A guest post by Lana Banana
File to “your fave is problematic/stultifyingly ignorant”
On March 25th, freelance journalist and intersectional feminist, Sarah Sahim wrote an incisive and important piece on the issue of systemic racism within indie culture for Pitchfork. “The Unbearable Whiteness of Indie” seemed to result in multitudinous reading comprehension fails across the internet, not least of all Stuart Murdoch’s, hallowed twee god of Belle and Sebastian and God Help the Girl fame.
A fan of Belle and Sebastian, Sahim expressed her disappointment on hearing of Murdoch’s casting call for GHtG’s female lead: “We are open to Eve’s nationality (e.g. British, French, Australian.)” Sahim astutely observes “One does not imagine he meant the native Aboriginal population of Australia when envisioning his perfect leading lady; the cast is entirely white.” Using this as a microcosmic example of pervasive, normative whiteness within the indie sphere, Sahim goes on to discuss in depth the problem of the invisibility and insidiousness of white privilege, which ultimately leads to the exclusion and alienation of PoCs in indie spaces, artists, fans and journalists alike.
Murdoch’s response (in the form a twitter meltdown) is telling. It’s bizarre and yet typical of someone who is uncomfortable with thinking about race and privilege, presumably because his own whiteness has protected him from ever having to. Sahim’s article was never really about Murdoch or his band, it’s there in the tagline – “there is no divorcing a predominantly white music scene from the racism ingrained in white Western culture,” Murdoch’s recent work is merely illustrative of a wider phenomenon. Yet, he reacts as if he has been personally attacked and defamed, just because he was involved in a discussion about race.
Having been forced to think about his race and how valorisation of Whiteness in God Help the Girl may impact upon non-white folks, Murdoch reacts with rage, classic derailment techniques and a total inability to understand the point of Sahim’s article. First appealing to tokenism, Murdoch laments that Belle and Sebastian does not “look like the Brazil team in the 70s.” He wishes it did. Poor Stuart. If he had some brown peeps in his band, he’d probably have more street cred and he assumes he would be immune to readings of symptoms of systemic racism in his work (hint: they wouldn’t be.) Having dealt with the tokenism strawman that nobody asked Murdoch to address, he goes on to say “we formed in Glasgow.” That popping sound you just heard was Murdoch’s erasure of roughly 14% of Glasgow’s population.
Then Murdoch moves onto that which got him fame in the first place, being super earnest and twee. Completely incapable of understanding that important debates about normative racism in indie music and film culture aren’t actually about him, Murdoch patronisingly appeals “god knows i’ve yearned to love women and men of many nations.” Once again, Glasgow and now Scotland’s ethnic minority population is erased, as Murdoch confuses race with nationality, perhaps only white people can be truly Scottish? Racism and the insidious invisibility of whiteness as a cultural ideal could be fixed by Murdoch’s generous xenophilic impulses, but alas he is just a “poor sick white boy.” Not a rich adult, used to having his work reviewed, with a large fan base. A large, rabid fan base that is likely to swarm on a female, PoC journalist with rape and death threats, forcing her to make her twitter private and regret using her real name to pen an article about racism.
Murdoch then goes on to re-tweet about the absence of diversity in Pitchfork’s editorial team. This makes little sense, suddenly normative whiteness in indie music is a problem, Pitchfork arguably being a huge cultural force and taste maker within indie music but only if it supports Murdoch’s argument (an argument that is not so much a cohesive point of view but a reactionary, needless defence of himself and a slinging of mud at Pitchfork for publishing Sahim’s article.) Whatever effect Murdoch expected this retweet to have, it simply reinforces the fact that Sahim’s flagging up of indie’s whiteness is a very necessary cultural critique that needed to be published.
In Murdoch’s third tweet, he really loses his twee, bijou, expensive vintage shop rag. With repeated fucks for emphasis, Murdoch is “fucking mad!” Appealing to his indie god status and ad-hominem logical fallacy alike, Murdoch demands “Who is sara sahim?” Who is this PoC woman to review my work? Who is she to write a logical, important argument about its wider cultural context that I can’t refute? Answer: a journalist. Having worked in and ultimately profited from the indie scene for almost twenty years, Murdoch goes on to shrug off his knowledge of it and his cultural capital and power as an important white dude within indie culture: “i’m not responsible for indie, i’m just a guy in a band.”
After invoking the wrath of his less savoury fans and the internet in general (racist and misogynist trolls love a good pile on) Murdoch calms down, seemingly offering an olive branch, “we’ve got to sort this shit out… let’s meet for coffee sarah sahim.” Having offered absolutely no hint of an apology for his grotesque twitter rant aimed at Sahim, Murdoch expects to click his fingers and for her to come running. It seems that we have switched from the humble “just a guy in a band” mode, back to entitled indie rock god status. The power differential between Murdoch and Sahim, especially within the context of Murdoch’s misplaced rage directed at her, make this proposed meeting seem like an indulging of Murdoch’s ego at best, creepy at worst. Strangely, Murdoch still thinks that the issue of racism within indie culture is about him, and he is the one who deserves a final clarifying say on the matter, not the PoCs that indie alienates and excludes. Awesomely Sahim responded with this:
Three days later, after Murdoch’s bruised ego has had some time to heal, and Belle and Sebastian fans have sent plenty of abuse Sahim’s way, Murdoch is ready to non-apologise:
It’s nice that Murdoch is “sickened” by the death/rape threats Sahim has been getting because of him. Death and rape threats are par for the course for women saying stuff on the internet nowadays, the casual abuse aimed at women, especially those who are non-white, disabled, trans etc., is phenomenal and disgusting. It’s hard to know if Murdoch was just so thoughtless and ignorant about bringing his wrath down on Sahim that he genuinely didn’t realise she would be abused as a result, or if he just didn’t care at the time. However, the most interesting thing about this tweet is that he now considers the crux of the article to not be an attack on him, but about “the question of race in music and film.” Murdoch here is trying to sneakily correct what he got wrong originally, he seems to now understand that the issue was always about race and not himself, but rather than publicly acknowledge that, he slips it in at the end so that he can distance himself from the misogynistic and racist trolling that he himself invoked.
The irony of this last tweet is that Murdoch’s twitter rage essentially proved Sahim’s point about a lack of diversity and the aspirational whiteness of indie culture being inherently racist and toxic. That some number of twee Belle and Sebastian fans are happy to send rape and death threats to a journalist for speaking out about racism is a clear, irrefutable example of the dark side of indie, the racism and misogyny that underlies it, and the uncomfortable and invisible truth that plenty of white indie kids are unaware of and/or happy to ignore. Talking about race is uncomfortable, and plenty of people, when confronted with their privileges or prejudices react with anger and/or expect to have their hands held throughout it.
N.B.: At the time of writing, Murdoch’s initial angry “Brazil team” tweet currently has 229 re-tweets and 354 stars. His “sickened” by rape threats tweet has 10 re-tweets and 35 stars in comparison.