The Windrush scandal raises some difficult questions about institutional racism and the media, says Dr Lee Edwards, Associate Professor in LSE’s Department of Media and Communications who teaches and researches public relations from a socio-cultural perspective.

 

The Windrush scandal in the UK has revealed how people who arrived in Britain as citizens of its Empire in the post-War years have had their citizenship rights challenged by successive governments trying to create a ‘hostile environment’ for migration, and causing them to suffer significant hardship as a result. It has made painfully visible the fluid nature of ‘belonging’ in Britain, and its constant vulnerability to political or pragmatic considerations. During the days of Empire, for example, the ideological deployment of Whiteness and its utility as a form of property, made it easy to deny the political, economic and citizenship rights of those who could not claim it as their heritage. Post-war, on the other hand, the need for labour meant that the boundaries of citizenship were relaxed. Today, the Home Office’s visa-granting regime tries to balance the political need to be seen to minimize immigration numbers with the urgent pragmatic need for skilled workers in the NHS, academia and elsewhere (often unsuccessfully).

Admission to the UK, however, has never guaranteed belonging here, and the media industries provide ample illustration of this. From the days of Empire until now, and as numerous studies (see for example, here, here and here) have shown, representations of people of colour by the UK media and promotional industries have repeatedly constructed their marginalization in relation to a white, classed and gendered British norm. Of course, these representations are mythical: as Hall notes, in his conclusion to the book, Un/settled Multiculturalisms (p. 217) ‘there have always been many different ways of being ‘British’’ and communities from Africa and Asia have been present in the United Kingdom for well over 500 years. Why is it that the same media who now champion the Windrush generation normally produce coverage of minorities/immigrants that implicitly justifies the discriminatory policies of governments bent on introducing a ‘hostile environment’?

As a consequence of the Windrush scandal, the government has been accused of institutional racism; could it be that the media and communications industries are vulnerable to the same accusation, and that this lies behind their persistent misrepresentations? The Macpherson Report following the death of Stephen Lawrence defines institutional racism as ‘The collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people’ (paragraph 6.34). Based on this, the media and communications industries might well be regarded as institutionally racist.

Representation aside, the professional worlds of journalists, public relations practitioners, advertisers and other communications industries, remain stubbornly white (Chartered Institute of Public Relations, 2016; Institute of Advertising Practitioners, 2018; Saha, 2018). My own research has identified racial discrimination in the PR profession, manifest as lived experiences of being ‘othered’, repeatedly and across different situations, so that one can never be certain of complete acceptance. This is not an historical artefact: over the past few months I have met with PR practitioners who describe such situations in their daily working lives: microaggressions such as being ignored on arrival for a meeting because it was assumed they were not the senior practitioner who was expected; being hyper-visible as the only person of colour in an annual general meeting; or having achievements under-valued while others are over-rewarded, remain depressingly common.

Does institutional racism mean the media and communications professions proactively exclude people of colour, or that all white practitioners are guilty of being racist? No. The media and communications industries recognise the problem of whiteness and are actively pursuing greater diversity, through proactively introducing diversity policies, introducing diversity forums or considering how recruitment and progression might be more equitable – but these measures are having limited impact. As Macpherson points out, institutional racism can be unwitting, a product of ignorance and stereotypes that circulate widely and influence even the most broad-minded of people. So is racism in the media and communications industries anyone’s fault, and can anything be done about it?

One way of addressing this question is to reject the idea of race as a category, and instead interpret it as ‘a process of structured events which over time demonstrate a system whereby groups and individuals are racialized’. Race is then transformed from a static, singular property to a systemic, dynamic and fluid attribute, repeatedly applied to groups and individuals in ways that impose marginalisation on some and grant inclusion to others. Its systemic nature means it is deeply embedded across a wide range of situations, and so the stubborn persistence of institutional racism in the media and communications industries is more easily explained.

If race is a systemic problem, then a systemic solution is called for. Policies based on representation (increasing the number of BAME individuals in a profession) or notions of ‘merit’ (requesting ‘blind’ CVs that have personal data omitted and/or quantifying achievements) can only go so far. They do not deal with assessments of ‘fit’ or ‘charisma’ interviews, which are still used by some industry recruiters and inherently disadvantage those who do not look or speak like their potential colleagues. To make real progress, the media and communications industries need to take stock of how, where and why race is manifest as a system that structures their professional environments. They need to understand the effect it has on the professional lives of their members, and interrogate the links between the whiteness of their professions and the representations of people of colour that they produce and circulate with such devastating consequences. This requires going beyond the ‘business case’ for diversity, which is commonly rolled out as a rationale for action. Instead, a systemic understanding of race and racism opens the way for industry policies to incorporate a moral stance against the continued existence of racism, and to recognise that (white) privilege is just as fragile as the ‘belonging’ that can so often be elusive for those who are ‘othered’ by race – as the former Home Secretary Amber Rudd recently discovered to her cost.

This article gives the views of the author and does not represent the position of the LSE Media Policy Project blog, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science.