Brendan O’Neill

What Jon Snow meant when he talked about ‘white people’ | 1 April 2019

What Jon Snow meant when he talked about ‘white people’ | 1 April 2019
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Jon Snow has had a lot of flak for his ‘white people’ comment at the tail end of his report from the Leave Means Leave march on Friday. But in my view he hasn’t had enough. Because it seems pretty clear to me that he wasn’t simply disparaging whiteness and openly commenting on the racial make-up of a protest, which would have been bad enough — since when was it the job of newsreaders to point out people’s skin colour? No, he was also being classist, a bit of a snob. Because make no mistake: when members of the liberal elite say ‘white people’, they aren’t talking about white people like themselves — they’re talking about the ‘white people’ out there, from outside of London, with their strange accents and beliefs and habits. ‘White people’ is increasingly PC code for the lower orders.

Channel 4 has said it “regret(s) any offence caused by” Snow’s comment to camera. He perused his surroundings — which was basically a very large collection of angry working-class and middle-class voters peeved that Brexit is being betrayed — and solemnly informed his viewers that he had ‘never seen so many white people in one place’. It struck many people as odd. What about Glastonbury, some quipped? Snow hung out there in 2017 (and reportedly chanted ‘Fuck the Tories’) and yet he didn’t see fit to comment on the largely white, middle-class make-up of that corporatised rock affair. Others wondered if Snow has ever walked through Channel 4’s offices: the UK news media is pretty white and posh, after all. And what about his own upbringing? Are we really meant to believe there were more black people at Ardingly College, where Snow’s father was headmaster and where Snow grew up, than there were in Parliament Square on Friday? Hmm.

But that’s why this is so revealing: the fact that Snow has spent much of his life surrounded by white people but only felt moved to comment about being surrounded by white people at the Leave march on Friday confirms that ‘white people’ is no longer just a descriptive phrase. It is not simply an objective recognition that an individual or a group of individuals has white skin. If it were, we might have expected Snow to have said ‘wow, so many white people’ many times before in his life and career. That he only said it on Friday suggests ‘white people’ is more of a morally loaded phrase than a neutral observation. ‘White people’ in this context is a pejorative. Snow was implicitly, at least, distancing himself from these people. His mention of their race was an attempt to treat them as ‘others’, distinct from him and the kind of white people he mixes with.

Indeed, it strikes me as possible that Snow pointed to their racial make-up for the same reason people throughout history have tended to comment on people’s racial make-up — to reduce them, however unwittingly, to an indistinguishable and at some level problematic throng of people. It’s worth noting that Snow was wrong. I was one of the speakers at Friday’s protest, and both before and after the event I met many, many people. Yes, most of them were white but there were people from minority groups too, which is fitting given that a third of ethnic-minority voters voted for Brexit. But even if they had all been white, so what? I saw a sea of white faces at the People’s Vote march a couple of weeks ago, but they weren’t referred to as ‘white people’. And that’s because they’re good white people, unlike the reprobates at the Leave march.

In recent years we’ve witnessed the racialisation of snobbery. It is no longer acceptable to say ‘underclass’ or ‘scum’ and so instead we have seen the emergence of phrases like ‘chav’, ‘gammon’ and the far broader but very selectively targeted ‘white people’. All these terms play the same role that phrases like ‘white trash’ once played. Whether it’s bourgeois Corbynistas referring to lower middle-class white men as ‘gammon’, or hipster snobs wringing their hands over ‘chavs’, or liberal elitists wondering where all these white people came from, the sentiment is the same: to pass comment, in a seemingly acceptable way, about people lower down the social ladder, people with non-PC views, people who aren’t like us. Snow said ‘white people’, but I think what he really meant was bad, Brexity, trashy people. ‘Not like us’ — that’s what I hear when well-off, well-educated white people refer to others as ‘white people’.