Impartial my arse
I’m going to have to make this quick. I’m supposed to be finishing a book and doing all of the other things academics have to do, not to mention feeding the baby who’s trying to teach himself to crawl under the kitchen table. However, for anyone engaged in critiquing white supremacy, as I am, the BBC’s decision to partially uphold a complaint against its presenter Naga Munchetty (above) for breaching its impartiality code with remarks relating to Donald Trump telling four congresswomen of colour to ‘go home’ is extremely significant. And not in a good way.
The BBC’s Editorial Complaints Unit (ECU) has put out this explanation of its decision:
Let’s start with the phrase ‘she understandably feels strongly about this issue’. Why does it need saying that Munchetty ‘feels strongly’ about racism? She didn’t express a strong feeling about it until directly encouraged to do so by her co-presenter, Dan Walker. She didn’t say ‘I’m fucking sick of being treated in the way that he treated those four women’, though I can imagine that — even if she wasn’t then — she must be now. What she said, when asked directly how she felt, was that she felt ‘furious’ that he was engaging in the kind of racist language that she experienced as a matter of course. The ECU has said that she was ‘perfectly entitled’ to talk about her own experiences of racism. So how is it relevant to the ruling?
This is what she said:
Every time I’ve been told as a woman of colour to ‘go home’, to ‘go back to where I’ve come from’, that was embedded in racism.
This isn’t strong feeling. It’s reasoned analysis. If someone tells me to go home, they aren’t telling me to go back to London — where I was born — or to Wales — where my grandmother’s family came from — or to France — where my Huguenot grandfather’s family came from — or to whichever part of the Jewish diaspora my great-grandmother came from. They’re telling me to go back to my house. It would never occur to me that they were telling me anything else. The reason for that is simple: I’m white. I have always been taught, therefore, to assume that I am ‘at home’ in the UK in a way that people of colour have not.
These assumptions fly in the face of history. Britain (which was created in 1707 by the Act of Union) has always been a colonial — rather than a nation — state (as Gurminder Bhambra and others have shown), and has therefore always been both multi-cultural and multi-ethnic. In spite of this, both Britishness and Englishness have always been mythically identified as white, and the policies of governments and national institutions have sought to sustain that myth. How else can we explain the postwar decision to prioritise white immigrants from Europe coming to rebuild Britain over colonial citizens wishing to work in the UK? Or the attempts to apply the 1948 British Nationality Act to white citizens of what had just become the Commonwealth and deter people of colour from exercising their equal rights under it? There is only one adequate explanation: white supremacy.
The BBC’s ‘impartiality’ ruling is just the latest example of white supremacy governing the policy of one of our national institutions. It asserts that:
our editorial guidelines do not allow for journalists to [..] give their opinions about the individual making the remarks or their motives for doing so
Munchetty did neither of these things. She didn’t say that Trump made his remarks because he is racist. She said that this kind of remark is ‘embedded in racism’. Not ‘embedded in his racism’. This is a crucial distinction, not because there’s even the tiniest chance that President Trump isn’t a racist, but because Munchetty was not talking about racism in the sense that the ECU’s ruling assumes. Its reference to ‘motive’ explicitly makes racism a matter of personal prejudice. But that is a very partial account of racism — in both senses: it only sees part of it, and it advances the interests of a particular party, in this case, the interests of white people.
If we begin from a different account of racism, we get a different answer. Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, writes, for example, that racism is not ‘an ideological or attitudinal phenomenon’ but ‘a structure’: ‘a network of social relations at social, political, economic and ideological levels that shapes the life chances of the various races’. Munchetty asserted that Trump’s comments were ‘embedded in racism’, i.e. embedded in a network of social relations at social, political, economic and ideological levels that shapes the life chances of the various races. This makes no assertion about any individual or any motive. It simply states that the comments cannot be understood unless they are considered within the network of social relations that constitute white supremacy. I would go further. The BBC’s ruling can equally not be considered without reference to this network of social relations, and it can be seen to advance the interests of white supremacy in at least four ways.
- Its projection of ‘strong feeling’ onto Munchetty’s remarks discredits her reasoned analysis.
- Its assumption that racism is a matter of personal prejudice misrepresents her remarks by framing them in a way that she was careful to avoid.
- The conception of racism upon which the judgement rests places an intolerably high burden of proof on anyone wising to analyse and critique it because it requires them to demonstrate ‘motive’.
- The fact that the ruling has been applied only to Munchetty and not to her co-presenter, Dan Walker, exonerates him from responsibility for placing his co-presenter in a position where she could not avoid offering an opinion that could be read (albeit maliciously) as an implicit accusation (how could she talk about her own experiences of racism in this context without indirectly commenting on Trump’s racism?). The ruling therefore exonerates Walker because his whiteness frees him from the burden of being seen to have an opinion about racism and punishes Munchetty because she cannot escape having an opinion about it.
The BBC’s much-vaunted impartiality therefore needs to be seen for what it is: a strategy of white supremacy.