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Dear Newsbeat, black Britishness is more than just chicken and armbands


31 Oct 2016

This afternoon, whilst browsing Twitter or listening to the radio, you may have come across a BBC Newsbeat discussion surrounding whether or not there’s truth in the myth that black people can’t swim. “Some would say it’s fair enough,” said Newsbeat presenter Nesta McGregor on the 12:45pm episode of Newsbeat, before playing a clip of a black guy explaining that he can’t swim further than six metres.

Fair enough? Apart from it being factually and biologically untrue, there’s nothing fair about it at all.

The concept behind the Newsbeat documentary, That Black British Feeling, is to explore why so many black British people feel solidarity with the #BlackLivesMatter movement, predominantly used to protest against police brutality in the US. Balancing the online documentary with a radio segment on Newsbeat as well as a campaign on the Newsbeat Twitter account, presenter Nesta McGregor, who is black, speaks to many young black British people about their experience with racism in the UK.

“From the first 5 minutes I thought we were on to a great thing but did come away a little disappointed.”

We asked some black British viewers of the documentary for their own feelings towards it. “As a trained journalist and a mixed race female, I definitely empathised with the narrator in terms of his own experiences not being taken seriously in the industry,” says Jenessa Williams. “From the first 5 minutes I thought we were on to a great thing but did come away a little disappointed.”

“Generally, the documentary felt rushed. If greater time and detail was put into the making of it then perhaps this could’ve been the ground-breaking and experimental half-hour of ‘Brown People Content’ the BBC thought it had made,” says another viewer, Malakai Sargeant.

The radio segment opened with clips from viral videos of protests and real-time recordings of black people dying, including one particularly macabre clip of Philando Castile’s girlfriend, Lavish “Diamond” Reynolds, saying, “please, Officer, don’t tell me that you just did this to him,” recorded whilst Castile bled out in the driver’s seat next to her.

Initially, the movement was falsely described by McGregor as focusing on “black people being killed by white officers in the States.” This is a regressive description of the movement, limiting it to black versus white (after all, Asian cops Peter Liang and Daniel Holtzcaw have both been highlighted by the #BlackLivesMatter movement: Liang for shooting the unarmed Akai Gurley, and Holtzclaw for abusing his position as a police officer to stalk and sexually assault black women). Instead, #BlackLivesMatter wishes to focus on the structural inequality of the police force and US justice system as just that: systems.

Measurable inequality, particularly within the police force, exists in the UK as well, one reason why the #BlackLivesMatter movement may have made such an impact here. But you would be forgiven for missing that this is what the documentary was about when browsing the Newsbeat Twitter account. Instead of uploading clips from the documentary, they chose to focus on stereotypes about black people: Is it true most black people like fried chicken? Is it true most black people can’t swim? And despite being called “That Black British Feeling”, they chose to focus on white feelings: Can they say the N-word or not?

“This is where I think the series essentially undid it’s own hard work,” says Jenessa, “the way they’ve made these videos feels like a comedy roast of white against black.”

“As a vegetarian who can swim, I find this line of questioning archaic and insulting.”

“As a vegetarian who can swim, I find this line of questioning archaic and insulting,” Malakai says. “We’re tired of the stereotypes and getting token brown folk to talk on behalf of our communities on such issues.”

Intertwined with these questions, both presenters, Chris Smith and Nesta McGregor, tripped over their tongues to avoid saying absolutely that racism exists. McGregor describes that #BlackLivesMatter “is now used to speak out about the racism that many people feel that black people may face all over the world.”

It is not biased to say defiantly that racism exists. Racial inequality is measurable across the country, as the BBC itself reported as recently as August of this year. To describe it in the language of feelings and emotions erases the very real experiences of racism that many black people can attest to. It is not an invented phenomenon. And this should not up for debate.

In this case, Newsbeat seems to have confused what it means for the BBC to be a non-partisan organisation. Being unbiased does not mean presenting racist stereotypes as valid opinions worthy of discussion. In videos on Twitter, Newsbeat has presented black people having to defend themselves by explaining that fried chicken “is not the only food that we eat”, as white people squirm in their chairs to draw for any inoffensive response to such a charged question (“certain cartoons and films have played on that stereotype”). One flustered lad tries to make sense of the fact that a lot of black people he knows love chicken. “There’s a stereotype but it’s not… it is true but everyone… I don’t know,” he mumbles, whilst the subtitles at the bottom somewhat unfairly sum up his muddled opinion as “it’s a stereotype but it’s true.”

The jovial manner and style of how this question was framed illuminates the entire problem regarding this incident. To discuss whether racial stereotypes are in fact true not only takes away from the political debate at hand, #BlackLivesMatter, but it fails to analyse the cultural context of the stereotypes discussed. The concept of “black people loving chicken” largely stems from African American culture (and thus a stereotype culturally passed over) from the notoriously racist film Birth of a Nation which was originally called The Clansman in 1915. The imagery of a black official brazenly eating fried chicken in the film “really solidified the way white people thought of black people and fried chicken”, says University of Missouri professor Claire Schmidt in an article for NPR’s Code Switch.

To suggest that the discussion of these stereotypes can reach some sort of conclusion of “true” or “false” is, at best, an absurd thought exercise, and at worst, racist. Especially when framed in the context of, as the BBC put it, “talking about being black and British and the stereotypes you might face’’. Debating the truth of a stereotype is not the same as discussing the impact a stereotype might have. Instead, our identities are being negatively portrayed and discussed on the countries national broadcasting channel, in such a way that they are being treated with the respect of fair debate. It practically gives these stereotypes validity.

So is this really “fair enough”? Is it fair that BBC Newsbeat is reducing the feelings of black British people, as titled by them, to stereotypes that anybody can gauge are generalisations rather than truths, especially when it is an organisation funded by the taxpayer?

“Black Britishness is a complex and multi-faceted state; this documentary brazenly over-simplified our experiences.”

“It would have been interesting also to look at the type of racism black Britons have faced in the wake of Brexit specifically,” says Jenessa, when asked about what she would’ve liked to have seen in a documentary titled That Black British Feeling, as well as “more emphasis on those who are working so hard and so positively to champion black culture.”

“Black Britishness is a complex and multi-faceted state; this documentary brazenly over-simplified our experiences and neglected many of the challenges we face day-to-day and on a larger scale,” Malakai says.

Both viewers expressed a sentiment that the documentary failed to cover the positive movements happening within the black community in the UK. “More and more, black people in the UK are creating our own content to tell our own stories in the media and the arts,” says Malakai. Perhaps, Newsbeat should have focused more attention on these feelings as well.