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By David Meiji

Thursday, September 1, 2011.

While the calls for the BBC and David Starkey to apologise made me want to reach for my complete works of Voltaire – it’s difficult not to sympathise with the general calls of ‘off with his head’ running in the media recently. Starkey did himself no favours by quoting Enoch Powell; not a good move on any day, talk less in the aftermath of a riot some have been desperate to racialize.

That said, however inchoate, what was least offensive about Starkey’s remarks, were his comments about the influence of rap culture on the white underclass, laced though they were with generous lashings of prejudiced beliefs about Jaimaican patois and black culture in general. The real stinker is what David had to say about David. “when you listen to David Lammy, he sounds just like a white man”. Read: A white man is educated, intelligent, professional – and middle class.

In Starkey’s turn of phrase and possibly, mind, black is the symbolic opposite of this. A lot of middle-class, black people probably encounter a mild expression of this view when people comment on how well spoken they are. Mary Beard did get it right, as reported in the Evening Standard, that it’s perhaps class, not race which is audible when David Lammy speaks. Perhaps, that’s what David Starkey meant, but that’s not what he said. What he said was that he assumes to sound educated, intelligent – articulate even - are qualities of having white skin.

That’s not right, but Starkey is not racially alone in his misguided views; it is a sentiment that is sometimes expressed by some black people, who suggest that to be intelligent, educated is to be ‘acting white’. Whether expressed by whites or blacks, it’s the most pernicious expression of racism possible; it harks back to the very origins of the ideology of racism, that reason, beauty and knowledge are in the realm of whiteness, and what is base, dark, uncivil and savage is black. That’s why it struck a nerve. As Dreda Say Mitchell says – we thought this argument was won. Clearly not.

Meanwhile, those who suffer the consequences most are the young kids from backgrounds that may not be middle-class, or have a tradition of university education. What incentive do these kids have to learn and aspire if people like David, black or white suggest that to do so is to become ‘white’ – to act out of place, essentially to become as they used to say in the good old south, an uppity negro. If the cost of success is giving up your very self – why would you want to do it? Better to slip into that mask of ‘authenticity’ and ‘savagery’ the world projects on you than lose your sense of self. These are not my thoughts – Richard Wright explored this all so much more eloquently in his novel ‘
Native Son’.

But surely David Starkey’s not an expert so we shouldn’t take his words too seriously?

Well, when we enter into a public forum, we should all take our words seriously. It’s the price of the ticket.  The BBC doesn’t have a case to answer for in my view – but if David Starkey didn’t mean to suggest that to be educated means to be white - he should apologise. Explicitly and unequivocally – then we can have the real debate about culture. British culture and the various influences that make it what it is today.

And if he does – well, now we know.

Dele Meiji is a London-based writer and researcher.


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