UK’s Channel 4 last night aired the first in a two part documentary entitled “Make Bradford British”. The show aims to understand what it means to be British by putting 8 diverse characters in a house together to try to come to a unified definition. In fairness to the show, they never explicitly refer to the colour, race, religion or attitude of any of the participants, leaving them to comment themselves. But nevertheless, each of the characters is clearly chosen specifically for their diversity of attitudes, with the final group including a couple of middle class whites, two Muslims, a Black man, a young man portrayed as a racist and another two who have not yet outwardly declared religion or race.
It’s not hard to see why Bradford was chosen for this experiment – it has a huge Asian population and has a long history of racial tension. In 2001, following decades of racial segregation, the city not only suffered massive race riots but was also declared by an independent report as a city “gripped by fear”. Since then, whenever racial issues have featured in the UK’s news, you can be sure that reports have streamed in from Bradford.
With such diversity represented, I see the programme’s strengths as appealing to a huge segment of society, but whether or not the format will manage to change public perceptions (as some claim its goal is) is yet to be seen. As a piece of entertainment, its Big Brother style first part (and Wife Swap style sequel) fits the bill, and is rather thought provoking too; the first snippet of confrontation occurs when Rashid insists on leaving the house to go to the mosque. But where most of their comments are tempered by insinuation in the spirit of trying not to offend, the one person who speaks out most candidly in opposition to Rashid’s determined worship is fellow Muslim Sabbiyah; defying those who say that all Muslims are the same.
For me this programme is an interesting prospect – Bradford is only a 20 minute drive from my house, so I know the area well. But also personally, I was subject to quite a bit of racism as I grew up – which was always a bit peculiar given that neither of my parents has roots outside the UK, except for one French ancestor and the clandestine rumour of a pregnant Spanish maid…
Nevertheless, being spat at on the bus, being called ‘Paki‘ fairly frequently and a lifetime of being asked “no, where are you REALLY from?” has made me interested in how identity is constructed. This has become even stronger since I’ve lived outside the UK, generally being referred to as whatever the local derogatory term for ‘whitey’ is.
In essence I have always had a feeling that I didn’t quite belong (in any country – I blend in the most in Italy until my accent gives me away), but yet at the same time, that the UK is absolutely my home, and I certainly class myself as British (not English mind you; I’m half Welsh).
Before the programme aired, it was already facing criticism for its provocative title implying that Bradford is not actually British, but several local figureheads were rightfully waiting to see the show before condemning it. Now that time has come, you can read a balance of reviews at: The Daily Mail (Britishness and cultural identity matter), The Guardian (Failed to get beyond racial stereotypes), The Socialist Worker (lacks facts), The Metro (disappointingly controversy free) or The Independent (Obviously Rashid’s British – he says “snicket” and “job’s a good’un”)
If the programme itself was aiming for lofty goals, perhaps it failed, but in terms of the subject matter it has evoked, I think it could be a huge success. Jens, a 71 year old former policeman starts out by saying that he’d better watch what he says, which betrays an all too common attitude towards political correctness – we know that we shouldn’t say certain things in British society today, but we don’t always really understand why. On top of that, a survey commissioned by Channel 4 revealed that 54% of Britons are sometimes confused about which words are acceptable to use describing people from ethnic minorities.
When the drink starts to flow, Jens thinks better of his own advice and jokingly calls Desmond a ‘Black Bastard’ after recalling jovially how he used to invite an Asian friend of his out for a spot of ‘Paki-bashing’. It’s okay, he justifies, because it was done with a smile. The next morning Jens is totally mystified at the reaction he caused – Audrey, who up until filming was a strong defender of using the word ‘Paki’ suddenly begins to equate it with the racist names she was called as she grew up and tearfully tells the camera how ashamed she now feels. Desmond questions his world-weary response of taking it on the chin – now that he’s on tv, is he not representing all those who are called similarly? and Sabbiyah realises what those words must have meant in reality for her own father years ago.
And that’s the issue with racist words such as these – their use is confused in the modern day. Some people use them derogatorily, some use them positively and many forget what they really mean, but regardless of intent, they still carry with them a heavy history of hate.
Political correctness should not be about being seen (and heard) to be acting appropriately, its purpose should be to understand why saying certain things isn’t such a good idea. But British society seems to have a phobia of debating these issues, leaving in its wake stilted public personas and an overflow of privately spoken, often misunderstood, prejudiced remarks.
It brings to mind a very thought-provoking (if verbally sexually graphic) clip from Louis CK’s 2010 Comedy LOUIE Episode 2, in which a group of friends, one of whom is gay, discuss the word ‘Faggot’ (the discussion comes after 4 minutes but it’s worth watching the whole clip for the full impact):
In LOUIE, the issue may not be racism, but the connotations and impact of using such derogatory words are dealt with skilfully.
What this programme is potentially capable of doing though, is not finding a solution to racism as it seems to want to do, but of bringing to the surface all that misunderstood, unintentionally hurtful, unknowingly prejudiced joviality so that we can talk about it properly.