I was in bed this morning, I’d woken up a little later than usual and I was listening to a song that I remember hearing once whilst I was in my teens. The song’s called Brown Skin by India Arie and for some reason it was stuck in my head from the moment I awoke. It was quite ironic that this particular song was on my mind, as when I was a teen I wondered ‘Why on earth would anyone want to sing about their love for Brown skin?’
And I think that’s symptomatic of society as a whole really. A society where, whether you choose to accept it or not, people with ‘brown skin’ are automatically valued less based purely on their skin colour. Sadly enough, it seems to be quite a prevalent thought amongst white people in particular that racism just doesn’t exist anymore. This school of thought couldn’t be any further from the truth.
Sadly, the most harmful examples of racism are in places you’d least expect to display any kind of racism whatsoever. Take the mainstream media as an example, the BBC, Sky News, The Daily Mail, The Sun etc… Pretty much every outlet acts in unison when it comes to international human tragedies. If there’s a humanitarian crisis or a fatal incident abroad where it’s presumed that no white people have been harmed then it’s all very sad and very sombre.
But the very moment there’s a suspicion that a white person (particularly ‘Britons’ or Americans) might have died, been seriously injured, gone missing, or perhaps broken a toe-nail, the entire mood changes. All of a sudden there’s a frenetic urgency in the reporting, reporters turn up in Nairobi or Jakarta or wherever en-masse with photographers and cameramen to broadcast live. We’re given more and more regular updates on the situation, especially on that of the white person(s) affected. We get the full X-Factor treatment: their life story, glowing tributes from family members and friends, childhood photos and home movies etc. We actually expect headlines along the lines of: ‘Briton hit with a stick as famine claims 2 million lives’.
As soon as the Briton is ok, the coverage tails off until everybody’s forgotten all about it. And if there never was any risk to a white person, the coverage while remain until the focus can shift on to another story about white people elsewhere. A classic example of this was the media’s attempts to distract from the on-the-ground footage and reportage coming out of Gaza this year, by placing more time and focus on MH17 and in particular wild theories on who did it. Thankfully it didn’t work, as there were plenty of online sources for news that actually valued Gazans as living beings.
It’s a fact of life now, we come to expect it. What is disappointing though is the role of government in this. It’s fascinating to see how Barack Obama and David Cameron describe terrorist acts abroad as ‘disgusting, inhumane’ etc, whilst at the same time they order extra-judicial airstrikes in Pakistan, Libya, Somalia, Yemen, Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq. What’s the difference?
What’s become clear to me, is the reason why I wondered why anyone would want to write a song about loving brown skin is that we’re not actually valued as human beings. When there’s talk of tragedy in faraway places like Africa, India or the Middle East, there’s an obsession with numbers. How many have died? How much aid have they received? How many days has this gone on? How many are displaced? How many airstrikes have there been? How many injured? How many children hurt? All good questions, all things we need to know. But the problem is, these aren’t very human measures. They’re just numbers, reeled off from a notepad with little thought or emotion. Is that all we are to you?
Over the past few years there have been a number of flooding situations here in the UK, and of course these floods mainly impact on rural areas which are in turn mainly populated by white people. The coverage of these floods was wildly different. Of course, we were given all the numbers, but these weren’t reeled off emotionlessly, these were delivered to us with feeling. We were treated to interviews with local residents, we were given stories about how this had impacted them, we were given historic context to their individual situation.
Brown people in trouble are rarely afforded such privilege. If we get any historical context, it usually dates back to some colonial era when Britain or France or Belgium used to be in charge or even worse it tends to be filled with flawed, inaccurate stereotypes. That’s right, Western journalist. Don’t do any research. Africa is of course one big massive continent full of problems, death, famine and drought. It certainly doesn’t have a vast array of different countries with different terrains with different climates with different people.
This kind of attitude has cultivated a sense of apathy towards people in faraway lands, the ‘Oh, but that’s always happening over there’ attitude. WHAT?! The Middle East is in complete turmoil – ‘Yeah, but they’re always fighting over there – they’re used to it’. Perhaps us over here in the West ought to realise that for every story, there are people behind it. People trying to live their lives, to be successful, to feed their families, to give them shelter, to dream big and to earn themselves a better life.
We have to understand that the people we read about during these crises in faraway lands are humans too, they’ve lived a life of struggle. The mother in Yemen who’s just witnessed her family home being demolished in an airstrike hasn’t just lost some bricks and mortar. That home had seen several generations of her family grow old, it had experienced decades, maybe even centuries, of memories. It was where she took her first steps, spoke her first words, played with her siblings, grew up with her family, where she got married, where she gave birth, where she watched her offspring take their first steps, heard their first words, watched them play, grow up, get married and have their own kids too. It’s not just a house, or a statistic. It’s a major part of a person’s life, yet in the reporting of foreign events, we don’t get shown this at all. Compare that to the scenario where a tragedy befalls a westerner, and the difference is marked.
Racism has not gone away, it has evolved. Sure, there are many racists who still hark back to the ‘good old days’ and hurl out disgusting insults, but as society has deemed that kind of thing as unacceptable, it has pushed racism underground. More often than not, the racism we now see today is hidden in plain sight. It’s more discrete, and a little more clever than it used to be, but it’s just as hurtful as it has ever been.
It’s time the world woke up, and dug a little deeper in to the news we’re fed.