Yes, call out Clarkson for using the n-word. But it's pointless stopping there

Black people are, as Lenny Henry said, woefully under-represented in the media



Eeny, meeny, miny, moe. Although Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson initially denied reciting a version of the playground rhyme using the word n***** in show footage, that was never aired by the BBC, he has since apologised:  “Of course, I was well aware that in the best-known version of this rhyme there is a racist expression that I was extremely keen to avoid. The full rushes show that I did three takes. In two, I mumbled where the offensive word would normally occur and in the third I replaced it altogether with the word teacher.”

There are many versions of the playground rhyme (as it happens, I used to say “catch a tiger by its toe”). Whether the racist version is the “best-known version” or not is debatable – but it was the version that Clarkson had on his mind during filming. He has said that he did “everything in my power to not use that word.” Except, apparently, not say it.

Clarkson thrives on controversy. It’s part of his brand to make off-the-cuff remarks that are insensitive at best, and in some cases downright offensive.  His targets have included the disabled and Muslims, in particular Muslim women. This isn’t the first time he has said something racially insensitive on the show, either. Earlier this year he used a derogatory term to refer to mock Thai people. But all of those comments made it to air. In this case however, the BBC knew that what he said was unacceptable and chose not to broadcast it. In his apology, Clarkson makes it clear that he did too. The situation is almost farcical - the level of scrutiny now being applied to children’s counting game, the fact that it took Clarkson three takes to use literally any other word but that one. But it does matter. Clarkson is in a privileged position and uses his prime-time platform to reinforce stereotypes, making jokes at the expense of minorities for whom discrimination is a lived experience.

 Many people agree that this time Clarkson has gone too far. In some ways, it is because the word he used is so unambiguously offensive. But it's easier to call out an individual than to tackle the structural aspects of racism that create the environment in which these sort of jokes become acceptable banter – after all, you don’t have to think of real people, just cartoonish images. Clarkson works in an in industry where ethnic minorities are woefully under-represented, as Lenny Henry pointed out when he delivered the annual Bafta television lecture in March. This surely contributes to an environment where he feels comfortable saying these things. We should be angry about that too.

In his lecture, Henry said that the number of black and ethnic minority people working in the UK television industry fell by 30.9 per cent between 2006 and 2012, and they now make up just 5.4 per cent of the broadcasting workforce, according to data from Creative Skillset. This is despite the majority of the industry being based in London, where ethnic minorities make up 40 per cent of the population and despite the fact that overall, the BAME population is now 14.1 per cent of the overall total in England and Wales. Henry also pointed out that the lack of diversity is also an issue behind the scenes, in production and programme commissioning, which is important because these processes influence which shows get made and who is hired.


All of this matters because broadcasting influences how we view the world and it should reflect society in all its diversity. In his speech, Henry joked that Idris Elba’s character in Luther has no black friends or family. “You never see Luther with black people, what’s going on?”  It’s important for ethnic minorities to see ourselves in the portrayal of our nation but it’s also important to be seen by others and to have the opportunity to tell better stories and challenge stereotypes. Organisations such as Media Diversified and TV Collective, which has teamed up with Lenny Henry to petition the Culture Secretary on changes to the broadcasting rules, are working to diversify the media.


When former UKIP council candidate William Henwood responded to Henry’s speech by suggesting that the comedian should emigrate to “a black country”, he was (rightly) roundly condemned and resigned from the party. The issues highlighted in Henry’s speech are not as easy to tackle. Most people will condemn overt racism, but the fact is that it has other more insidious dimensions that are harder to dismantle. That’s not to say it can’t be done. But it requires us to sustain our righteous anger beyond the individual acts of racial intolerance that are so easy to condemn, and seek lasting change.

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