Celebrating black and Asian writers is not racist

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Following Conservative MP (currently Candidate for Shipley) Philip Davies' complaint to the Equality and Human Right's Commission, the Jhalak prize for BME literature was forced to defend its existence in April 2017. Here, 24-year-old Labour party activist Lily West, uses the evidence to show the ridiculous nature of Davies' claim, and why celebrating black and Asian writers is important.

Britain is becoming an increasingly challenging environment for black and minority ethnic (BME) people. There are recent examples of both insidious discrimination, such as the disproportionate impact that austerity has on BME women, and tangible prejudiced behaviour, such as the increase in xenophobic attacks post-Brexit. These problems are symptomatic of living in a country where people have become used to listening to only specific types of voices dictate how our society should operate. While it sits comfortably with us to believe that we live in a post-racial society that has moved on from prejudiced scapegoating, unfortunately, there are still examples of people in positions of power attributing their failures to minority ethnic groups, in turn entrenching and legitimising fear and racist attitudes.

An obvious and effective way to interrupt negative narratives around immigrants, refugees and BME people is to introduce and amplify their own voices. However, this is something that studies show even our creative industries are failing to do. For example, Spread the Word’s 2015 report Writing the Future looks at the systemic obstacles that writers of colour face.

The survey found that while almost two-thirds of white novelists were represented by a literary agent for their debut, this was the case for less than half of BME authors. This disparity continued further into writers’ careers, with 53% of BME authors remaining agentless, compared to only 37% of white writers.

The report showed also that publication of BME authors’ books became increasingly likely if their work addressed topics such as racism and colonialism/post-colonialism and conformed to a stereotypical perspective of their communities. Author of the report, Danuta Kean wrote: “Writers find that they are advised by agents and editors to make their manuscripts marketable in this country by upping the sari count, dealing with gang culture or some other image that conforms to white preconceptions.” With the fear that failing to comply with these demands will result in rejection from publishers, writers of colour are forced to become complicit in the publishing industry’s deceptive tokenism.

The Bookseller’s diversity in publishing report in November 2016 showed that publishers have promised in the past that the industry is in “the process of a very dramatic transition” in order to address the literary invisibility of BME writers. However, more recent statistics make a mockery of the attempts that are supposedly being made. Of the top 100 titles in the bestseller charts from 2016 to date, Kazuo Ishiguro is the only British writer from an ethnic minority background. If we step back even further we can see that there is a grand total of six in the top 500.

In an attempt to address the indisputable inequality in publishing, Dr Sunny Singh and Nikesh Shukla founded the Jhalak Prize, a literary award to showcase the variety, depth and literary excellence of BME writers who are so often sidelined in Britain. Dr Singh reflected on the evening the prize was meant to be awarded, “It felt as if I had been waiting for the evening for nearly five years. Yes, that is how long the Jhalak Prize had been gestating since I had realised the structural barriers that writers of colour faced in the UK.”

That evening, however, Nikesh and Sunny received a letter from the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) that wanted to address a ‘potentially discriminatory promotion.’ The Jhalak Prize had received criticism from Conservative MP Philip Davis, who was concerned that it ‘unlawfully discriminates against white writers.’ Nikesh and Sunny were given eight working days to justify the need for the Jhalak Prize by proving that there was a particular disadvantage that they were seeking to redress. The EHRC would then ‘evaluate whether the promotion’ of the prize was permitted under the Equality Act 2010, a piece of legislation brought into existence to protect minority groups from discrimination. Despite the mentioned and readily available evidence of the lack of diversity in publishing, Sunny and Nikesh were asked to provide ‘evidence highlighting the disadvantage’ and asked whether they had ‘considered alternative measures which were less likely to disadvantage other protected groups.’

The collated evidence presented to the EHRC of course legitimised the need for the Jhalak Prize in the first place. Not only was it proven that the award is not discriminatory, but the disadvantages that writers of colour continue to face were (re)exposed. Instead of challenging prejudice, Philip Davis’s attempt to discredit the prize and intimidate the founders provides another example of the structural barriers that render BME people impotent and make us feel as though the legitimacy of our experiences has been denied.

The inaugural Jhalak Prize 2017 was ultimately won by Jacob Ross for The Bone Readers.

Follow Lily on Twitter: @lilybookerwest

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