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An open letter to The Sunday Times to publish an apology for anti-Asian racism

The Sunday Times must retract and apologise the anti-Asian racism it peddled in the wake of Prince Philip's death.

20 Apr 2021

On 18 April 2021, The Sunday Times published a front page news piece from Windsor on Prince Philip’s funeral, written by journalist and author Christina Lamb, who serves as the paper’s chief foreign correspondent. We demand a retraction and apology for the piece, for the reasons outlined below. 

In reference to the late Duke, Lamb writes: “Prince Philip was the longest-serving royal consort in British history – an often crotchety figure, offending people with gaffes about slitty eyes, even if secretly we rather enjoyed them.”  

This line appeared in the third paragraph of the print version and was later removed from the digital version without reference to the original wording – presumably in response to the online backlash received. 

Portraying the nation as a collective ‘we’ that ‘secretly’ enjoys racist and derogatory slurs at the expense of racial groups is insensitive at best and encouraging racist violence at worst. Featuring this line in a piece destined for the front page makes it clear that Lamb believes her personal enjoyment of ‘gaffes’ making fun of the physical features of a racial group is representative of public opinion. 

She is certainly not representing East and South-East Asians (ESEA) in the UK and other Western countries who have experienced countless taunts on the shape of their eyes. These comments are unacceptably familiar to ESEA folk, imprinting racial trauma from experiences in the playground to the office.

Further, ESEA women experience sexualisation, exoticisation, and fetishisation, with slanted and sideways eyes often incorporated into sexual slurs referencing their genitalia.

While the subject of the front page news report may have been the ceremonial funeral of the Queen’s consort, why was the front page of the broadsheet Sunday paper with the UK’s largest-circulation (650,000) an apparently appropriate place for Lamb to revel in and reminisce over these comments that reinforce harmful messages and tropes?

Lamb is not the only person in the mainstream media to have justified and dismissed Philip’s racially charged comments towards the ESEA community. Historian Robert Lacey echoed this sentiment on BBC 5 Live’s Sunday Breakfast show: “When he was in China everybody remembers he was talking to British students and he said, ’if you stay here much longer, you’ll go slitty eyed’,” Lacey said. “I think people still smile at that and see well, there was an element of truth in that, and his ability to laugh at some of the difficult situations in life.”

BBC reporter Eleanor Oldroyd also excused the comments, saying: “It’s the kind of comment now that we raise our eyebrows at in a huge way, but I suppose if you’re a man of 99, then you CAN say certain things”.

“At a time when ESEA communities are suffering increased levels of racial hatred, the comments by Lamb and her peers are incomprehensible” 

It is reasonably expected that Lamb, as the Chief Foreign Correspondent for The Sunday Times, will be more than aware of the increased violent hate crimes experienced by East and Southeast Asians in the United States. The local consequences may fall beyond her journalistic remit, but we can enlighten her to the fact that the first recorded attack in the UK was on the 24  February 2020, when 23-year-old Jonathon Mok was attacked on Oxford Circus. Met Police data indicates at least a 179% increase in hate crime reports from British Chinese, East and Southeast Asians since lockdown started in March 2020, when compared to previous years.

We know that crimes are often underreported, and it is likely these statistics do not reflect those who didn’t feel they could report their attacks. We also know that the rise in hate crimes and justifications for attacks directly stems from people’s associations of Covid-19 with anybody who looks vaguely East or Southeast Asian. 

At a time when ESEA communities are suffering increased levels of racial hatred, the comments by Lamb and her peers are incomprehensible.

‘Casual’ racism is still racism, and all racism is unacceptable. The constant framing of these comments as light-hearted jokes must be condemned for what it is: egregious nullification of racism, giving legitimacy to the false belief that using derogatory terms to describe ethnic minorities is nothing more than a source of humour. Intent does not negate the impact, whether in regurgitating or approving the ‘gaffes’.

The normalisation of racial slurs feeds into the bigger ecosystem of racism and oppression. Atlanta, and now Indianapolis, has shown that hate speech precedes physical violence. To so flagrantly promote the idea that “WE” as a nation ‘secretly’ enjoy racist and derogatory slurs only serves to encourage more overt acts of racism.  

We ask that The Sunday Times issue a formal retraction and apology on their digital and print platforms for publishing and approving Lamb’s article with her original wording, and for Lamb to take responsibility for trivialising racism with an acknowledgement and apology on her own channels. 

Yours sincerely,

Susie Lau and ESEA Sisters

To add your name to the list of signatories, click here.