Trevor Phillips, the former chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, prominent Blairite supporter and a man referred to so often as an astute self-publicist I’m beginning to wonder if it’s an official job title, has had an epiphany. He thinks that preventing people from expressing prejudiced ideas might not have been the best way to stop them thinking them. Because after years of hard labour and New Labour, racism still exists. The documentary Things We Won’t Say About Race That Are True (Channel 4) was an examination of where we are all at with our grand experiment in multiculturalism – what’s gone well and what we might try doing differently in the future.
In Phillips’ view, the well-intentioned work of the EHRC to stamp out racial bigotry has succeeded mainly in creating a climate of fear in which it has become impossible to publicly identify social problems or investigate criminal activities with an ethnic dimension because those doing so will either be ignored or vilified as racists. Social workers didn’t help Victoria Climbie, for instance, because they didn’t want to be seen as high-handedly intervening in an African family’s culture; the predominantly Asian gangs who groomed girls in Rotherham were allowed to do so for years because the police didn’t want to get involved with something so politically sensitive, and so on.
Had we but world enough and time – and sufficient beta-blockers to get us through it – we could examine the strengths and weaknesses of his argument here, again, as has been done in papers of every political hue this week in the run-up to broadcast, but alas, life and space are short, so let us concentrate on its strengths and weaknesses as a documentary.
Densely and rather beautifully written, it had all of Phillips’ patented mix of charm, warmth and reassuring, unthreatening gravitas – which, given the incendiary nature of its contents, was just as well – and demanded more of the viewer than average. Whether you agreed with what was being said or not, there was the odd and welcome sense of being talked to as an adult by an adult – at least until Phillips interviewed Tony Blair, which was, as ever, like being addressed by a calculating machine trying to manoeuvre its way between irritating, human-shaped obstacles so that it can get to the chestful of cash on the other side of today’s chessboard.
It asked a lot of questions and threw up many more. Is Ukip full of racists or of people unjustly abandoned by successive governments as uncongenial to their ideological projects? What’s the overlap? Should the fact that the press is basically incapable of reporting nuance mean we should avoid all stories and ignore all activities that could be rendered as fuel for far-right fires? When and why did racism become the ur-crime – the one which we do not seek to explain (not excuse) by poverty, ignorance or deprivation, but prefer to condemn outright? Would the narrative be the same if immigrants tended to Come Over Here and take middle-class media jobs rather than working-class ones? Though the one I kept coming back to (apart from – if you ARE an astute self-publicist, does being called “the bravest man in Britain” by Richard Littlejohn count as a win or not? ) was: did the EHRC really believe that stopping the expression of something would make the thought impossible? I always thought that was just an unfortunate construction that could be put on its activities by those with malign motivation to do so. If not … well, I might need a sequel. Things I’d Like You To Explain Were True That I Otherwise Won’t Believe.
Related but more – though not entirely – uplifting fare was offered by 25-year-old hijab-sporting Muslim woman Dina Torkia who designs and blogs about fashion that conforms to her religion’s standards of modesty in dress, in Muslim Miss World (BBC3).It was an account of her entry into the annual beauty pageant held in Indonesia (“I follow you on YouTube!” squeals Malaysia’s contestant when they first arrive) to find the woman who can best represent Islam round the world. It is a relatively new contest and there are still a few procedural kinks to be ironed out. The final winner being chosen by a hundred bewildered orphans being one that springs immediately to mind.
It was a fascinating look at the different interpretations of modesty in different Muslim cultures – almost as eye-opening for Dina as it was for those of us who of necessity are always looking from outside in – and she was a hilarious, indefatigable, gobby, northern gift of a guide (“Am I disqualified yet?” she asked interestedly, before she left the roomful of organisers she’d just taken to task) whom I hope will be inundated with offers of other presenting gigs in the wake of this debut. A walking advert for multiculturalism, you could send her in to makeover the EHRC in six weeks, say. Just a thought. I’ll leave it with you.