A few days ago, the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction announced its shortlist; out of six books nominated, two were by women of color (Kamila Shamsie and Laline Paull). Most people would say that’s good news, and on the face of it I agree.
But who is judging the merit of these narratives?
That’s where the good news ends. Two of the judges are Cathy Newman and Grace Dent, who are guilty of creating narratives that encourage hatred of Muslims and girls of color in an already Islamophobic climate. Newman, a journalist for the UK’s Channel 4 News, fabricated an account on Twitter of being thrown out of the South London Islamic Centre on their open day. She apologized when CCTV footage disproving her story surfaced, but the damage was already done; the center’s staff had received death threats for the first time in decades.
Dent’s record of anti-WoC and Islamophobic publication includes calling Rihanna a “toxic nitwit” for going back to her abuser (in an article that also praised Sean Penn and Madonna, no less), and a horribly racist, victim-blaming article about Muslim teenage girls groomed by ISIS, which suggested that these children were fully responsible for their actions and that they should “leave and never return” — not far off from “they should go back to [non-Western country].”
Are these the people we want as arbiters of women’s narratives, especially women of color? What guarantees do we have that Newman and Dent won’t bring those same biases, that same bigotry, to the task of determining which narrative most deserves to be rewarded?
Admittedly, Shami Chakrabarti, founder of the civil liberties advocacy organization Liberty, is also a Baileys judge, so her input might mitigate these problems somewhat. A more cynical person might suggest, however, that Chakrabarti was added to the roster in a bid for multicultural legitimacy: “We’re not racist — one of our judges is brown!”
Whatever the reasoning behind the selection of Chakrabarti, the judging lineup highlights a persistent misconception of diversity based on presence and numbers. It’s not enough for us to just be there; diversity requires that we be heard, that our experiences are granted the same degree of respect as those of the Dents and Newmans around us. By choosing judges who seek to demonize Muslims and girls and women of color, the Baileys Prize sends the message that it’s fine for certain voices to be subordinated to a pernicious but nevertheless hateful kind of supremacy.
Full disclosure: in addition to my work for WWAC, I work for Media Diversified, an organization devoted to promoting the voices of people of color and counteracting our misrepresentation in the mainstream media. We’ve published an open letter that discusses these issues in detail and on which some of the above analysis is based.