Politicians Must Acknowledge the Link Between Negative Media Stereotyping of the Somali Community and Marginalisation

by Faisa Abdi and Hamdi Issa

What are the implications when British society as a whole strongly associate Somalis with intractable problems? Over the past decade, media reporting on the Somali community has been disproportionately negative and perpetually centred on moments of crisis. The typical captions are all too often the pirate, the benefit cheat, the criminal or, most damaging, the terrorist. These stereotypical, one-dimensional stories negate the challenges, experiences and viewpoints of those within the community.

CAc69JwWcAAZ2FCUnbeknown to most Britons, Somalis have been in the UK since the mid-nineteenth century. The first Somalis to migrate to the UK were economic migrants who settled in the dockland areas of Liverpool, Cardiff, Bristol and London, where they worked as merchant seamen. A second wave of Somalis arrived in Britain during the Second World War, serving alongside British military in the Royal Navy. Due to high labour demand in the steel industry, the majority of them settled in Britain after the war. However, the most recent and largest net migration of Somalis is due to the country’s civil war. Today, the Somali community represents one of the largest ethnic minority groups in Britain, yet their contributions remain largely unrecognised by mainstream media.

In the 1990s, psychologist Claude Steele developed the ‘stereotype threat’ concept. When stigmatised groups are aware of their negative stereotypes they often fear being viewed or treated in a way consistent with the stereotype. In focus groups within the British Somali community held across several London boroughs, more than three-quarters of the participants believed that representation of Somalis in the news had an undesirable impact on how they were viewed by society. Many young Somali boys said they felt victimised by the police force. They believed that negative media images provide the police and other authorities with manufactured misrepresentations of the Somali community, particularly Somali males.

Additionally, British Somalis have a distinctive disadvantage compared to other migrant communities. They typically identify as black and Muslim, which increases the frequency of being subjected to distorted representation. In addition to facing the negative images of Somalis, every day they are challenged by the Islamphobia in the media and the incessant degrading representation of black communities.

The disproportionate emphasis on single negative stories forces many British Somalis to work extra hard to prove their ‘Britishness’, obscures more positive dimensions of their reality, and negatively affects how they continue to be perceived by others.

For a government that should be concerned with issues related to cohesion and integration, it is important to be sharply aware of these distorted patterns of portrayal, so that they can address the problem in an informed way. To the politicians that serve us: we call upon you to seize this opportunity to begin creating the infrastructure to stand up to negative media images of British Somalis.

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Faisa Abdi is a Somali Advocate at Migrants Rights Network. She has a BSc in International Politics and Sociology.

Hamdi Issa is a Researcher at Public Health England and an advocate at Migrants Right Network. She has a BSc in Biomedical Science and a Master’s degree in Public Health.

This article is part of the London Somali Democratic Engagement Project, assisting ten young British Somalis to become spokespeople for their community. @UKSomalis2015 

‘The Other Political Series’ curated by journalist Kiri Kankhwende is your go to alternative to the colourless mainstream commentary ahead of the General Election in May 2015. #OtherPolitics highlights issues and perspectives that are being overlooked in the election debate and presents different angles on some well-trodden issues.

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