Actor Laurence Fox, scion of one of the most influential acting families in the UK, is the object of widespread criticism after his recent appearance on Question Time. Contributing to a panel discussion on the decision by the Duke and Duchess of Sussex to step back from the royal family, he insisted that the media’s treatment of Meghan Markle had not been racist and that there was no such thing as “white privilege” operating in Britain, Fox said:
I can’t help what I am, I was born like this – it’s an immutable characteristic. So to call me a white privileged male is racist.
If Fox wants to know a little more about how privilege works in the UK in the 21st century, he could learn from an episode late last year, which is an almost perfect illustration of the issue. On December 21 2019, Tottenham Hotspur’s match against Chelsea Football Club was marred by alleged racist abuse directed at Chelsea’s black German-born defender, Antonio Rudiger. In the post-match analysis, Sky Sports pundit Gary Neville – a former captain of Manchester United – gave his opinion: “We have a racism problem in the Premier League [and] in England.”
His words were warmly greeted in the media. The Independent described his response to the events at White Hart Lane as a “passionate attack on the political leaders”. Sky Sports host David Jones described Neville’s words as part of “an important discussion on racism”.
Compare this with the reaction to Stormzy when the British-born black rapper was asked, in an interview with the Italian newspaper La Repubblica the same week, whether the UK was still a racist country. His reply was that: “Definitely, 100% … there’s a lot racism in the country.”
Various media outlets such as the Sun, Sky News and ITV inaccurately reported that Stormzy had said the UK was “100% racist”. It produced a deluge of negative reaction on social media where Stormzy was trolled by journalists, academics and the public.
Daily Telegraph columnist Allison Pearson tweeted:
Paul Stott, an academic specialising in terrorism studies at SOAS, bemoaned:
On Twitter, the hashtag #StormzyIsAMassiveBellend trended, as people vented their disdain for the black artist, and especially at his wealth, which was used to argue his comments were an example of “biting the hand that feeds you”.
Heroes and delinquents
These very different responses tell us much about the intersections of race, class and masculinity when it comes to who is accepted as a legitimate voice in public political discourse. As a former player and a pundit, Neville embodies a romanticised northern, white working-class masculine identity, seen to value frugality over flamboyance, stoicism, grit and determination over flair, and brutal honesty over political correctness.
Neville’s no-nonsense playing style has transferred to a no-nonsense, honest brand of commentary and he feels free to comment on politics as well as sport. This led him to state that senior politicians, including prime minister, Boris Johnson, have encouraged an rise in racism generally.
Stormzy – whose real name is Michael Owuo Jr – is Britain’s most high-profile and successful grime artist. His lyrics often draw on his own reality, growing up in urban London in 21st-century Britain. He symbolises an unsatisfied, talented and politically awake black, urban, working-class youth.
Neville is viewed as a legitimate authority to speak a working-class truth to power – even on social and political issues which, in this case, fall outside of his direct experience.
By contrast, for many people who we might describe as culturally conservative, Stormzy symbolises a longstanding anxiety about black immigrant communities and especially young black men, who are perceived as culturally deficient, hyperphysical, hypersexual, violent and ungrateful.
Britain has a long history of perceiving inner-urban black youth as social delinquents. As such, critics of the state and the highlighting of racial discrimination by black working-class voices are frequently dismissed as individuals who are displaying their failure to recognise that they are the beneficiaries of (white) British tolerance and benevolence, as seen in the tweets to Stormzy.
So the difference in public reaction is not about what the two men said (that racial inequality exists in Britain). It’s about who has legitimacy in criticising the state.
Both Stormzy and Neville possess privilege. It is not that people of colour do not experience privilege or access to material wealth that some white Britons may not. But seldom do people of colour have access to the same socioeconomic, social, cultural and legal privileges and opportunities afforded to their white peers.
This is part of the pervasiveness of racial inequality in the UK. People of colour may be able to access all areas of life. In each area, however, they experience unique discriminations specific to their particular social, work or leisure environment. For example, as a black celebrity, Stormzy may enjoy more privileges than a white worker in the gig economy, but he does not experience the same privileges as his white celebrity peers, even if they originate from similarly working-class background.
Guyanese-born professor of creative writing Tessa McWatt offered a useful summary of privilege when she wrote:
If you’ve never had a moment in your life where you realise your skin colour alone makes other people hate you, you have white privilege.
I would add to this that privilege extends to who listens, and who is “allowed” to have a voice. Neville’s race and class background allows him to discuss race and racism in the UK, including outside his specialist area of football** by bringing in the influence politicians have had on racism. But it is exactly Stormzy’s race and class background that appears to disqualify him from contributing to the debate in some people’s eyes.