Demonstrators protest the killing of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Photo: Getty
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Amid the tear gas and arrests of reporters in Ferguson, we must not lose sight of Mike Brown

The shooting of an unarmed black man by police in the small town of Ferguson, Missouri has provoked civil unrest, media fury and a debate about the community’s reaction. But riots, reporters' arrests and black anger are not the issue here – the death of Mike Brown is.

Mike Brown: this is about Mike Brown. It’s important to write his name twice, because he is in danger of disappearing from view. It is the appalling fate of young black men like him to be lynched twice: first when they are killed, and then afterwards, when their reputations are dragged so far through the dirt that all remaining of them is a shapeless, shadowy mass of black criminality. So the speculation about Brown’s life has raged away, as if there were somehow in his past a misdeed so terrifying that people could somehow feel that, even though he had allegedly been tracked down and shot in the back, justice had been done. The events unfolding in Ferguson are about many things, including the militarisation of the police and the corresponding chokehold being placed upon any form of protest in public spaces. But, above all, they are about the local police’s vigorous defence of their right to kill an unarmed black teen in peace.

Perhaps that sounds strong. But nothing else explains the impunity with which these forces continue to operate. Meanwhile, Mike Brown’s body is in danger of becoming the mere canvas on which the latest grand failure of an institution is painted. His story is already drifting from view, submerged beneath two things: the police’s treatment of journalists, and the fierce initial media interrogation of black people’s response to this tragedy.

The latter of these issues is what may be referred to, again and again, as “the black reaction on trial”. Put simply, the behaviour of black people in response to a horror that they have suffered is examined more keenly than the horror itself. That explains why, in this case – as noted by Chris Hayes of MSNBC – their news network, and not the police, were the first to interview the key witness in Mike Brown’s death. The death of Mike Brown is not so remotely interesting to the law enforcement authorities – or, indeed, some sections of the media – as what black people will do by way of reaction. This also explains the apparent disappointment with which so many reporters first on the scene sidled away from the action, or lack of it, concerned that the protests were not aggressive enough for their tastes.

Why, then, have black people not taken to the streets of Missouri and mown down every white policemen that they have set eyes on? It is not because they have otherworldly powers of emotional restraint, because that would be to suggest that they were somehow less human, less sensitive, than any other group suffering their fate. No: it is because they are mourning a member of their community, and they are looking for justice. It is impossible, on that note, to imagine that Mike Brown been white he would have been left lying on the tarmac for so many hours after his death, the latest gruesome testimony to America’s racial inequality.

Why, again, are black people not unleashing a vengeful hail of bullets? Because they get it: they get why they are killed by authorities with unerring regularity. President Obama gets this, even though he called for “reflection and understanding” in the wake of Brown’s killing; as if there were anything left to reflect upon or understand. The answer was set out clearly by none other than James Baldwin in his short book of two essays, The Fire Next Time. As long ago as 1963, he explained the surprising calmness of African-Americans in the face of these atrocities, and why they comprehend the actions of the policeman who gunned down the fleeing Mike Brown, even as they do not forgive them.  

“The American Negro,” wrote Baldwin, “has the great advantage of having never believed the collection of myths to which white Americans cling: that their ancestors were all freedom-loving heroes, that they were born in the greatest country the world has ever seen, or that Americans are invincible in battle and wise in peace, that Americans have always dealt honourably with Mexicans and Indians and all other neighbours or inferiors. . . Negroes know far more about white Americans than that; it can almost be said, in fact, that they know about white Americans what parents – or, anyway, mothers – know about their children, and that they very often regard white Americans that way. And perhaps this attitude, held in spite of what they know and have endured, helps to explain why Negroes, on the whole, and until lately, have allowed themselves to feel so little hatred. The tendency has really been, insofar as this was possible, to dismiss white people as the slightly mad victims of their own brainwashing.”

Baldwin got it then, and black people get it now: while we consider the fact that these scenes are as vivid and visceral as they were in the Sixties, evidence of a system so efficient that it erases the individuality of each of its victims. So, again: Mike Brown; Mike Brown; Mike Brown.

Musa Okwonga is a Berlin-based poet, journalist and musician.

The University Challenge final. Photo: BBC iPlayer
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Why University Challenge is deliberately asking more questions about women

Question setters and contestants on how the show finally began to gender-balance its questions – and whether it’s now harder as a result.

University Challenge has long had a gender problem. When the show first started airing in 1962, some Oxbridge colleges were still refusing to admit women as undergraduates; in the decades since, women have been consistently outnumbered by men, with all-male teams still a regular occurrence. Those women that did appear were all too regularly criticised and objectified in equal measure by audiences: notable contestants like Hannah Rose Woods, Emma Johnson, Samantha Buzzard and Sophie Rudd have experienced intense media scrutiny and criticised the sexism of the show and audiences. In recent years, sexism rows have dogged the show.

How satisfying, then, to see two women carrying their teams in last night’s final: Rosie McKeown for winners St John’s, Cambridge, and Leonie Woodland for runners-up Merton, Oxford. Both secured the majority of points for their teams – McKeown with visible delight, Woodland looking unsure even as she delivered correct answer after correct answer.

But there is another site of sexism on University Challenge, one that earns less column inches: the questions. Drawing on all areas of history, science, language, economics and culture, the questions often concern notable thinkers, artists, scientists, and sportspeople. Of course, our society’s patriarchal hierarchies of achievement have meant that the subjects of these questions are mostly men. General knowledge is, after all, a boys’ club.

Over the course of this 2017-8 series, though, I noticed a shift. More women than ever seemed to be making their way into the questions, at times with deliberate reference to the inherent sexism of their lack of cultural prominence. On 5 February, there was a picture round devoted to female composers, with contestents asked to identify Clara Schumann, Ethel Smyth, Rachel Portman and Bjork from photographs, who, Paxman explained, are all “women that are now listed in the EdExcel A Level music syllabus after the student Jessy McCabe petitioned the exam board in 2015.” Episodes have included bonus rounds on “prominent women” (the writer Lydia Davis, the pilot Lydia Litvyak, and the golfer Lydia Ko), “women born in the 1870s and 80s” (Rosa Luxemburg, Elizabeth Arden and Vanessa Bell), and the female philosophers Mary Midgely, Philippa Foot and Iris Murdoch.

Elsewhere, questions raise a knowing eyebrow at the patriarchal assumptions behind so much of intellectual endeavour. A music round on famous rock bands quoted the music critic Kelefa Sanneh’s definition “rockism”: “the belief that white macho guitar music is superior to all other forms of popular music”. Another, on opera, quoted Catherine Clement’s Opera, Or The Undoing of Women, which explores how traditional opera plots frequently feature “the infinitely repetitive spectacle of a woman who dies”. “Your music bonuses are three such operas,” Paxman said dryly, to audience laughter.

University Challenge’s questions editor Thomas Benson confirms that there has been a deliberate attempt to redress a gender imbalance in the quiz. “About three years ago, a viewer wrote in to point out that a recent edition of the programme had contained very few questions on women,” he explains. “We agreed and decided to do something about it.”

Last night’s final included a picture round on artists with works concerning motherhood (Mary Casatt, Lousie Bourgeois, Leanora Carrington and Frida Kahlo) and a music round on Marin Alsop, the first woman to ever conduct the Last Night of the Proms, as well as sets of bonuses on the American writer Willa Kather and Byzantine historian and princess Anna Komnene.

Former winner Hannah Rose Woods is delighted by the increase in such questions. “I think it’s fantastic!” she tells me. “These things are really important in changing people’s perceptions about women in the past, and the way women’s contributions to science and the arts have often been written out of history. We need to keep challenging the idea of the White Male Canon.”

Last night’s winner Rosie McKeown says that while she didn’t necessarily notice a deliberate attempt to gender balance the questions, she was “very pleased with the quality of those questions that did come up”.

“Although it wasn’t in one of our matches,” she tells me, “I thought the picture round on female composers was especially good for highlighting women’s achievements.”

For all the enthusiasm for these questions, in the studio they’re often met with blank stares. While University Challenge questions are broad and imaginatively posed, there are some reliable revision topics and techniques: from Nobel laureates and the years of their wins to identifying famous paintings and classical music excerpts. McKeown says she has been a religious viewer of the show since she was 11 years old, and admits to watching reruns of the show to prepare. Shift the kinds of answers you might be looking for, and teams may struggle.

“Do we know any female British composers?” Leonie Woodland said weakly, looking at a picture of Ethel Smyth. Trying to come up with a female Muslim Nobel laureate, one contestant desperately suggested Aung San Suu Kyi. Asked to provide a first name linking an American concert pianist with the sister of Lazarus one male contestant still buzzed in with “Daniel”.

“Even if we didn’t always get them right,” McKeown tells me, citing that round on female philosophers, which saw them pass on every question, as an example, “it was great to see so many important female figures represented.”

“I don't think the questions about women necessarily affected our performance, but it’s certainly a very good thing that they were there and I hope that they’ll arouse people’s interest in the women featured and in their achievements.”

Benson believes that it hasn’t had a significant effect on performance. “The great majority of the questions that feature women are no different to any others, in that they sit firmly within the realm of standard academic general knowledge.”

He notes that they often refer to historical and background details, citing sets of bonuses on Canadian novelist Ruth Ozeki and British physicist Hertha Ayrton, which both teams answered correctly in full. “Though Ozeki and Ayrton may not be household names, the questions are definitely answerable and deal with central themes in their work and achievements.”

It’s easy to brush off the significance of a fairly geeky Monday night BBC quiz show, but University Challenge still regularly pulls in three million viewers. In any case, a show like University Challenge has a cultural significance that outweighs its viewing figures. It helps to shape our understanding of which subjects are intellectual or important, which are history’s most notable achievements, and who is worth learning about. To ignore questions of identity is to risk intellectual laziness, relying on tired ideas of canonical figures – or worse, supremacist propaganda, privileging the achievements of white men over all others.

Quite aside from making for less predictable and more enjoyable television, by including questions on the likes of Stevie Smith, Nella Larsen, Gertrude Stein, Myra Hess, Margaret Mead, and Beryl Bainbridge, University Challenge can diversify the mental encyclopaedias of its viewers, be it a tweed-wearing 60-year-old in Leamington Spa or an 11-year-old like Rosie McKeown with her own dreams of one day competing. It has a responsibility to do so.

Anna Leszkiewicz is the New Statesman's deputy culture editor.