At a conference at the Drake Hotel in Chicago I found myself struck (as I am on each visit to the US) by the degree to which race relations in the United States have changed in my lifetime. I was listening to a band playing swing music along with fellow delegates from US universities when suddenly a group of people took to the floor, some of them in appropriate period dress. In a moment we were all mesmerized by their spectacular moves. This was clearly a swing dance club. But just as striking was their tremendous variation in age and race. They switched partners frequently so the couples became as interesting to watch as their dancing. Women in their fifties danced with young men in their 30s, and also black with asian, white with black and so on. It was a wonderful sight. My favorite couples of the evening were an older black woman in a very fetching 1940s dress and hat dancing first with a young white man then with a much older Asian man. A colleague from Mississippi and I agreed that it was easy living overseas to forget that it is our cultural fluidity that makes Americans special. Tap dance is a combination of Irish and African traditions. Breakdance was created in all black areas but adopted by people of every ethnicity. Rap has established a place in Hollywood film scores. And course there is jazz. All of the dancers (and indeed the spectators) felt a shared cultural heritage. It made no difference which ethnic group had created or contributed to it. It was just American. The next day I returned to England and shortly thereafter destructive riots broke out in London and spread like wildfire across the country. In their aftermath I had reason to reflect on race and cultural interaction in a different context.
David Starkey, a distinguished British historian was invited by the BBC to give a cultural analysis of the riots. His subsequent remarks sparked a firefight on twitter and invited charges of racism as he announced that “the whites have become black.” He explained that “chavs” (a derogatory British term meaning effectively ‘white trash’) had adopted “black culture” which he went on to define as “…a particular sort of violent, destructive nihilistic gangster culture…” (The entire interview is available on YouTube.) I saw the live broadcast and as my mouth dropped open my brain produced two contradictory thoughts. First that it was the most unfortunate set of remarks that I have ever heard on the subject of race or culture. And second what a good thing that someone like him had finally articulated in plain English the jumbled cultural views held by many white British people. I was particularly struck by the passion in his voice as he concluded “this is why so many of us have the sense of literally a foreign country!”
Lest anyone think he thought all blacks were gangsters Starkey promptly cited David Lammy, a barrister, former minister and currently the MP for one of areas that saw the greatest destruction. But he used Lammy’s accent to reinforce his point about black culture proudly stating that David Lammy sounds “white.” He may as well have said, “the educated blacks are white.” This floored his fellow panelists and of course twitter went wild again. Accents in Britain can be a touchy subject. I found that out in my first job when two of my employees had an accent (and class) related dispute which I sorted out in a direct American manner to the horror of the head of the office (who possessed yet another kind of British accent.)
When you live in the UK you cannot help but become attentive to accents and I learned long ago that the accent David Lammy possesses is that of people educated in English private schools. It is no more a “white” accent that the bewildering array of accents all over the country shared by people of any race who happen to grow up there. It was amazing that he could speak this way in front a black panelist on the program. Non white people who speak like David Lammy do not think of their speech pattern as “white” nor should they – too many of them speak that way and too many whites do not. Starkey’s comment was particularly discouraging because of a phenomenon well-known in England (and the US) where black children in some areas who work hard at school are criticized by their classmates for “acting white.” Educators who have been trying to stamp out this attitude will not be thanking the noted historian.
But David Starkey would not be aware of any of the above unless he had close black friends and colleagues. Clearly he does not and he is not alone among his white compatriots in having contact only with his “homies.” Judging from his accent and remarks his homies are what are known in Britain as “home county” people. Meaning they live in the southern counties like Surrey and Hampshire and are well to do. As a very well-known historian with TV contracts his homies are also the sophisticated city dwellers in London and that is why I am grateful to him for exposing some of the truth about cultural interaction in the UK including in London. London is very diverse and also very international and I have heard many well to do white Londoners celebrate cultural diversity here. But it sometimes sounds a little theoretical. What is the point of diversity without interaction? True cultural interaction relies on mutual cultural contact. A Muslim friend of mine once remarked that it is easy to celebrate diversity in the abstract but the test is do they go to each other’s homes? Far too many do not and that is why they cannot influence their fellow white Britons on race.
There are also many white Britons, including those who find the association of black culture with violence distasteful, who would nonetheless struggle to identify significant contributions to British culture made by ethnic minorities. When asked to do so they will inevitably say music and food. Some may remember an author or two. But Starkey’s homies do not listen to black music. They may not enjoy ethnic food or modern urban literature. Certainly many white British people visit or have even lived in Africa or the Caribbean but that is not the same as appreciating black involvement in British culture. The fact is black contributions to British culture are not very profound and that is natural. British culture is over a 1000 years old but minorities here are relative newcomers and not very numerous. The black population of Britain was reported as only 1.2% in 2007. In London the percentage was 4.3% a drop from 4.8% in 2001. So it is not surprising if they have not made a major impact on British culture or been able to promote their own brand of British culture to the majority. The problem is when Starkey and his homies take it upon themselves to define black culture.
With no cultural references and no close black British friends their view of blacks is strictly second-hand. This situation of near cultural invisibility is very frustrating for black Britons. In the absence of a long history of cultural involvement and the presence of a history of prejudice they must be seen as active participants in society in order to safeguard their reputation as a community. Unfortunately, television and film in this case are more often than not unhelpful. British news has done a good job in diversifying anchors (we don’t know about the studio) and a heavy debt is due to newsmen Clive Myrie and Sir Trevor Macdonald. But the story is different when it comes to fiction in movies and television. The UK produces about one film a year. Both in film and on television costume dramas or other retro tales are very popular among the public. In a costume drama or 1940s war saga even the servants must be white in order to conform to historical accuracy. Such series therefore automatically rule out jobs for non white British actors and reduce further the possibility that Starkey’s homies will see dignified portrayals of black Britons. Some actors have found parts on one of the major soaps but most of Starkey’s homies do not watch East Enders. The talented Adrian Lester is one of a handful of black actors starring in a UK TV show.
Just as discouraging is the lack of representation of black families . In a recent crime miniseries starring the acclaimed Chiwetel Ejiofor, both black actors were married to white spouses. That is a realistic reflection of many British families but for black Britons it was a lost opportunity to portray them as a “normal” community with a culture of family. Many black British actors have fled to California due to a dearth of acting opportunities in the UK including Marianne Jean-Baptiste whose Golden Globe and Oscar nomination in 1996 received none of the press attention given white British actors similarly honored. In fact she was excluded from a delegation promoting British acting talent at the Cannes Film Festival following recognition by the US film industry. A British television guide reported a few years ago that most black actors on British screens are on US imports. So we are often watching British black actors portraying African-Americans.
In summary, widespread coverage with pictures of black youths rioting (whether or not they were in the majority) only served to highlight the cultural dilemma of Black Britons. In the real world news they are likely to be featured in a story about crime as perpetrators, victims or both. Yet in the world of make-believe they are largely absent in an entertainment industry which does not seem to be able to find parts for some of its best actors in modern-day professions. (When will we have black people playing an admiral or the head of a large company?)
Until someone opens a multi age, multi ethnic swing class franchise in the home counties it looks like we are stuck with TV as the medium through which Starkey’s homies acquire a more rounded image of black Britons. I suggest that the homies not worry their pretty little heads about what does and does not constitute black culture. Instead, let’s just concentrate on dramatically increasing the depiction of black participation in British society in film and television. If the broadcast schedule does not allow for it we can always drop one of David Starkey’s historical series on the monarchy to create some airtime.