Why Is Diversity on our screens so important?
Diversity on our TV screens is an issue that has always been close to my heart that has once again been reignited by two incidents. The first incident was when a friend showed me the difference between the original poster for Star Wars: The Force Awakens and its Chinese equivalent:
(Source: The Independent)
As you can see John Boyega’s character is barely visible in the Chinese poster, logical reasoning, points to the fact that it’s because he is black (yes, I am pulling the race card).
The second incident involved “discussing” with a friend, about how politically correct, according to him, adverts have become these days e.g. the one black guy in a group of white people, which signifies the company fulfilling its diversity quota.
I was abit shocked that he would see this as a bad thing, but he’s my friend. So I will let this one slide and put this incident into the collection of other incidents that make up the ‘let’s never talk about that time you were kind of racist’ file.
The poster mixed with the discussion made me think about the reasons why it is important to have diversity on our screens. First of all, it is important to note that the media can play a powerful role in shaping our everyday perceptions, for example, after the release of Jaws in 1975, fear of sharks increased dramatically.
Minorities have always been underrepresented at greater than six to one among the creators of broadcast American TV shows therein lays the danger with the representation of black, Asian and other ethnic minority backgrounds within the creative industries.
Personally, as a black man, I feel like a lack of representation in films and TV, increases the feeling of being a minority and runs the risk of making you feel as an alien within your society. However, in saying that, there are a lot of people from ethnic minority backgrounds on our screens, but the real danger lays in how people from black, Asian and other ethnic minority backgrounds are represented. At this point it’s hard to decipher which could be worse having a misrepresentation or no representation at all?
Ethnic minorities are too often portrayed in either a stereotypical or tokenistic way e.g. the Indian shop keeper or the black drug dealer or rapper. Portrayals like these allow these stereotypes to persist and in a sense normalize them and make it okay for a**holes on night outs to compare me to the first famous black man that comes to their minds. Granted, I am hot material, but I am not labrinth or Tinie Tempah.
More importantly, if people from ethnic minorities are portrayed as only being able to hold menial jobs, act as criminals or the side friend of the main character. What does this say to the people from ethnic minorities who watch these films?
The answer, in a generalized and simplified form, is that it subliminally tells people from ethnic minority backgrounds, that they don’t have enough value to be the main character; it tells them you’ll never be anything but the shop clerk or criminal and basically, your story isn’t worth telling. This relates to the #blacklivesmatter discussion that is dominating the internet, think about it, so many young black men, not only in America, are being killed or go missing , every day, but yet the media doesn’t care or see their life stories as valuable enough to share.
I have really hammered the industry here, but to be fair to it strides are being made, in the representation of ethnic minorities within film, one example, is John Boyega as the lead in one of the most successful film franchise in cinema history (Star wars!). Not to get soppy, but as a black Nigerian man of similar age, I am proud of him and his wise words.
There is still a long way to go, we live in a world full of contradictions where the president of the USA is black and black people, arguably, dominate the music industry, however, ethnic minorities for various reasons, are still a much marginalized part of society.
Some would use the argument of a black president and Oprah Winfrey, as a signifier that racism doesn’t exist any more. However, I would argue that racism has taken on a more devious and hidden form.
Imagine a world, where the CEO’s of the top 100 companies in the world were black. If a CEO of one of these companies, who went to a predominantly black school and came from a background that was socially and culturally black. It is more likely, that if this CEO had to choose between a black and white man with the same skills, the CEO would probably choose the black guy, just mainly out of familiarity and comfort, choosing the white guy would be choosing the unfamiliar and the unfamiliar is usually seen as risk. This is a very simplistic way of looking at it, but I am sure you get the idea.
This is why government schemes aimed at increasing diversity are so important, they act as a barrier in a sense to the subconscious biases, that lives in all of us. Great charities and programmes such as Creative Access and The Mama Youth Project, are pioneering a model to get people from diverse backgrounds into the creative Industries.
These programmes are at the forefront of the changes being made to form a more inclusive creative environment. The subject of diversity, not just racial diversity, is on everybody’s lips these days, so at least there is a wider awareness. The first step of solving a problem is accepting that it exists.
Progress is being made and people from diverse backgrounds are getting the recognition they deserve, for example, Steve Mcqueen; the first black man to win the Best Director Academy award in 2012 for 12 Years a Slave and more recently Viola Davis; the first black woman to win the primetime Emmy Award for Best Actress in 2015 for her work in How To Get Away With Murder.
I was shocked about how recent their wins were, but then again, I can’t write a whole article about diversity in film and then complain about how long it took to give a black person the Best Director award . I mean I could but it seems defeatist, point is things are moving forward!