By Harshad Keval
So the BBC has finally done it. They have transcended the conventional commercial pressures of drama and comedy production, and have decided to commit to not only an idea, but an ideology. The BBC have commissioned and are currently broadcasting a second series of what will NOT become a knowing, self-referential, cutting edge comedy about what Bikhu Parekh has discussed as lived multiculturality. I was going to title this blog post simply “Citizen Khan or Citizen Can’t?”, but I can’t because a paper has just been published in the journal ‘South Asian Popular Culture’
(http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/rsap20#.Uk6BphVwaUk), so I have been forced to dilute what I thought was quite a creative play on words.
I’ll explain. Last year (2012), the great and the good of the formidable intellectual media empire that is the BBC delved into the deepest, darkest, depths of creative collective being, to bring us an edifying, comedic experience. On viewing this example of multicultural diversity in creative action, “Citizen Khan” left me somewhat perplexed; not perplexed in the way, let’s say when waiting in a cue to have a form signed only to be told that you needed to have waited in another line to have your form approved before having it signed, and then to be told this alternative cue was only available to people who had pre-registered their forms; No, perplexed when asked quite often, in 2013, in the United Kingdom, after living here for 39 years, the following gem: “So, where DO you come from?…No honestly, where do you REALLY come from?”
But, as Heath Ledger’s Joker might ask, ‘Why so serious?” Surely it’s just another comedy? Playfully toying with simple observations, and occasionally tugging at the sleeves of our individual and collective societal awareness of living in a multi-faith multicultural environment? It was a mixture of perplexed frustration and frankly total disappointment I felt when I watched episodes of “Citizen Khan”. I was unable emotionally or cognitively to process the extent of stereo typical, reductionist caricature, shallow characterisation, cultural pathologisation and complete lack of anything even resembling irony. The questions I had to keep asking myself were “Have I missed something?”, “Has my ironic sense of humour been somehow bypassed?”, and “is there a level of sophistication to this comedy which surpasses my meagre intelligence and cultural education?”
As I watched the character of Citizen Khan, played by a coughing and throat hacking Adil Ray – himself a well-known BBC broadcaster, I realised something rather terrible was happening – had already happened. The Khan character was not a character at all. It was a thinly veiled symbol of current religio-political bar-lowering. Khan drives an old, beaten-up Mercedes, with as many signs and symbols of his Pakistani heritage as the car can carry. His appearance is something that is stuck in the ‘hey-day’ of 1970s racist sitcoms, and his family are portrayed in a variety of similarly simplistic tropes. His and his family’s words and actions, driven by infantile plot lines which accumulate stereotypical cultural side-references by the minute, are at best slapstick idiotic. The effect is a little like stepping back in time to the 1970s. For people of black and minority ethnic communities, this is not always a pleasant set of memories
We have entered the era of what Alana Lentin (http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/01419870.2012.664278#.Uk6PPRVwaUk and others) have called the era of ‘the post-race’ – a surreal but all too real socio-political situation. Sophisticated measures are mobilised in the service of rendering anti-racist and activist based resistance impotent, and even implausible. These insidious and now naturalised discourses have ensured that any sense of political or activist urgency and vigilance against the powerful tropes utilised by racist and culturalist propaganda are pushed aside as either outdated modes of expression in a post-race post-class late modernity, or as various media representations would have it, ridiculous expressions of political correctness.
Having spent the decades since the major immigration waves from the Indies, South Asia, and East Africa (1950s-1970s) toiling and working within the disadvantage labour structures of the UK, black and minority ethnic groups have lived through spheres of subjugated experience (see Modood 2005; Lentin and Titley 2011; Visram 2002; Mattausch 1998, Ballard 1994). Not only the colour of their skin, but the sound of their voices, and the salient difference of their values, experiences and histories were made the focus of nationalistic jingoism. These were amplified in the early 1970s through the National Front, in the 1980s the new right Conservative immigration policies, the 1990s the British national party and now of course the various immigration policies and rhetorical poisons of the coalition government, as well as the burgeoning creep of the English defence league. In more recent times, the advent of a new found religio-cultural hatred directed towards Muslims in the UK and Europe has become a dangerous political force feeding into areas of life such as dress codes in service industries, single faith schools, and of course the backdrop of UK military involvement in conflicts around the world.
Throughout all of these overlapping phases, the consistent feature of oppression has been a powerful interconnection between race and culture, given momentum by the neo-liberalisation of political narrowness. Since the idea of race lost favour with both political masters and left leaning liberal intellectuals, ‘culture’ found a home in the vocabulary of difference – so much so, that for writers such as Barker (1981) it was the ‘new racism’. I evoke these ideas here because for any level of nuanced social and cultural observation, these debates necessarily need to be contextualised by the history of ideas of race in this country – and “Citizen Khan” unfortunately is guilty of more than one sin: it completely ignores the history of struggle for all communities in the UK, white and BME, and negates just how far one could arguably state we as a multicultural and diverse nation have travelled.
The magical ‘disappearance’ of race, as Alana Lentin and David Theo Goldberg (amongst others) have argued, has led to the gradual disablement and negligence of resistance to the racially focused and damaging practices of discrimination. The problem with this new liberal, middle class erasing of race is that the power of symbolic and practical markers of difference via the processes of othering discourses has, if anything, gained purchase. I would argue they – these practices of discrimination, othering, victimising and persecuting are all still here in the very fabric of society. They are insidious in their capacity to pervert what may have been a creative rendering of a modern, Birmingham Muslim family living in Britain, working, interacting, living life alongside lots of other people from different backgrounds, and constantly being faced with the surreal comedy that is modern life (perhaps Woody Allen should be writing comedies about South Asians in Britain?) What we have instead is a fiercely limited characterisation of a Muslim family, embedded it seems within the writers own notions of what Muslim families ‘do’ in Britain. The Telegraph reported that this series wasn’t racist, it just wasn’t funny – (don’t forget, we are ‘done’ with race so it couldn’t possibly be racist…), whereas approximately 200 people reported it to be offensive.
Let’s be fair – there are moments when the writers point to some ironic reversals and applications of racist attitudes, for example when Khan supports tighter immigration policies because the eastern Europeans were taking all the jobs. This is vaguely astute, but not entirely hilarious, and certainly not innovative. The BBC argues “the characters are comic creations and not meant to be representative of the community as a whole…” Really? Perhaps the BBC should leaf through ANY intelligent text which explores the impact of representation, and maybe even read Stuart Hall’s seminal text “Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State and Law and Order”, or Edward Said’s “Orientalism”. A quick glance at Hall’s famous 1996 lecture at Goldsmiths (“Race as a Floating Signifier”) would work wonders for the BBC’s current ‘cultural diversity’ agenda. They might even look towards comedians who feel no need to use discrimination as creative currency (think Stuart Lee).
Comedians often observe that it shouldn’t be an offence to offend someone. Hilarious! I’ll point out one problem in this statement: You need to be in a position of relative privilege in order to perceive, feel, and act on the incidence of offence. The issue is context and power. We are living through one of the biggest symbolic, policy, political and social changes in recent history. The increasing securitisation of Muslims in Britain and Europe has taken a stranglehold of concepts, practices and understandings of multicultural citizenship, so we have to ask ourselves: What price will be paid for artistic license? When the impact is persistence of racial and cultural stereotypes, which de-politicise and ironically strips away the very uniting notion of dynamic multicultural citizenship, there is a heavy price to be paid by everyone.
So who is to blame? The writers for writing these characters? Maybe. Or perhaps we should look at the BBC for commissioning this series. Of ALL the many talented writers, comedians, novelists, playwrights, and creative individuals who can genuinely engage with what Foucault (1988) called reverse discourses, the BBC decided that Citizen Khan was the best that writers could offer. Citizen Khan? No, I think Citizen Can’t. Not yet, but then it is only 2013.
Ballard, R. (1994) (ed) Desh Pardesh: The South Asian Presence in Britain, London: Hurst and Co.
Barker, M. (1981) The New Racism: Conservatives and the Ideology of the Tribe. London: Junction Books.
Foucault, M. (1988) ‘Technologies of the self’, in L.H. Martin, H. Gutman and P.H. Hutton (eds), Technologies of the Self, London: Tavistock.
Goldberg, D. T. (2002) The Racial State. Oxford: Blackwell.
Hall, S. (1996) Race as a Floating Signifier, talk given at Goldsmiths College, 29 February 1996
Hall, S., Critcher, C., Jefferson, T., Clarke, J.N. and Roberts, B. (1978) Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State and Law and Order. London: Palgrave Macmillan
Lentin, A. and Titley, G. (2011) The Crises of Multiculturalism – Racism in a Neoliberal Age, London: Zed Books.
Mattausch, J. (1998) ‘From subjects to citizens: British East African Asians’, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, vol. 24, no. 1, pp. 121-42
Modood, T. (2005) Multicultural Politics: racism, ethnicity and Muslims in Britain, Minneapolis, MN: University of Minneapolis Press
Said, E. (2003) Orientalism. (1977, 25th Anniversary edition). London: Penguin Books.
Visram , R. (2002) Asians in Britain – 400 Years of History. Pluto Press.