Rachel Boyle’s altercation with Laurence Fox on Question Time raised questions about racism in our society, we explore the issues further in an interview with Getintothis’ Roy Bayfield.
Back in January, academic Rachel Boyle was an audience member at an episode of Question Time filmed in Liverpool.
Although neither of her submitted questions was accepted, Rachel made a comment on the issue under discussion: media treatment of Meghan Markle: “The problem we’ve got with this is that Meghan has agreed to be Harry’s wife and then the press have torn her to pieces. And let’s be really clear about what this is, let’s call it by its name: it’s racism.”
Rachel’s comment was never quite finished as a clash with panellist Laurence Fox ensued, with Fox saying over her, “It’s not racism” and that we are “the most tolerant lovely country in Europe”.
Rachel started to progress the debate by saying “What worries me about your comment is that you’re a white privileged male who has no…”, at which point Laurence Fox responded with an eye-rolling, slump-to-the-desk reaction – “So to call me a white privileged male is to be racist – you’re being racist”.
This moment of male talking-over and shouting-down ended the ‘discussion’.
The few seconds of confrontation, enshrined in a tweet from the Question Time that went out before the broadcast had concluded, had a massive reach.
The heated debate played out online in the following hours and days, stories in the national press further amplifying the moment of antagonism.
“Let’s be really clear about what this is, let’s call it by its name, it’s racism.”
“We’re the most tolerant lovely country in Europe, it’s not racism”
— BBC Question Time (@bbcquestiontime) January 16, 2020
However in all the furore, there has been very little mainstream discussion about racism and white privilege – the focus has been more on the televised confrontation itself and its aftereffects – staying comfortably one step removed from the issues.
Clearly there is something to discuss around ‘white privilege’, something that isn’t just about actors and Question Time and social media.
We caught up with Rachel C. Boyle to explore the topic in more depth.
Getintothis: Thinking about Question Time, it’s weird how just a few seconds of television can give rise to such a massive train of events.
Rachel Boyle: It changed my life completely, everything is different as a result of me appearing on Question Time.
G: Part of that is just the sheer scale of the platform you have, I think now you gave over 20 thousand Twitter followers for instance?
RB: Yes that’s right. When I went on to Question Time on the night I had about 850, and they were mostly students and ex-students and colleagues at other universities that I knew personally, and when I came home the Twitter just started to explode and I laughed to myself as I went to bed thinking ‘I wonder if I’ll have 1000 followers by the morning?’ and when I woke up there were 5000 and it kept rising, it was unbelievable.
G: Do you think that’s a good thing, the way social media speeds up and amplifies public debate?
RB: I think there’s both positives and negatives. It allows me to connect with people I wouldn’t otherwise meet, for example, and have some really interesting discussions; [people who have]contacted me on Twitter and we’ve then had discussions outside of that platform. So in that way, it was really positive. It also gives an opportunity to discuss things with informed people, so a lot of people we wouldn’t normally have contact with got involved in the debate.
However there’s also that element of negativity so I received a significant amount of abuse on Twitter. As someone from a BAME background, it’s something we have all the time, it’s just not as overt as people calling you names on Twitter.
I think in terms of the negative aspects of social media it gives [a platform to]people who have something to say, not because they just disagree with me but because they want to say something negative and want to attack. Obviously without social media they’d have to just say that amongst themselves, whereas with social media they tweet something and it gets directly to me, so in that sense it’s been slightly negative.
G: I think you’re right, there would have been people just saying stuff in pubs or whatever and no-one would ever know.
RB: For example, my dad used to do a lot of media work. My dad taught at Liverpool University for many years and he’s an expert of transatlantic slavery, so he’s done lots of media stuff, but he retired in 2010. He talked about once when he was on Radio 2 I think, and he spoke to the producer afterwards and he asked ‘has there been any negative feedback?’ and he said ‘Oh we’ve had the usual cranks, but nothing unusual’ and that was the only indication for him, so nobody could get to him.
A lot of people googled me and then emailed me at the university, both positively and obviously negatively as well – whereas 10 years ago without social media you wouldn’t be able to do that. It gives access both in a negative and a positive way I would suggest.
G: Going back to your Question Time comment, that was about racism in our society…
RB: Yes. I initially said that the press treatment of Meghan Markle had been racist, then Laurence Fox said it hadn’t, then he said it was ridiculous and that we’re the loveliest most tolerant country in Europe – and I said the interesting thing about your comments is that you’re a white privileged male who has no experience of racism. And at that point, I wasn’t allowed to say any more, and that’s when he started shouting at me.
And then Fiona Bruce interjected and said that she ‘wasn’t taking sides, but Priti Patel had said it wasn’t racist’ – and then she moved the debate on.
G: So you started by talking about racist press treatment of Meghan Markle, and that being countered by this idea that we’re this lovely tolerant society; could you say a bit more about that? I doubt you share Laurence Fox’s view that this is a ‘lovely tolerant society’…
RB: Most rational people don’t! In terms of what he said, the reason I challenged him was not because he said something that I disagreed with, because I’m not opposed to somebody having a different perspective to me, that’s absolutely fine. But what he did do was completely dismiss my lived experience in that moment. Now if I was a white man, who had attended private school and was from a significant family in terms of actors and actresses, and that was my experience, then yes, Britain is a lovely and incredibly tolerant country and no there isn’t any racism.
Basically, if I walked around looking like Laurence Fox, that’s exactly what I’d think too.
But because I don’t, my experience and that of many BAME people is vastly different than that of somebody in his position, so the fact that he just simply dismissed it I found really incredible.
And then he said that racism was boring, and then because I had called him a white privileged man, that I was racist. Just because you haven’t experienced something yourself, so he’s never experienced racism, therefore his viewpoint is that it doesn’t exist.
Well, that’s not good enough, unfortunately, that’s not acceptable. I’ve not experienced a lot of things, but that doesn’t mean to say that those things don’t exist.
It’s like ‘I’ve not seen this, I don’t know this – and because I haven’t seen it I’m going to completely and totally disregard your viewpoint’. And it was that that really bothered me about it.
G: The idea of being a white privileged male seems to have been interpreted as a kind of insult…
G: …and to me it seems more like a description and perhaps an idea that could be the start of a conversation rather than the end of one.
RB: Absolutely. And I think as you say the beginning of the conversation is to actually acknowledge your own individual position within the topic. And Laurence Fox’s own individual position as somebody who has experienced privilege his whole life, whether that be class, whether that be financial or whether that be racial… that whole flat-out denial just isn’t good enough.
G: And white privilege isn’t just a problem for privately educated actors?
RB: No – and the counter-argument against me has been ‘well what about under-achieving white boys?’ Basically what has happened is the counter-arguments that have been presented have been textbook in terms of what we already know in research, so those who don’t understand or don’t want to understand white privilege will respond with attack, they will respond with defence – because they think it’s something that you’ve made up, that you are levelling at them, but it’s not.
A lot of the research shows that people interpret white privilege as an attack on their achievements. So for example, ‘you should have done better than you’ve done because you’re white and you haven’t so therefore you’ve failed’. And that’s not what we’re trying to say.
G: So what would be a positive outcome from white people reflecting on their own privilege and coming to understand it better?
RB: Simply an awareness that we don’t all begin from the same place. We don’t all have the same opportunities and the same chances. So Peggy McIntosh, who is an anti-racism activist from the States, has this model of the invisible knapsack. In the knapsack, there is a set of materials such as maps, compasses, blank cheques, currencies, passports – that you carry round with you as a white person. You may not necessarily be aware of [it], but all those privileges exist in the knapsack and you utilise those on a day-to-day basis, sometimes purely subconsciously.
So in terms of a positive outcome, it would be that white people simply reflect on their experiences, and begin to consider the position of the Other.
That just needs to be the starting point. For me, if we achieve that then we’ve won. But as we’ve seen, the trend of communication since we started this national debate on the 16th of January has been a mixture. A mixture of people who have begun to do that – I’ve had a lot of emails from people saying ‘oh my goodness, I’ve never thought about that in that way before’, and then at the same time, I got emails from people saying ‘that’s ridiculous’.
G: It’s interesting how these things go in cycles. There’s a documentary coming out now called White Riot, which is about Rock Against Racism in the late 70s [dir. Rubika Shah]. I can remember being involved in that, in those days it seemed to be about trying to move people from outright violent racism to broad tolerance. To be honest we thought we’d won; the National Front were these squalid little men in anoraks with a few skinheads around them. You could see that kind of racism because they were sieg heiling and shouting at you. I suppose there is still that…
RB: There absolutely is, but the problem with racism now is that it’s covert. Some of it is undercover, and it exists in everyday life in a series of micro-aggressions.
So an individual incident doesn’t really tell you much, but then actually when you consider a series of those incidents it demonstrates a pattern of behaviour. That’s harder to challenge in one sense.
G: Because people think ‘hang on., I’m not a bad guy, I’m not throwing petrol bombs at people’…
RB: And people will interpret racism as those really significant and violent hate crimes, when my experience of racism in all of the years that I’ve been on the planet is quite the reverse. It’s name-calling, yes, but now as an adult and an academic who’s in a position where I can debate with all kinds of different people on different levels it’s far more subtle. It’s things being refused, it’s a particular way that somebody speaks to you, in comparison to the way that they speak to somebody else – it’s so much more subtle.
However, since Brexit, that overt racism it’s in the public domain, that’s about shouting and screaming and obscenity, has for me gone on the rise again.
So I was born in the 80s, and we faced a lot of racism [then]. We then get to the 90s and the Stephen Lawrence murder of 1993 followed by the Macpherson Enquiry in 1999, that made recommendations to all public institutions – there was a period of time where racism was tackled by this society, where racism was challenged. We then move into the new millennium, and we see racism – an acknowledgement of race – being diluted. And indeed public policy in 2010 – the Equality Act lumped together all protected characteristics and did away with the Race Relations Act. So we saw a dilution.
We then have Brexit, we have the rise of social media, and we have a right-leaning government, and essentially at the moment, I’m referring to this as the perfect storm. Because we’ve come through a cycle of interesting times when we really did begin to tackle this issue. Barack Obama then became the President of the United States, and forget the politics for the moment, that in terms of symbolism was significant.
However, critical race theory that is used when we as researchers write about this kind of thing says that all racial advancements are clawed back. And I think that is exactly what’s happening right now.
So those three elements that I mentioned – social media, Brexit, the right-leaning government – that triangle, for me, is the perfect storm for racism. Those really abhorrent acts of racism, from the 70s and the 80s, we’re now seeing again in a way that we didn’t maybe 10, 15 years ago.
G: That dilution you talk about, is portrayed in some ways as a form of liberal progressiveness, and also as ‘the pendulum has swung too far, now it’s swinging back again’. The alt-right present it in benign terms, as a rational progressive development – which I guess is what makes it so insidious.
RB: Absolutely. I think at one point people said we were living in a post-racial society. And that’s fine, as long as you’re not racialised. So if you’re still walking around looking like me, there’s no such thing as a post-racial society.
People always comment on my appearance when we talk about race. Always. And indeed that’s exactly what happened throughout this, both on social media and even some people close to me have commented on my appearance.
Because I identify as a mixed-race woman, and people have told me ‘Yeah but you’re not really black are you?’ That’s been said to me by people who’ve known me for decades: ‘Yes but you’re not really black are you’, sort of ‘If you were darker, I could understand’.
So people have said ‘you know before I knew, I would never have thought you were black, never’, like that’s some kind of reassurance to me.
RB: I’m writing a book as a result of all of this – but there’s about 17 books in just the interactions that I’ve had with people! So we’re [supposedly] living in a post-racial society, yet when people meet me the first thing they think of is ‘what is she?’ So that statement about it being post-racial ceases to be viable.
G: Communications around Meghan Markle seem to mirror that in some way?
RB: Yes absolutely. People wanted to put her into a particular category. Now for me, as a mixed-race woman watching a mixed-race woman become part of the royal family, for me that was a step in the right direction. I celebrated when I found out that had happened, and I commented on social media that ‘this is wonderful’. But they wanted to categorise her. I think she was incredibly dignified in the way she managed it. They tried to drag up her family background – once the initial ‘oh Meghan Markle is engaged to Harry’ died down there was an undertone of negativity. And Harry actually made a statement in which he said that he felt like the press treatment had been racist.
The Guardian wrote this up with an evidence-base, where they compared articles about Kate to articles about Meghan, in terms of the sheer number of articles that were negative, and they analysed the language.
For her it’s like she doesn’t fit into either category. So if people wanted to categorise me after Question Time, ‘well she’s not really black is she?’ And people were referring to me using racist language and telling me to go back to where I came from. So there was this whole tension, in terms of which box to put me in – and I think the media treatment of Meghan was the same. Indeed there were numerous comments about my likeness physically to her as well. So it’s been really interesting because people seem so concerned with what I am and want to put a label on me themselves. Surely that’s my job!
G: Obviously some of this is negative and scary, so can you say something about where you see hope and positivity in this area?
RB: To be honest, the thing that has come out of this is that we’ve started to talk about it; it sparked a national debate. 30 seconds of Question Time footage went viral, and it was in every major newspaper and on every debate programme for the following week or so.
For me, the positive has been, and the hope comes from, the people who have sat and reflected on the topic. Some have got in touch with me and as I said before have said ‘I’ve never thought about this before, you made me think’ and that’s usually the feedback I get from white students who come from all-white areas: ‘I’ve never thought about that before’.
If I’ve made you think about it, then for me that’s the hope, because thought creates awareness.
Now it may not all be positive, but if we’ve started the debate, we can then begin to dismantle racism. If we know where we’re starting from – so I know right now that there is a significant faction of British society who are anti-racist, who are active in their anti-racist views; and at the same time, I’m also aware that we have a faction of very significantly right-wing individuals, to a degree that I didn’t understand before. So for me, I now know what I’m working with.
Prior to this experience I had an idea from academic research, I now have a very clear national picture from what I’ve experienced. So the hope is that we know what we’re dealing with, we can then begin to target.
For example the book I’m writing is how young people can begin to dismantle racism. That opportunity has come from the fact that the publishers have looked at that debate and thought ‘we need to do something with this’. In terms of the hope, it’s out of those opportunities where the conversation can be developed, and extended.
G: Final question: what kind of music are you into and is there anything you’ve been listening to recently?
RB: Oh my God, I’m a huge music fan and my taste is so eclectic it’s really quite funny. I’m a huge hip hop and r ‘n’ b fan. I have had several lovely experiences of seeing some really good live music, so, for example, I saw B.B. King on his last ever tour, I’m a huge blues fan.
But then I also like quite mainstream bands, I think I’m Deacon Blue’s number one fan! Every time that band come to Liverpool I am front and centre.
I’m a huge fan of Liverpool music, so artists like Jamie Webster who’s a new up-and-coming artist, Cast the band from the 90s who are still touring, I saw them in December… I’m a big big fan of the Liverpool music scene and the Irish music scene that we’re so lucky to have in the city as well.
So when I say eclectic I mean eclectic!