Has the discourse surrounding diversity become divisive?
Are you exhausted from challenging uninformed assertions that diversity equates to dumbing down the workforce? This is one of the many reasons why underrepresented groups need to become more visible in the film & television industry. Familiar key names are often regurgitated as evidence that people can make it if they "just try hard enough". "just look at Lenny Henry and ... you know, the other one". Sir Lenny Henry has spoken passionately and challenged the lack of diversity in the British television industry, he addressed the issues in a speech presented at The Royal Television Society in 2008 and …… again in 2014 at BAFTA. I always wait patiently as those still in denial dig deep to drag up household names. It takes a few seconds before they cross over the Atlantic to prove their point, and end with "it should be about the best person for the job". I couldn't agree more… the fact is, for many people from BAME backgrounds, there was one message on repeat throughout childhood ‘you have to be x3 better and work harder to get a job, and I'm sure there have been variations of this conversation in a range of households, so, why is it still such a challenge?
For too long, nepotism has been treated as a green card to guarantee entry into the Arts and an abundance of gratitude is expected from those outside the inner circle who have managed to 'slip in'. This is the reality for underrepresented groups of people entering such spaces often treated as anomalies. There are few high visible pioneers, from marginalised groups and as the saying goes; "If you don't see, you can't be" and so remains the struggle. Throughout the 90s, I spent many weekends appearing at a variety of venues as a performance poet [moniker withheld] I met numerous people and heard familiar stories which are still prevalent today, and has resulted in the haemorrhaging of talent from these shores.
There have been encouraging signs with TV shows Undercover, Small Island and Unforgotten but the reality is, unless diverse casts and stories are presented as the norm, it will remain fixed in otherness and considered outside of the mainstream, solely for a ‘niche' audience. The millennial demographic is politicised with a higher percentage, self- defining as mixed heritage and/or LGBTQ+ seeking stories that are relevant to their experience and they, like generations before, deserve better.
Whilst there are numerous reasons for the mass consumption of U.S.A imports, this is in part because there's an abundance of shows, offering welcome relief from the stereotypical lens through which characters are portrayed. Here in the U.K drug dealers, sex workers, muggers and drunks are all too often presented with an accent, and/or of a darker hue. Why is it being left to the American market to quench the British audience appetite? Surely committing to being inclusive makes great business sense and can potentially increase revenue from overseas territories. What's not to like?
As a new screenwriter, I expect to work hard to secure my break, my generation was taught you don't get anything for free. After spending a few years with one foot in the arts whilst spending many more years working in children's services, I have a natural inclination to write from a diverse perspective, and despite the intersectionality of my lived and professional experience, I couldn't possibly know everything about all people and producers are not expected to do so either. However, there's an opportunity to be leaders, not followers and champion new talent, and opportunities to discuss not dismiss new worlds.
During 2 very long years on my screenwriting course, an eye-opener for all the wrong reasons, I heard it all, the standard line was ‘I just don't get it', which seemed odd. A screenplay set in Surrey about an inter-racial couple [not beyond the imagination, I mean, we're not talking flying dragons here] sure, the theme of identity might be a little uncomfortable and shadeism might be unfamiliar territory, but was it so difficult to comprehend? I was soon to find out as pitching to producers for the 1st time was imminent. My experience of working with surly adolescents came in useful as I experienced an amusing medley of bewilderment, disinterest and an ill-considered, ‘it sounds like something out of the 18th century'…. No, that was called slavery, not an inter-racial relationship!
I was pleased to suffer a coughing fit and left the room momentarily returning with a few seconds left before I had to pitch to the next producer. I'm forever thankful for my asthmatic intervention, probably saving me from career suicide. But there's a serious point here unless you have diverse stories, casts and crews it's entirely possible that output will present as dated. Most organisations welcome ‘new blood' fresh ideas and new ways of doing/seeing things. This cannot be achieved by the media mafia cartel where roles are passed down through generations. In the creative ‘liberal' arts it seems somewhat ironic, that embracing diversity has taken so long to arrive.
America has made numerous successful shows; Insecure, Scandal, Orange is the new black and How to get away with murder to name a few that continue to showcase a diverse range of talent and content. There's a desire to embrace challenging storylines which inform rather than alienate and therefore reaches beyond the intended demographic. The UK is lagging woefully behind and missing out on all the glorious aspects of creating a modern vision together.
For those in doubt why diversity matters, here are my thoughts:
Diversity is important because it indicates a healthy and inclusive environment, one in which people afford each other a basic level of respect, irrespective of who you are, what you look like or where you come from. You are a human first and foremost. Diversity keeps the very essence of humanity alive and allows one to constantly challenge and evaluate the values and beliefs we may have been conditioned by in our respective cultures. Television reaches the masses and diversity leads to a greater range of voices, stories and experiences being shared and thus creates an alternative perspective, as we do not live in a monoculture. In the 21st century globalised society, that should be the norm. When you make people visible, it helps to eradicate stigmas and associated stereotypes, and as the doors open wider and cracks appear in the glass ceiling those who struggled to find a way in will seek out opportunities.
The celebrated author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, presented at Ted Global 2009 on the dangers of a single story, I'll leave it to you, the reader to watch. In the meantime, I will continue honing my multi-layered lens and challenging the irony of division because inclusion means just that, and it works for us all.