Science, Caricature, and Darcus Howe

Surely the most unsettling type of caricature is that which people fail to realise hasn’t gone away.

Twice this week Darcus Howe has appeared on the BBC. On the first occasion he had to endure former Tory MP Edwina Currie, who appeared to suggest that as we now live in a free, liberal, and racially tolerent society, she was able to understand what it was like for a young Trinidadian man to come to London in the early 1970s. It was a patronising display, all overseen by a surprisingly benign Jeremy Paxman. It is however Howe’s second appearance, this time on News24, which has received the widest attention…
There are many aspect of this ridiculous ‘interview’ I could talk about, most of which would stray towards being a commentary on the disturbances this week, something I’m not prepared to do (I, like many, am still thinking it through).
What I do wish to talk about is how the interviewer saw Howe. This week I read details of an interesting neuroscientific study at MIT exploring the notion that it is through caricature that we recognise faces. Sceptical as I am of the ability of present functional magnetic resonance imaging technologies to capture such data (for a recent addition to the growing critique of fMRI see Neuroskeptic), there remains a striking plausibility to the theory. Responding to the study anthropologist Krystal D’Costa writes:

Caricature emphasizes the things that differ from the norms we create for appearance. It can reveal a great deal about how we see people of different races and ethnicities—and hamper our ability to see these people as individuals. The idea is that when we encounter groups of people who don’t match our established norm, we lump them together with the same exaggerations and we stop seeing them as individuals. We don’t work as hard to pick out the nuances that make them individuals, which gives rise to the idea that members of other races and ethnic groups look alike. We otherize them, and reinforce the stereotypes that are linked to them.

It appears that it is through this lens that the BBC News24 reporter saw Darcus Howe. She mistook passion for aggression, and bitterness at systemic social failures for a support of arson and violence. But what is worse is that she appears to have been unable to recognise Darcus Howe, a prominent writer and broadcaster, from any other black Caribbean man in their late-60s living in South London. The lesson is that if the BBC wish to conduct live interviews in fast moving and fluid environments, those interviews need to be conducted by journalists who are far more accomplished and far more culturally aware. Otherwise the BBC will expose themselves to calls that the old stereotypes of London’s black communities has, in fact, never really gone away.


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