In some journalists, especially feminist writers, I could do what Baldwin wanted and “connect”. Growing up I enjoyed the wit, intellectual curiosity and platform of writers like Zoe Williams (one of Moran’s defenders on Twitter). And I swooned over Caitlin Moran’s teenage revelry in How to be a Woman, exalting in the familiar, if banal, battles of figuring out the physicality of being a woman.
The casual flippancy of one journalist has lifted the lid on a deep seated complacency within the liberal, white media. Each day brings a new article explaining why it is impossible for writers to represent everyone, all the time, tacitly defending the need to remain insular. The lack of understanding is frustrating, but the unwillingness to even try to understand is infuriating. It is the same ignorance that informs the reporting on British Muslim, and it saddens me that we have these battles in 2012.
As a black women, over-schooled on a diet of English literature, I am used to making excuses for my favourite long dead writers, exalting in their prose and excusing prejudice and casual intolerance as a product of their time.
But it is wrong to make excuses; brilliant writers can transcend the bigotry of their time with a little empathy and understanding. As African-American Richard Wright did in Black Boy published in 1945:
“There were many more folk ditties, some mean, others filthy, all of them cruel. No one ever thought of questioning our right to do this; our mothers and parents generally approved, either actively or passively. To hold an attitude of antagonism or distrust towards Jews was bred in us from childhood; it was not merely racial prejudice, it was part of our cultural heritage.”
Wright called out his own intolerance, setting out his shame on the page and expressing remorse. He was a child, a “half-starved, ignorant, victim of racial prejudice”, but he could still step back and recognise that the anti-semitic songs he sang were wrong. If he could do it then why can’t we do it now?