ohn the surface at least, British television is finally waking up to the race. The success of a new wave of proudly black British shows such as Steve McQueen’s Small Ax and Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You, allied with bold new diversity initiatives such as Channel 4’s Black to Front has had an impact. huge in terms of advertising demo and critical viability of black experience-centric shows.
At this critical time for media diversity, the Guardian spoke to five black and Asian Britons in the industry about their experiences: the discrimination they’ve faced and whether they have any hope for the future.
After a decades-long career in the arts, I have never experienced such abject racism as it is on television and in the movies. Every year, all the channels hold go-live briefings where they chat with the elite of black production companies as if we were amateurs. A lot of times when we pitch an idea, they associate us with a big production company, like we need a helping hand to make our own ideas work. It’s a far cry from the collaborative tone they use with their “favorite partners”, the big production houses with almost exclusively white staff. They talk to us as if we are only there to tick a box.
For a long time, the solution to diversity was seen as more visibility, more black people in roles; add another black family to the cast of EastEnders or Coronation Street. What we really need is a variety of content created by a variety of people. People don’t mind you being in front of the camera, as an actor or a presenter; it is not a threat. But when you’re a producer or director, that’s where the real problems arise.
I remember an incident where I was given a call hour later than everyone else. The show’s producer had a meeting before I arrived when he told the whole crew that I was inexperienced, that they shouldn’t listen to everything I was telling them and that they should check everything with him. Keep in mind that I am the only black man on set; 99.9% of the people on my sets have never worked with a black director before.
Comedy is a difficult profession that discriminates against everyone at all levels. I remember, as a young actor, going to a training workshop where they were talking about your casting segment; how the industry sees you fundamentally. They went around, putting the young blond women in “ingenuous”, or a worker in “street”. They came up to me, the only person of color in the room, and mine was just “Asian”.
Like many South Asian actors, I found myself in the “geek” box. An agent told me, “No matter how good-looking you are, you will only be playing geeks.” Another panicked in a meeting saying, “You are not what I expected. You are much more beautiful. Since when was this a problem for an actor? But it’s been a burden my whole career.
When casting Aladdin in 2019, there was a lot of “we can’t find any brown actors who can play that role.” Can you imagine if they applied this logic to Harry Potter? No, they are happy to find new young talent. Also, when recruiting terrorists, they don’t seem to have a problem finding brown actors.
Bodyguard, for example, attempted to argue that having a Muslim terrorist wife served the empowerment of women. What a reach! Misrepresentation has consequences in the real world, for real Muslims, including my family members. For them, the hijab is not a costume.
Powerful people in the industry have told me that only a small percentage of actors have the charisma to be on TV. Does this imply that only white people have what it takes?
I think there is a tendency for people at the BBC and ITV to point fingers at exceptions, as if to say that there is no problem, that “it is happening for ‘my people’. “. I was even asked if there was a “talent base” among people of my ethnicity.
I’ve been called an agitator more times than I can count, as if I wanted to complicate my life. As if I don’t realize that speaking mostly hurts me. I’ve accepted now that my career will probably never recover, but it’s frankly ridiculous the amount of time we British-born Chinese have to spend faking a Chinese accent just to make ends meet. Time and time again we are forced to pretend that we don’t speak English as our first language.
Among Asians, most of the time we see racism as a mark of shame, as if we are somehow responsible for it. Even within the community, there is a feeling that racism is caused by the way people behave. I don’t blame the people who think this; it is above all an instinct for survival. They think the way to the top is obvious: rest easy, accept what you are given.
Micro-attacks are commonplace on British film sets. As a black woman, I made the personal decision to wear my hair natural, but the vast majority of hair and makeup departments lack the expertise in dealing with Afro hair. They don’t know the products, tools, or styles well enough for us to be confident they can do the job.
I must have climbed onto the set with hair that I don’t like; it’s overwhelming but you have to be professional because you still have your job to do. It is particularly difficult when we see that other actors are taken care of; you look at yourself in the mirror and know that you haven’t received the same level of support or preparation.
The problem is not with the stylists; I’ve never heard anyone say, “I don’t want to learn how to style your hair. But there is an accessibility problem; time to learn that is not on a job.
The solution is for education organizations to build that into the curriculum. What invariably happens in the UK is that you have been trained on Caucasian hair and skin and this also goes for the vast majority of ethnic minority artists. Greater diversity within the crews would be a positive step towards greater openness and awareness of how to approach these issues with the required sensitivity.
The graduate of the drama school
You hear a lot about how diversity is a huge thing, that we are in at present. For me, this has fueled an identity crisis because you feel like you are suddenly going to be treated differently based on how you look when that is exactly what you don’t want to happen. It’s really fucked up with your brain.
People keep telling me I’m trendy, but if I find a job, is it just because I tick a box? If I don’t work, does that mean I’m completely fucked up? Most of them are internal thoughts, reflecting my own prejudices. But it’s something I wouldn’t have to deal with if I was white.
It’s good that the diversity conversation finally seems to be happening, but there is hardly any lead in East Asia yet. It feels like we’re at the bottom of the pecking order, so it’s amazing when you get a show like Squid Game. I loved that a Korean show was the most watched thing in the world.
But then it really hits me; how can this show be so successful and yet it is still so rare to see a british asian family portrayed on tv? I have a feeling that the people in charge don’t think that a show centered around us can be told to a general audience. But someone has to take a chance; it is not enough for the UK television industry to rest on its laurels.
I graduated in the industry at a good time. Things are clearly changing. But honestly, I have already spent years suffering with my identity, hoping in front of God that I wake up with blue eyes and blonde hair – because that would solve all my problems.
If you are an artist who experiences discrimination while working in the television industry, you can report the incident and seek advice by visiting equity.org.uk/contact and selecting the contact concerned.