Wiley’s tirade revealed more than just anti-Semitism

The response to Wiley has shown that we’ve allowed our response to prejudice to become prejudiced itself

Wiley’s social media accounts have always been a combative landscape. Whether as a wind up merchant, baiting other artists for a clash or, as he sees it, fulfilling his role as a staunch defender of grime against those he claims are guilty of cultural appropriation, followers of Wiley are used to him being in the midst of a bit of online argy bargy.

Yet the Godfather of Grime’s recent tirade on Twitter and Instagram was different.

What appeared to be at the root of Wiley’s tweets and posts was an issue with his now former Jewish manager, John Woolf but they focused on the wider Jewish community. His attacks became increasingly and relentlessly anti-Semitic in a Kanye-esque rant that mirrored the American rapper and producer’s own struggles with his mental health; the latter being something long suspected to also be experienced by Wiley. Furthermore, this amplified Wiley’s comments beyond anti-Semitic tropes.

As Wiley’s tweets and posts gathered pace on the internet, they were swiftly met with necessary and expected opprobrium from within and beyond the Jewish community.

Such strength of feeling and response to any unchecked discrimination should of course be supported. Although, why haven’t we kept the same energy in our response to all forms of prejudice?

Katie Hopkins and Tommy Robinson are now both permanently banned from Twitter but it took years to achieve that, with Katie Hopkins only being banned this year. That’s after countless racist, xenophobic and Islamophobic tweets that were shared via the social media platform.

Many more who share the same brand of unashamed racism, Islamophobia and far right politics continue to tweet in the same way. Their discriminatory tirades are largely unpunctuated and provided with the oxygen that allows their vitriolic hate speech to freely spread. And it isn’t just social media. The mainstream media has the same problem in providing a platform for such views.

In 2011 on BBC Newsnight, David Starkey referenced Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, that criticised commonwealth immigration to Britain, and suggested “black culture” had been assumed by non-black rioters. He effectively equated black culture with rioting. Nevertheless, his career continued and was largely unscathed in the mainstream.

It was only in 2020, when claiming slavery was not genocide because there are “so many damn blacks” in UK and Africa, did he meet any impact on his career. Had it not been against a backdrop of Black Lives Matter, where disingenuously or otherwise organisations are keen to be seen as behind the movement, it’s unlikely his recent comments would have met the same consequence. That’s nine years since his racist remarks on Newsnight where his career and image was largely unimpeded.

In contrast, if the existence of ‘cancel culture’ was ever questioned, the reaction to Wiley’s tweets and posts has surely refuted any doubt of that being the case.

Wiley’s management and distributor severed ties with him. He has been banned by Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube (where their monetisation programme would have been a revenue stream). He is unlikely to receive bookings and artists and labels will be reluctant to work with him henceforth.

Priti Patel, a member of arguably the most racist and Islamophobic British government in the last 30 years, called on Twitter and Instagram to explain why Wiley’s posts and tweets had been allowed to remain on their respective platforms for so long. And a 48-hour Twitter boycott took place, including many public figures who had expressed their disgust at Wiley’s anti-Semitism.

The double standard in how we respond to prejudice, subject to who it’s directed at, is a disheartening realisation. Moreover, it also suggests that in contrast, we have normalised racism, largely towards black people, and Islamophobia.

The Prime Minister himself, sitting comfortably in the vanguard of racist rhetoric within mainstream politics in the UK, has referred to black people as “flag-waving piccaninnies” with “watermelon smiles” and compared Muslim women wearing burkas to letter boxes. It’s no different to the inflammatory and divisive racist remarks made by Trump or Islamophobic comments made by Modi. Consequently, we’ve come to expect such utterances, hence the relative absence of outrage.

As a society, we’ve allowed a tiered response to prejudice to occur. The recent response to anti-Semitism is the right one. So why aren’t we keeping that same energy in the face of all prejudice?

It’s difficult to distill a definitive response to this. However, in attempting to do so, the extent of prejudice experienced by people of colour cannot be escaped or ignored. The legacy of slavery and colonialism has provided a solid basis for institutional racism where those who are black or brown are still seen as inferior. This has been etched into the psyche of said nations and has become an enduring export from colonial powers.

In the context of anti-Semitism, it’s important here to remember and show solidarity with black Jews, alongside the wider Jewish diaspora, who may experience prejudice directed at more than one feature of their identity. Many black Jews would have experienced layered discomfort and offence with Wiley’s remarks.

Similarly, Islamophobia has been peddled by right wing media and governments around the world. The prejudice received by Muslims, particularly amongst people of colour, can be regularly seen on social media and typically goes unchecked. In contemporary western societies and politics, Islamophobia has been normalised in an abhorrent reality for many Muslims. The same could be said for growing transphobia.

Yet when other minority groups meet this level of prejudice, it becomes amplified as it thankfully hasn’t been normalised in the same way. The shock value rightly exists because it beggars belief that such views are held and given a platform. This is a disturbing and unspoken reality for how we have come to gauge our censure when it comes to prejudice.

There is a further reflection on Wiley’s comments that has similarly yet unhelpfully remained unspoken. Wiley’s anti-Semitism was fueled by his umbrage with John Woolf and others within the music industry who happen to be Jewish. Despite parallels in our respective trauma throughout history, there has been a sometimes frosty relationship between blacks and Jews in the music industry, specifically within the role of artists and executives, respectively. Meanwhile, it remains the elephant in the room except when articulated as a projection of a black artist’s indignation.

That in no way justifies anti-Semitism taking place. Although avoiding that conversation does provide a fertile soil for ignorance and anti-Semitic tropes that Wiley, and perhaps others, have accepted and used to drive prejudiced arguments. Perhaps it’s time for dialogue that addresses any divisions rather than leaving them to be voiced in anti-Semitic rants.

Seeing the recent response to anti-Semitism is encouraging. It shows there is still outrage in the face of racism and prejudice. But it is also a worrying reminder of how too often, we aren’t consistent in our disdain for all prejudice and have allowed our response to prejudice to become prejudiced itself.

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