Sometimes in a race to be right, we forget to be kind
I hadn’t heard of James Wong until today, but I imagine he’s not having the most pleasant of weekends.
The presenter of BBC gardening programmes has said that the British horticultural world is doing itself a racial dis-service by the terminology it adopts, highlighting the use of terms like “heritage” and “native”.
He makes the perfectly reasonable observation that the choice of horticultural terminology is ‘predicated on often unconscious ideas of what and who does and does not "belong" in the UK’.
Naturally, Twitter is having a field day which has given The Mail Online licence to have one too with this article quoting comments like this “There appears to be no limits to the idiocy of some. I never knew gardening was racist. I can imagine that next up pet cats will be racist.” The article doesn’t quote any of the tweets supporting him.
I imagine James is a rare entity in being a person of colour in the gardening world and as such deserves a fairer hearing than this debasing, just as Lewis Hamilton got being the only black person to have any standing in the world of Formula 1 got when he recently raised the issue of race in his sector.
Outside of Twitter and The Mail, I hope the gardening world takes his comments seriously. Because of an Asian aquaponic farming project I’m developing in east London, a farmer friend of mine who sits on the board of a body called Garden Organic sent me a booklet they’d produced on a project in Birmingham which was growing “exotic” vegetables.
The booklet sat on my desk for a few days before I sent an email to my friend saying that for the millions of Asians in the UK, those vegetables are normal – not exotic - and by labelling them as such Garden Organic were effectively “othering” them. Words, I told him, were important and whilst this may well be called an innocent oversight, it’s actually more layered than that. That charity has from what I see an all-white board and an all-white team which explains an all-white perspective.
To be fair to them, they immediately escalated my observation and it was addressed as a matter of urgency.
It’s tiresome for someone like James Wong to have to use his position to have to address this and it constitutes a form of cultural taxation for him to feel the need to do so. I hope he doesn’t dwell too long on the abuse – in fact, he seems to be handling it very well. Like many commentators of BME origin, I’ve learned to not read the abusive comments left by readers when I write or am written about (it’s not just The Daily Mail that attracts them – I get it when I write in The Independent too) as have most BME columnists.
Rather than mock James Wong today, let’s get uncomfortable and try and understand what he has to say.
Iqbal Wahhab OBE is a London based entrepreneur who founded Tandoori magazine as well as The Cinnamon Club and Roast restaurants. He is Chair of EQUAL, a criminal justice action group and is a past High Sheriff of Greater London.