**Spoiler Alert** This post references plot elements up to and including all EastEnders episodes that have aired on BritBox in the U.S.
An addiction to East Enders has been the most lasting effect of the 2020 lock downs for me. The show is a fascinating look into British culture and, of course, good dramatic fun. I have really enjoyed the very special episode feel of a lot of the story lines. A national broadcaster can do a lot to address real issues and send important messages. I’ve seen the show tackle COVID misinformation, class prejudice, mental health stigma, addiction, toxic body image culture, and more.
Some background character information you’ll need before we dive into how the show is handling race at the moment:
Ash is the daughter in the only southeast Asian family on the show. I can’t tell exactly where they’re supposed to be from, but Ash seems to be coded as being born in the UK, whereas her oldest brother and mother seem to be coded as having been born in India (but possibly Pakistan). She’s a young doctor at the local hospital, but is on thin ice at her job. A few weeks ago, she threw up in Harvey’s cab after a late night out on the town.
Harvey, a white Englishman, is a cab driver. He has a daughter (Dana, 19 years old) who is dating a young white man about her age who became a Muslim while in prison. Harvey has not been happy about this from the beginning. Until recently, his resistance to his daughter’s relationship was framed as a mix of “nobody is good enough for my daughter,” “maybe dating someone who spent their formative years in prison isn’t a great idea,” and “this guy can’t take care of you.” There has also always dash of Harvey not understanding why there are “suddenly” so many Muslims about. But, until recently, he was the “I don’t understand, but I’m trying” character to which the more “woke” characters could explain things.
And now, the recent discussions about race and where I think it has gone right and wrong:
A week or so ago, Ash had a tough day at work that included a woman saying, in essence, that she wanted to be seen by a white doctor rather than Ash. After work, she took a cab home and Harvey was her driver. Harvey complained a bit about having had to clean up her mess and Ash basically told him, “look, I paid for all the cleaning and apologized, give it a rest.” To that, Harvey replied “You lot are all the same” (or words to that effect). According to Harvey, he meant young people (which was plausible, since he came to that scene having just had a fight with his daughter). But, of course, Ash didn’t believe him and so refused to pay the fare.
After this incident, there was a lot of talk about it because, you know, soap opera. Various characters tried to explain to Harvey that, even if his intention was harmless, what he actually said was harmful and hurtful. He was defensive and angry at first, with a dash of shame and general unwillingness to accept being wrong. But, eventually, he began to come around and, while not entirely willing to admit wrongdoing, he understood that he hurt Ash’s feelings and went to apologize.
So far, so good. The separation of intent from effect is really foundational in understanding microaggressions. One might not consciously mean anything demeaning by a comment, but that doesn’t mean one isn’t activating demeaning stereotypes and hurting someone. In general, there was a good mix of approaches with characters ranging from “I know it’s tough, Harvey, but you have to apologize” to “Not acceptable, you’re fired.” I think showing that range of responses from the other characters made the whole thing very realistic in its complexity. It did a good job of keeping the general consensus as “microaggressions and racism are not acceptable” while still showing a range of reactions.
And then things go a bit wrong because, well, soap opera.
Harvey goes to apologize to Ash in the local diner. As he’s trying to get started and he and Ash are beginning to understand each other, Ash’s ex-boyfriend (who runs the diner and seems to be trying to get back with Ash) interrupts. In what might be an attempt to peacock in front of Ash, he rips into Harvey for being a bigot and throws him out of the diner. Ash mildly attempts to prevent this, but mostly just lets it happen, though she is then furious with Mr. ex-boyfriend and tells him so.
On the one hand, this is a predictable dramatic move to prevent the resolution of a story line. It is also a way for the show to emphasize a no place for hate approach. It was certainly good to see a show be so deliberate and unequivocal in saying that racism is not acceptable, especially given how common casual racism still is in the UK.
On the other hand, the encounter has an even more predictable effect on Harvey. He leaves angry and frustrated, more entrenched in his belief that “you can’t say anything these days” is the real problem in this situation. That frustration left Harvey vulnerable to what seems to be the beginnings of a white supremacy radicalization story line. Harvey’s son (who reads very much as Proud Boy to me, but may read differently in the UK) has arrived in town and actively reenforces the “why should we have to ever apologize to them” kind of thinking that Harvey began this arc with while also being very “know your place” to his sister, aka Harvey’s daughter Dana who is dating the Muslim. The son seems to be a poster child for toxic masculinity, but no one other than Dana seems to realize that yet. Where I hope all of this is going is that Harvey’s son becomes one of the villains of the series and that Harvey goes through a process whereby he realizes that and realizes that sexism and racism are indefensible.
What can we learn from all of this?
- There are very real hurdles and stumbling blocks that white people run into when beginning a journey of learning about race and racism. It’s understandable that someone might feel that the definition of “offensive” keeps shifting and that they can’t keep up. It’s also easy to understand why someone might have trouble finding their way into learning about race, since anti-racism spaces can often seem closed to people who don’t already know the rules. If we want people to learn about issues of race, racism, and oppression, there have to be accessible entryways into that learning.
- Race and racism effect actual people and their actual lives. For someone who is new to the conversation, the human level (rather than the historical and structural issues) is much more likely to feel relevant and actionable. In this case, “you hurt Ash’s feelings” was much more effective than “white guys can’t say things like that to brown people.”
- Compassion and understanding is a two way street. If you want someone to learn about and have compassion for people unlike themselves, you have to show them some. It’s easy to say something offensive without realizing it and hard to admit to being wrong. The better we get at holding people accountable compassionately, assuming positive intent where we can, the better we’ll be at helping people see how they effect others.
- Frustration quickly becomes anger and alienation, which can quickly become radicalization. If someone is trying to grow and learn around issues of race, they need space to make mistakes without judgement. Without that space to fail, people can very quickly feel like they aren’t being accepted and that there was no point in trying. White supremacist groups feed on that frustration and someone who feels they’ve been “scorned” by “the SJWs” is a very easy target.
Racism is problem of white people in that, pretty much by definition, they are its practitioners whether they mean to be or not. I don’t claim to have the all the answers as to how to dismantle racism. But, I know that until white people generally understand that systemic racism hurts everyone and that white people have a responsibility to dismantle it, we will only be able to nibble at its edges. Bringing more white people into the work is therefore key to real progress, so, the more techniques we have to do that successfully, the better. Whether it meant to or not, EastEnders has given us some great examples of what works and what doesn’t.