The Subtle Racism and Sexism of Mainstream Media – Tim Harvey

Tim Harvey is Politics editor for Sonder and a second year English Literature student at The University of Manchester. He writes poetry and political analysis, with a focus on Western foreign policy and the Middle East.

The Subtle Racism and Sexism of Mainstream Media

A couple of weeks ago, I was watching a re-run of an episode of QI on Dave, originally broadcast by the BBC on Christmas day, 2014. It was revealed towards the end that ‘60% of Americans believe that angels walk among people’, to which the crowd and panel responded with raucous laughter and extended ridicule; Alan Davies, for instance, queried why angels are walking when they have wings.

There is nothing inherently wrong with this mockery – some of the jokes were quite funny. However, when one imagines what response would be elicited by a similar treatment of the beliefs of Muslims, for instance, this derision of adherents to the Christian faith leaves a somewhat sourer taste. The juxtaposition of this statistic with one claiming that more than half of Americans thought Copenhagen was in Canada, served to establish the dual representation of generalisations that both Americans and Christians are stupid.

If the programme had included a section mocking the Islamic belief that the Angel Gabriel revealed the word of God to the Prophet Muhammad, no doubt there would have been popular uproar in response to a ‘racist’ contempt for a foreign culture. Implicit in this canonical belief, of course, is a belief in the existence of angels.

I feel it necessary to point out that there is nothing innately ludicrous about believing in angels. The conception of what constitutes an ‘angel’ is purely subjective for one, and I suspect there is likely a substantial disconnect between what those interviewed imagined as an angel, and what the panellists believed they meant. After all, Christians don’t all necessarily believe in the bearded God, perched upon a cloud, wearing sandals and a white gown, as may be popularly portrayed.

This example of mockery is symptomatic of a broader trend in contemporary British culture – one that tiptoes around potential flaws inherent in foreign cultures for fear of causing offence, yet sees Christianity as fair game for criticism. No doubt the Church of England’s wilful contribution to its own destruction through its adoption of apologist, non-positions on any matter concerning the protection of its faith has played a significant part in making this anti-Christian position acceptable, however it is disappointing to see in a country which owes so much culturally to Christianity. Britain may no longer be a Christian country in the purely religious sense, but it remains so historically and culturally.

Moreover, there is a darker aspect to these perceptions. The propensity, in this country, for commentators to baulk at Christian modes of thought whilst staunchly defending the right of Muslims to hold theirs, free from oppression or ridicule, is symptomatic of a culture that covertly reproduces colonial narratives of superiority with regards to ‘Eastern’ peoples. Implicit in these people’s perceptions is that Muslim people can hold what are painted as ‘infantile’ beliefs when similarly held by Christians, as they are held by a ‘backward’ race, which does not have the benefit of our ‘enlightened’ culture. They expect better, however, of their ‘own kind’; in other words, white people. Ironically, it seems, those same commentators who lead the neo-liberal charge against the ‘racists’ who criticise Islam are subconsciously more racist than those they chastise.

The consequences of these attitudes in the mainstream media were apparent in the context of the recent sexual assaults committed in Cologne and Hamburg, by men of ‘Arab or north African appearance’. The BBC and The Guardian didn’t comment on the story until the 5th of January, Sky News and The New Statesman made no mention of the situation until the 6th, and Al Jazeera failed to report on the events until the 8th, a full nine days after the attacks. In a world dominated by social media, where information spreads quickly, such a prolonged silence cannot be merely coincidental.

Concerning the content of the articles, those featured in the New Statesman and Al Jazeera raise some important questions. The former, written by Musa Okwonga, a journalist resident in Berlin, is predominantly spot-on in its analysis. The author’s plea to ‘keep sticking up for the women’ as opposed to focusing primarily on the ethnic origins of the attackers, and his outright condemnation of the attackers is an admirable line to take. However, there is a substantial section dedicated to adumbrating the ‘socio-economic’ condition of ethnic minorities in Germany, implying that there is at least some level of excuse to be made for these heinous crimes. I personally have no problem with anyone undertaking an analysis of the relationship between poverty and proclivity to commit sexual assaults; in fact, I imagine there is a direct correlation between the two. Yet, it is difficult to imagine the public accepting such ‘excuse-making’ had the perpetrators been working-class white men.

The focus of the article featured on the Al Jazeera website was nothing short of disgraceful. Having maintained an inordinately prolonged silence on the issue, the piece focuses on defending Islam more than the victims of the attack, whilst simultaneously implying dishonesty within police reports by stating that:

Police say witnesses have described the perpetrators as being of “Arab or North African origin”, but there is little solid information so far on who committed the assaults.

At no point does the article condemn the actions of the perpetrators in its own terms. It is perfectly reasonable to defend Islam in this circumstance, as the attackers by no means represent the religion as a whole, however by ignoring the plight of the victims and recasting the villains of the case as the general public, the author is guilty of shoddy and irresponsible journalism.

Even The Guardian’s ‘week of sexism’ article, published on the 5th of January, ignored the assaults, focussing instead on the dull remarks of remarkably stupid Australian politicians, as well as inappropriate comments made by West Indian cricketer Chris Gayle in a televised interview. Admittedly, the journalist is Australian and thus an Australian-centric approach is to be expected, yet one would imagine that sexual assaults perpetrated by as many as a thousand, organised attackers (according to some reports), may have registered to some degree. Instead, Gabrielle Jackson’s focus is on the supposedly subtle manifestations of sexism in the Western world, including a list of what constitutes misogyny, aimed at men, which includes the somewhat bizarre guideline:

Telling a junior female staff member that she has “piercing eyes” is a sexist act…
Any comment on her looks is sexist.

Not everything is ‘sexist’, some things are just rude.

It is not my intention to suggest that Christianity should be exempt from criticism or mockery; I don’t believe that any creed or set of values should be privileged in such a way. Nor do I believe it unreasonable to discuss the socio-economic backgrounds of those who commit sexual assaults. I merely wish to point out the double-standards evident within the media. In the case of sexual assault, nothing should be beyond the limits of discussion if it is able to help identify the root causes of such attacks and prevent their recurrence, be it race, ethnicity, religion or class. This is, of course, if we as a society are serious about procuring genuine equality for women, free from the fear of social denigration or physical assault.

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