Racist responses to the use of a black family in Sainsbury’s 2020 Christmas advert demonstrates how, to some, BAME communities are still not ‘British’.
In recent months, as discussions of structural racism have swept the globe, campaigners in the UK have made a point of bringing such debates into the local context. Discussions about racism in the wake of tragedies such as George Floyd’s murder are often very US-centric, to the extent that racism is often spoken of as a largely “American problem” that is not reflected in the UK context. However, a number of recent controversies have confronted Britons with the reality that racism persists in British society – most recently, in the form of online backlash against a supermarket advert.
When Sainsbury’s released their first Christmas advert for 2020, which depicts a black family enjoying Christmas together, they were met with a torrent of racist backlash online, with the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) receiving five complaints demanding that the advert be banned. Critics accused the supermarket of “alienating” and “not representing” white Britons, with many demanding to know the answer to one main question: “where are the British people?”
Complaints that the family in the advert do not “represent” British people, along with accusations of ‘virtue signalling’ – arguing that Sainsbury’s are pushing an image of diversity in a country that is majority white – demonstrate how a number of people still associate ‘Britishness’ with ‘whiteness’. Many people continue to frame British identity as historically white (despite evidence of black people having lived in Britain since the Roman Empire), and to view BAME people as outsiders regardless of the fact that the vast majority have been born and raised in Britain. For example, a 2019 study found that 10% of people in England believe that in order to be English you have to be white; whilst campaigners in Wales have recently criticised the lack of a “Black Welsh” or “Asian Welsh” option in the upcoming 2021 Census, arguing that it perpetuates persisting attitudes that associate Welsh identity with whiteness.
These attitudes, reflected in the backlash against the Sainsbury’s advert, have often provided the impetus for a lot of contemporary anti-immigration and anti-multiculturalism rhetoric: namely, the argument that Britain is historically white and that increasing ethnic, cultural and religious diversity ‘dilutes’ British heritage and identity. Discussions of national identity in relation to Brexit have brought these kinds of arguments further to the surface. The patriotic, “Britain first”, often anti-immigration rhetoric surrounding Brexit – including campaign slogans of “taking back control” and making Britain “great again” – have been accused of providing fuel to racist attitudes and abuse, including a 46% spike in reports of hate crime in the week immediately following the referendum. It is clear that some have taken the social and political focus on ‘British identity’, and what this means going forward into a post-Brexit Britain, as an opportunity to demonstrate that this identity does not apply to BAME communities.
Sainsbury’s have defended the advert, stating that it represents the diverse reality of a modern Britain, and embraces the plurality of what it means to be ‘British’ in 2020. It is clear that this is the root of the anxiety being experienced by those objecting to the advert. They are being forced to face the reality that there are multiple ways of being ‘British’ – and they don’t all involve being white.
JAN Trust stands against all forms of racism. We work with BAME women in the UK to educate, empower, and encourage them to help them become active citizens and tackle issues in their communities. Found out more about our work here.