Last Friday night, Sunny Singh, a writer, lecturer and long-time resident of the UK was returning home from a night out with her brother and friend when they were subjected to an unprovoked and horrific racist attack. It included violence and repeated use of the “p” word. What made this situation particularly distressing was the police response which followed. The police officers saw fit to leave Sunny and her friend alone in the very place they were attacked to go and look for the attacker and, as Sunny tweeted: we were “treated like criminals.”
The issue of race relations has taken on added intensity in the UK news of late. In the week running up to local and European elections, there has been much discourse on how racist rhetoric by politicians has shifted the social landscape thus making it easier to engage in racist language where people of colour or European migrants can be “othered” with ease. Indeed only recently Nigel Farage, the leader of UKIP said: “any normal and fair-minded person would have a perfect right to be concerned if a group of Romanian people suddenly moved in next door.” Perhaps it is because of this climate that the BBC presenter, Jeremy Clarkson, can use the “n” word and still keep his highly paid job at the BBC.
Indeed the disproportionately high number of times Nigel Farage has been on BBC’s Question Time tells us how objective news coverage has been sacrificed at the altar of ever higher ratings.
Politics, rhetoric and media representation are all intrinsically linked. Once you create a hegemony which legitimises racism in any form, through language, attitudes and news stories, you will see those very things played out in reality.
All of these issues were at the forefront of my mind as I watched Yellow Face, a satirical play on race politics at the National Theatre in London. It posed a host of questions on race relations, most strikingly the idea that if we can no longer recognise someone’s ethnicity does the concept of race still exist.
The play starts with the director of the play, David Henry Hwang, played by Kevin Shen, who reimagines himself at an actual event that took place when the US Actors’ Equity Association protested against the casting of Jonathan Pryce, a white American in the role of an Asian American actor in Miss Saigon.
Using this as the premise, the play then fictionalises the farcical attempts by a white American actor, Marcus Dahlman, played mischievously by Ben Starr, to be seen as an authentic Asian American actor. It has the ring of the “emperor’s new clothes” whereby nobody wants to object to the validity of someone being of colour lest it may cause offence.
Though as the play progresses, Dahlman is subjected to the same racism and victimisation as other Asian Americans. His party political donations are investigated, his nationality is questioned and he is judged purely on the perceived racial grouping he belongs to.
So, in response to the question posed: if we fail to recognise ethnicity, does race politics still exist? The answer is an overwhelming yes. It is the structures that uphold racism: the people who lead political office, the media portrayal of people of colour, the opportunities people of colour have to report on news stories or share their stories, the opportunities people of colour have for elected office or senior management roles, the opportunities for representation within the media and the arts. If fundamentally we live in an unequal society, upheld by the hegemony of institutional racism, where power is held by a white (and overwhelmingly male) minority, then the lens of race and the devastating impact of racism will always matter.
Indeed what the racist incidences Sunny experienced, and what the turn in UK politics indicates, is that we need to be ever more vigilant to the scourge of racism. We cannot be complacent during this round of elections or in our lives. Speaking up, engaging in civic activities and using our democratic right to vote are only some of the ways that we have at our disposal to lay bare the ugliness of racism for all to see.
Huma Munshi started the #fuckhonour hashtag to express her anger at the oppression women have experienced. She is a writer, poet, blogger and trade unionist. She is a regular contributor to Media Diversified, F-Word and Time to Change.
She has written widely on honour based violence, mental health, film and intersectionality. This column will reflect her passion for activism, a feminism that reflects her own experiences as an Asian Muslim woman, film reviews and current affairs. Read more of her articles here