Earlier this year, Donald Trump told four US congresswomen – Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaib – to ‘go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.’ He added, with that white man trick he has of deriving credibility from ignorance, that he ‘doesn’t even know where they came from.’ All but Omar were born in the United States; all are women of colour. Online and in the street, ‘go home’ is a staple of racist harassment, used as often against racialised people who have never known another home as it is against those who have recently migrated. A week after Trump’s comments, crowds at a North Carolina rally chanted: ‘Send her back! Send her back!’ They meant Omar, who sought refuge in the US from conflict in Somalia almost three decades ago. In a few days, ‘go back’ had slipped into ‘we’ll send you back.’ Trump’s dog whistle had been heard loud and clear.
In the days afterwards, the BBC Breakfast presenter Naga Munchetty and her white co-host Dan Walker did their job and discussed the backlash. ‘Every time I have been told, as a woman of colour, to go home, to go back to where I came from,’ Munchetty said, ‘that was embedded in racism. Now I’m not accusing anyone of anything here, but you know what certain phrases mean.’ Walker asked how she was feeling: ‘Absolutely furious. And I imagine a lot of people in this country will be feeling absolutely furious that a man in that position feels it’s OK to skirt the lines with using language like that.’ Walker, who seemed less reticent in speculating about the broader consequences, asked Munchetty: ‘So you feel his use of that then legitimises other people to use this?’ She acceded, and Walker reflected that ‘it feels like a thought-out strategy, to strengthen his position.’
This was a learning moment in British television: a woman of colour speaking frankly to a sympathetic white colleague about her experiences of racism, with him listening and deferring to her. Munchetty, a high-profile person of colour, was revealing her experiences of abuse in contexts in which she was almost certainly unable to respond to her abusers. Now there she was, responding. What might it have cost her to hold her tongue? What might it have cost others? It would have been the first time some white viewers heard that perspective, and it would have been the first time some viewers of colour saw their own fears and experiences being expressed. Given that there are more than 70,000 racist hate crimes in the UK every year, some of the show’s 1.5 million viewers would have been recalling the last time they told someone to go back where they came from.
The BBC has this week partly upheld a viewer’s complaint about Munchetty’s comments, saying that they ‘went beyond what the guidelines allow for.’ Faced with immediate criticism, including from other employees, the BBC tried to explain its stance, claiming that the corporation does not allow journalists to
give their opinions about the individual making the remarks or their motives for doing so – in this case President Trump … It was for this reason that the complaint was partially upheld. Those judgments are for the audience to make.
What other judgment might the audience have made? The BBC’s statement expands the set of possible interpretations, suggesting and legitimising an alternative telling: that Trump was not racist, that he meant something else, and Munchetty was misinterpreting.
The BBC has so far remained silent on whether Walker also breached their guidelines, though the transcript clearly shows he was the one attributing motives to the president. Perhaps, as a white person, he is considered neutral when discussing racism, while Munchetty’s personal stake makes her automatically biased. In the economy of credibility, the BBC is a definitive and powerful source of news and information, while women of colour are among those least likely to be taken as credible. The BBC has wielded its authority to publicly discredit a woman of colour, who, within her remit as a discussant on a news programme, discussed an uncontroversial instance of racism from the most prominent racist of our times. In doing so, the broadcaster has entrenched the widespread view that women of colour are unable to engage in rational, unbiased debate, and invited the interpretation that Munchetty was unprofessional, inappropriately emotional, and unfairly accusing a white man of racism.
Charges of racism are the last thing the BBC needs at a time of diminishing relevance. It has long been criticised for its whiteness, most notably by its own employees. Speaking of the corporation in the 1960s and 1970s, Lenny Henry regretted the broadcaster’s decision to choose a ‘xenophobic route – emphasising points of difference instead of similarities’. In 2001, its then director general, Greg Dyke, called the BBC ‘hideously white’. On resigning in 2006, the journalist Rageh Omaar described the broadcaster as a ‘white man’s club’. Claims that its workforce is now more diverse have been undermined by the observation that the employees of colour are concentrated in low-paid roles: cleaning, catering and security. More recently, it has come under fire for its ethnicity pay gap and the fact that only 9 per cent of programme producers are people of colour.
Even if the BBC’s decision is taken to apply only to the constraints on Munchetty’s professional role as a journalist, it sends a message that people of colour working in television must approach racism in public discourse as a matter of abstract interest, to be handled neutrally. Their positions of power are precarious and conditional. Munchetty’s reprimand is likely to make her and other colleagues of colour quieter and more cautious, and may deter the prospective employees the BBC most needs.
Apologies from politicians have always sounded strategic and disingenuous, but there is something terrifying about the moratorium on admissions of wrongdoing in the new strongman regime. Trump constantly demands apologies from others, but is never sorry for his own words and actions, just as Boris Johnson refuses to apologise for comparing Muslim women to letterboxes. Retraction is seen as weakness, but it is also political folly when the ‘plain speaking’ of white men is a lightning rod for public approval. In the absence of apologies, counter-narratives are even more critical in recognising wrongdoing, and we must cling to our collective moral intuitions. Telling someone to ‘go back where you came from’ is always racist, there was never any doubt about that, and something is seriously awry when a person of colour is reprimanded for pointing it out.