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TV REVIEW: Fighting racism with…more racism: Channel 4’s ‘My week as a Muslim’

24th Nov 2017
TV REVIEW: Fighting racism with…more racism: Channel 4’s ‘My week as a Muslim’

Katie (pink headscarf) donned a rubber nose, fake tan and yellow teeth to experience life as Pakistani Muslim (Photo: Channel 4)

Ala Abbas

Last month, Channel 4 brought out another documentary about Muslims predictably set out to shock. But this time it outdid itself by being so unapologetically racist it was passed off as edgy.

Health-care assistant Katie from Cheshire didn’t think much of Muslims (cue shots of her making generalisations about them being terrorists) and thought the best way to address this was to don a rubber nose, fake tan and yellow teeth, in order to pretend to be a Pakistani Muslim herself.

At the start of the documentary Katie’s husband asks her, “What are you going to hope to learn out of this?”, a question which probably remained in the mind of many baffled viewers long after they watched the show. Maybe Katie’s small-town xenophobia is just a case of classic British awkwardness, and this was the only way for her to break the ice. Or maybe she just wanted to be on telly.

But it’s not her fault. Television is clinging desperately to its viewers, like a certain politician clinging desperately to his/her voters, by saying or doing absolutely anything that will get attention. And just like Trump, Channel 4’s ‘My Week as a Muslim’ had to resort to the lowest common denominator: the century-old racist trope of blacking up.

The programme producer, Fozia Khan, justified her choices in an article for The Guardian. She would have attempted a programme that tried to genuinely unravel prejudice, but this would have been too boring apparently: “People have suggested that we could have used a different approach – such as giving Muslim women hidden cameras to show their experiences. This has been done before, and we wanted to try something different.”

If she didn’t want to use secret cameras, she could have done many other things to engender a sense of empathy. After all, this lack of empathy, this dehumanisation of the other, is the crux of racism. If you want to reverse that, then you need to see Muslims as human first and foremost, and not a caricature you can mimic with prosthetics, like a Spitting Image puppet.

Khan even tried to find a religious moral in this whole debacle: “Something you are taught as a Muslim from a young age is that intention is the foundation of every action. We were very clear what our intention was in making this programme, and I believe we achieved what we set out to do.” In an era where fascist politics has well and truly made a comeback, and far-right terrorism is on the rise, these kinds of good intentions are just plain dangerous.

It is disappointing to think how much better this programme could have been. The BBC3 documentary ‘Is Britain Racist?’ which aired two years ago took a more nuanced, but equally striking, approach which included the host Mona Chalabi taking a test to see how racist she was, despite being a person of colour herself. If Fozia Khan wanted to reach the White working classes, she could have tried a more honest approach and said, “Hey it’s not just you, but racism is still ingrained in our institutions, at our universities and in our media, and most people have internalised racism to some extent, just like most people will be affected by climate change eventually. We’re all in it together.” But, as Donald Trump would say, that is too boring.

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