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Friday, January 26, 2007

The music of white skins

Jamie Whyte in the Times takes aim at Trevor Phillips, supremo of the 'race industry', over a speech he gave recently (via).

Whilst this is not personal for me in the way it is for Mr Whyte, and whilst I'm aware that I'm laying myself open to the 'you can't possibly understand' retort, I feel I must deliver my straight white middle-aged middle-class male 2p-worth on the following passage:-

'And you will have your own everyday small signals of change which you see in your own lives. For me in the past week it has been seeing a huge wedding party in Hampshire for a young Asian couple in which all the women, including the large number who were not Indian wore saris - the feeling that at last this wasn't a clumsy, faintly patronising gesture, but was a natural, very British thing to do. It has been the sound of turning on the whitest radio station in the world - BBC Radio 3 - and hearing at eight o'clock in the morning, the sound of classical Arab music - and the fact that nobody felt they had to remark upon it.'

Firstly: if I'd happened to know an Indian woman well enough to invite her to my wedding, I'd have been pretty disappointed if she hadn't shown up in her best sari. It would have been the natural, very British thing to do. The same applies to kilted Scots, Bavarians in Lederhosen, etc., etc. So if non-Indians wearing saris to an Indian wedding isn't a 'clumsy, faintly patronising gesture', what kind of gesture is it in Mr Phillips' approving eyes? Perhaps one of 'we don't presume to have a culture of our own' self-abasement?

And now for the Radio 3 thing. It strikes me that a man who switches on Radio 3 and hears only the sound of white skins - and is sufficiently pleased with himself for doing so to share his reaction with a fair-sized audience - is a man with a well nigh unlimited capacity for manufacturing grievance.

There are, or so I am told, radio stations specializing in musical genres overwhelmingly dominated by black artists. Who listens? People of all colours who like the music. If I were to accuse them of racist exclusion and demand that they rectify the situation by adding Buxtehude and Shostakovich to their playlists, I imagine the response would be one that could be summed up in a few words of one syllable.

But Trevor Phillips can call Radio 3 'the whitest radio station in the world' and insinuate 'the most racist radio station in the world'. Which is rubbish. R3 plays the music of dead white men because there is a musical tradition - a rich, diverse and international tradition which has informed British culture over many centuries - which happens to have been created by dead white men. If you don't like it, turn it off, but I think that makes you a philistine. If you turn it off because of all the dead white men, I'm afraid that makes you both a philistine and a racist.

Classical Arab music on R3? All for it. Also African, Indian and Chinese music. Even the occasional bit of Tuvan throat singing. So long as it's being played for the right reasons, i.e. musical ones, and not for the wrong reasons, i.e. to 'include' potential listeners who aren't interested in Bach because his skin was the wrong colour. The correct description of that is 'pandering to bigotry'.

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