What’s Wrong with White Girl?

I’ve been recently following the White Season on the BBC, designed to examine the white working class Britain. There has been much criticism of the program content on the White Season, especially from Sarah Mukherjee, environment correspondent for the beeb, who is herself British-Asian and grew up in a all white council estate. Mukherjee stated in Ariel, the in-house magazine of the beeb, that “…listening to the patronising conversations in some newsrooms you’d think white, working-class Britain is one step away from anarchy, drinking themselves senseless and pausing only to draw benefits and beat up a few Asian and black people.”

Sunny Hundal wrote in the Guardian, Comments is Free (CiF) and takes issue with the fact that the term “working class” is not only a white matter, but that the series woefully neglects Asian and Black working class groups. Hundal also mentions that:

The White season is a tokenistic effort after which the middle class commissioners, pleased that they’ve done their bit for the proles, will go back to their usual habits, as they do with ethnic minorities. Except, there the lives of working class minorities are ignored while shiny happy middle class Asians making music or becoming successful entrepreneurs are lapped up.

But even worse is the patronising attitude that underlies it all. Here, I can’t really do better than quote Justin McKeating: “Going by the website, the season reduces working class people to exhibits in a zoo, to reality television show freaks, to anthropological curiosities in National Geographic. Here’s some knobbly-faced salts of the earth in a Bradford working men’s club. Here’s every little-brained, little Englanders’ worst nightmare, a white girl in a hijab.” It’s spot on.

I have to agree that the White Season on the beeb has done little to represent the complete working class environment in today’s Britain. Which brings me to White Girl (you only have 5 days to view on on iPlayer), a drama written by Abi Morgan in which Leah, an 11 year old white working class girl relocates to a Muslim neighborhood in Bradford. Leah’s parents are both portrayed in the drama in the stereotypical view associated with the white working class chav— as being “brutish, racist, alcoholic, and benefit scum.” Well, Morgan didn’t veer too off from the present, equally racist view of the white, working class. Because Leah’s parents are so dysfunction in every sense of the word, she becomes interested in Islam. And, you might ask, how is Islam viewed in White Girl? Muslims are portrayed in the other stereotypical image: as being peaceful and benevolent. In fact, it seems that the drama is expressly stating that for the white working class to achieve success it needs to become Muslim. The one dimensional image of both white working class and Muslims in Bradford does an incredible disservice to both groups.

I had a difficult and uncomfortable time watching the rest of White Girl, because it presented a cookie-cutter view to very complex socio-economic issues with the white and working class in Britain. Furthermore, the simplistic notions that Islam will save the day and help rehabilitate the white working class is just patronising smugness on the part of the middle class beeb commissioners. I’m a Muslim and I found it distasteful that Islam was being elevated and being placed on a pedestal (no religion or cultural tradition should be priviledged as the better path over another)- and that specifically divorce the “Muslim” way was presented in such an easy manner, almost like snapping your fingers and va la, it is done! If this is truly the case, then most Muslim women wouldn’t find divorce such a hellish experience. This romananticized version of Islam shown in White Girl versus the often violent and criminal version protrayed on t.v. and film again only confines Muslims to the stereotypical views often presented today.  Yes, Ms. Morgan– Muslims can be racist too, just like Jewish people can be racist, Sikh, etc.– working class white people aren’t the only racists in the world. 

To conclude, the White Season has little to do with exploring the dimensions of being white and/or working class. The BBC has again perpetuated the common stereotypes regarding class, race, and religion. The neighborhood that I live in is working class and very mixed in terms of race and religion. From my perspective working class people whether White, Asian, or Black get along and are far more diversified than those in the middle class- and despite being from the U.S., I have noticed that middle class folks can be highly racist, abet in a indirect manner. The White Season shows us more about bigotry and class bullying in the beeb than about the current state of the white and/or working class in Britain.



Filed under BBC, Class, cultural policy, identity, Islam, racism

9 responses to “What’s Wrong with White Girl?

  1. I largely agree with your review of ‘White Girl’. It was such a bizarre programme to put into a ‘white season’ supposed to be directed at the intricacies of the white working class.

  2. intersections

    In spite of all the criticism about the BBC’s White Season series, the last one about the Polish migrants did have something interesting to say; in fact, it broke away from well-established and widely reproduced notions of the white working-class as ‘native’, English or British in this case.
    My criticism and question is this: why should we and broadcasters need to still talk in ‘black and white’ terms if we want to generate discussion and understand issues of national, ethnic and migrant identities?


  3. Eleni, I do agree with you. I don’t think class should be only portrayed in either black or white terms. Also, I agree with Sunny Hundal in which he pointed out that the working class is far more diverse than what the BBC illustrated in the White Season. Moreover, it is coming close to the London Mayoral race and I feel that the white working class are being used as political chips by all parties. Immigration especially plays into this when politicans tell us “British Jobs for British people”– implying no foreigners! I feel that the media is trying to pit “white” working class people against immigrants and even different ethnic working class folks by instilling fear that these “foreigner” are stealing jobs away from them.

    What wasn’t addressed in the White Season was the need for allocating funds towards better education and opportunities in working class neighborhoods. I felt that too much of the time was focused on perpetuating negative and often bigoted view points without getting to the crux of each problem at hand.


  4. Sanaz,

    Great post!! It appears the BBC, albeit unintentionally, is wading into the murky waters of race, religion, and class. As someone who lives in the US, I’ve seen neither White Season nor White Girl so I can only comment on race and class generally, without going into specifics.

    Race is definitely the more talked-about issue here in the US, and class almost never gets a mention. When lefty do-gooders talk about race in the US, they ought to be addressing issues of class. Sadly, they seldom do. Instead, whenever the Black community is discussed, we hear only about crime, poverty, violence, STDs (or STIs for the British readers), teen pregnancy, single-mother homes, etc. Anyone with a couple of functioning brain cells knows that these “social ills” are all products of political decisions and economic policy, and that they are also prevalent in poor White communities. Yet they are almost never spoken about in these terms. Instead, they are discussed as Black issues, ensuring that when solutions are proposed, they will never get to the underlying causes of these problems. Rather, idiotic programs like Marriage Works are pushed as solutions to the [political and economic] problems plaguing the Black community.

    I imagine the situation is similar in Britain, or at least is becoming similar. Once upon a time, before Black and Asian people came/were brought to Britain, the White working classes were treated as a race unto themselves. As were the Irish. Then, as today, it was their class that set them aside. Once brown-skinned people started arriving in Britain though, working-class British people became White, thereby showing the uselessness of skin color as a unit of social or political analysis.

    The same thing happened in the US. All immigrants from Europe eventually became integrated into the dominant White culture after having been given access to the means of social advancement—education, jobs, home loans, etc.—that Black people had been denied. But even those who fell through the cracks—i.e., poor White Americans—continue to identify more on the basis of skin color than on class. Why else would so many poor White Americans vote the same way as rich White Americans? Because they believe it’s more important to be White than working class—read poor—because that would make them similar to Black people. Of course, not all Black people in the US are poor, but that’s a conversation for another day.

    At the end of the day, class—which includes not just how much you earn but also your level of education and the kind of work you do —is a useful unit of analysis. Skin color isn’t. So in looking at Britain’s White working class, the BBC is buying into, and perpetuating, the idea that skin color—as opposed to education, employment, income, etc.—is a stronger unifier than class. Hence “British Jobs for British People,” which I assume refers only to jobs working-class British people would take.

    Hurray for the politics of division!!!!

  5. I actually thought this programme was quite refreshing. Ok, there were some factual errors in it, particularly with respect to divorce in Islam, but I thought it was refreshing to see Muslims portrayed as peaceful for a change.

    I think this is far more representative of the majority of Muslims in Britain, rather than the hateful, angry Muslims that are portrayed by the Daily Mail.

    “Muslims are portrayed in the other stereotypical image: as being peaceful and benevolent”

    This is not a stereotype that I have seen perpetuated in the media. Rather, we see Islam being portrayed according to the Samuel Huntingdon model of the clash of civilisations and most programmes stress its incompatibility with the West.

    Of course, Muslims can be racist. I think that the problem with most reviews that I have seen about this programme assume that the programme was an attempt to generalise about either white people or Muslims. I really don’t think it was. The fact is neither Islam, nor any other religion or ideology is a monolith.

  6. sanaz1977

    Evolution: Thanks for your comments. If you looked at my entry, you’ll noticed that I mentioned that Muslims encounter two stereotypes:

    “This romanticized version of Islam shown in White Girl versus the often violent and criminal version portrayed on t.v. and film again only confines Muslims to the stereotypical views often presented today.”

    I think both are equally harmful views. No religion should be denigrated or placed on a pedestal. Likewise, the drama had many serious factual errors in it that presented Islam as some sort of Shangri La. At the end of the program, Leah’s mother divorces her husband the Muslim way by stating, “I divorce thee” three times. While Islam does allow divorce, it is ridiculous to present divorce in the manner it was illustrated in White Girl. It is a universal fact that divorce in all cultures/religions is difficult, let alone in Islam. Especially if you are woman, divorce becomes an even greater obstacle.

    The excerpt down below is taken from Wikipedia and although most of these laws are a combination of nationalist policy and Islam, it still points to the fact that it is very difficult for Muslim women to obtain a divorce. In Iran, following Islamic laws, women would still rather put up with an unhappy marriage, than go through divorce which would force them to give up their children to be raised by the father’s side of the family.

    “In practice in most of the Muslim world today divorce can be quite involved as there may be separate secular procedures to follow as well. Usually, assuming her husband demands a divorce, the divorced wife keeps her mahr, both the original gift and any supplementary property specified in the marriage contract. She is also given child support until the age of weaning, at which point the child’s custody will be settled by the couple or by the courts.

    Women’s right to divorce is often extremely limited compared with that of men in Middle East. While men can divorce their spouses easily, women face a lot of legal and financial obstacles. For example, in Yemen, women usually can ask for divorce only when husband’s inability to support her life is admitted while men can divorce at will. However, this contentious area of religious practice and tradition is being increasingly challenged by those promoting more liberal interpretations of Islam.

    In Egypt, men enjoy the benefit of law in divorce. If a woman leaves her husband without his consent, she might be filed charges under Egypt’s “obedience laws,” and would lose alimony upon divorce. While men are not required to convince in a judicial court for divorce, women must resort to legal action, and are required to abandon all rights to the couple’s finances and to repay their dowries.

    In Lebanon, women who suffered from domestic violence must provide testimony of an eyewitness, in addition to a medical certificate from a doctor documenting physical abuse to sue divorce. This is conducted in Egypt too.

    In Syria, article 91 of the personal status code grants men right to divorce without providing any specific reason, and men only notify the divorce to the government. On the other side, women usually can initiate discussion about divorce only when their husband’s inability to support them is admitted. To receive alimony, a woman needs to prove inability to live on her own. When women seek to divorce, she must file charge and provide specified legitimate reason. Although consensual divorce and khol are also available, in this case women must repay him the dower.

    In Saudi Arabia, women must prove the ability to pay compensation as well as their spouse’s violence, and will face the difficulty convincing an all-male judiciary. Besides, in most cases, custody of children tends to be given to men.”

  7. Sanaz,

    I understand and agree that the flippant way that divorce was represented was highly misleading. However, I just don’t think that factual error is a reason to dismiss the whole programme.

    I think that there are many “versions” of Islam, and indeed that, your perspective is often coloured by the version that you have personally encountered. The one I’ve encountered is the peaceful one, but I’m not blinded that I think that all Muslims are the same, and that they don’t have internal problems.

    I just think that this version was accurate in portraying some of the reasons why reverts choose to convert. I don’t think that the aim of the programme was to put Islam on a pedestal, I think it was interesting as an exploration of the faith as a source of comfort, but indeed this could be applied to any religion, not just Islam. In some ways, it reminded me of Kes, although it definitely wasn’t in the same league.

    As I said, Islam is not a monolith, and there are many versions, but I don;t think that it’s true that the version encountered doesn’t exist or isn’t at all accurate, because it’s a version I’ve personally experienced.

  8. sanaz1977

    Hi evolution:

    Thanks for your comments. Although I do not agree with all that you wrote, at least we can agree to disagree on this matter. Likewise, what I wrote in the comment section was not based only on my personal views, but largely what I have researched inside the Middle East. It would be wrong to discredit your personal views on Islam for the same reason, as religion is a personal matter.

    You have a neat blog. Incidentally on the post about Irshad Manji, I actually got the chance to see her at SOAS on a lecture about a documentary she did. Like you, I am not a fan of her message, but noticed in your link to her interview on Frost that she wore the same exact outfit that she did at the SOAS lecture.


  9. Somehow i missed the point. Probably lost in translation 🙂 Anyway … nice blog to visit.

    cheers, Adams.

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