‘I’ve never experienced such abject racism’: what it’s really like to work in TV as a person of colour
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On the surface at least, British TV is finally waking up to race. The success of a new wave of proudly Black British programmes such as Steve McQueen’s Small Axe and Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You, allied with bold new diversity initiatives such as Channel 4’s Black to Front has had a huge impact in terms of demonstrating the commercial and critical viability of shows centring the Black experience.
At this critical juncture for media diversity, the Guardian spoke to five Black and Asian Britons in the industry about their experiences: the discrimination they have faced and whether they have hope for the future.
After a decades-long career in the arts, I have never experienced such abject racism as in TV and film. Every year, all the channels have commissioning briefings where they talk to the elite Black production companies as if we are amateurs. Often when we pitch an idea they’ll pair us with a major production company, as if we need a helping white hand to make our own ideas work. It’s a world away from the collaborative tone they use with their “preferred partners”, the major production houses with almost exclusively white staff. They speak to us as if we’re just 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’s really needed is a diversity of content made by a diversity of people. People don’t mind you being in front of the camera, as an actor, or presenter; that’s not a threat. But when you’re a producer or director, that’s when the real issues arise.
I remember one incident where I was given a later call time than everyone else. The series producer held a meeting before I arrived when he told the entire crew that I was inexperienced, that they weren’t to listen to anything I told them and that they had to check everything with him. Bear in mind I’m the only Black man on set; 99.9% of people on my sets have never worked with a Black director before.
Acting is a hard profession that discriminates against everyone across the board. I remember as a young actor, attending a training workshop where they talked about your casting bracket; how the industry sees you basically. They went round, putting the young blond women in “ingenue’’, or a working-class person into “street”. They got to me, the only person of colour in the room, and mine was simply “Asian”.
Like a lot of south Asian actors, I ended up in the “geek” box. One agent told me: “It doesn’t matter how good looking you are, you will only play geeks.” Another freaked out in a meeting, saying: “You’re not what I was expecting. You’re far better looking.” Since when was that an issue for an actor? But it’s been a burden my entire career.
When they were casting Aladdin in 2019 there was a lot of “we can’t find any brown actors that can play this part”. Can you imagine if they applied that logic to Harry Potter? No, they’re excited to find new young talent. Besides, when they’re casting terrorists they don’t seem to have a problem finding brown actors.
Bodyguard, for example, tried to argue that having a Muslim woman terrorist was serving female empowerment. What a reach! Poor representation has real-world consequences, for real Muslims – including people in my family. For them the hijab is not a costume.
I have been told by powerful people in the industry that only a small percentage of actors have the charisma to be on TV. Is the implication that only white people have what it takes?
I think there is a tendency for people at the BBC and ITV to point towards the exceptions, as if to say that there isn’t a problem, that “it is happening for ‘my people’.” I’ve even been questioned as to whether there’s “a talent base” among people of my ethnicity.
I have been called an agitator more times than I can count, as if I want to make my life more difficult. As if I don’t realise that speaking out mainly harms me. I’ve accepted now that my career will probably never recover but it’s frankly ridiculous the amount of time us British-born Chinese people have to spend faking a Chinese accent just to make ends meet. Time and time again we are forced to pretend we don’t speak English as a first language.
With Asian people a lot of the time we see racism as a mark of shame, like we’re somehow responsible for it. Even within the community, there’s a sense that racism is brought on by the way people conduct themselves. I don’t blame people who think that; it’s a survival instinct as much as anything. They think the route to the top is obvious: be quiet, accept what you’re given.
Micro-aggressions are rife on British film sets. As a Black woman, I made a personal decision to wear my hair natural, but the vast majority of hair and makeup departments lack the expertise to deal with afro hair. They don’t know the products, the tools or the styles well enough for us to feel confident that they can do the job.
I have had to go on set with hair I’m not happy with; it’s upsetting but you need to be professional because you still have your job to do. It’s particularly hard when you can see that other actors are being catered to; you look in the mirror and know you’ve not received the same level of support or preparation.
The problem isn’t with the stylists; I’ve never heard someone say: “I don’t want to learn how to do your hair.” But there’s an accessibility problem; the time to be learning that isn’t on a job.
The solution is for education bodies to build this into the curriculum. What invariably happens in the UK is that you’ve been trained on caucasian hair and skin and that goes for the vast majority of minority ethnic artists, too. More diversity in crews would be a positive step towards greater openness, and greater awareness of how to address these issues with the required sensitivity.
The drama school graduate
You hear a lot about how diversity is a massive thing, that we’re in right now. For me that’s fuelled an identity crisis, because you feel like you’re suddenly going to be treated differently based on the way you look, when that’s exactly what you don’t want to happen. It really fucks with your brain.
I am constantly being told that I’m trendy but then if I get a job, was that just because I’m ticking a box? If I’m not working, does that mean I’m completely shit? These are internal thoughts mostly, a reflection of my own prejudices. But it’s something I wouldn’t have to deal with if I was white.
It’s great that the diversity conversation finally seems to be happening but there are still hardly any east Asian leads. It does feel like we’re way down the pecking order, so it’s incredible when you get a show like Squid Game. I loved that a Korean show was the most watched thing across the globe.
But then it really gets to me; how can that show be so successful and yet it’s still so rare to see a British Asian family depicted on telly? I feel like the people in charge don’t think a show centred around us is relatable to a general audience. But someone’s got to take a chance; it’s not good enough for the British TV industry to rest on its laurels.
I have graduated into the industry at a good time. Things are clearly changing. But honestly, I’ve already spent years suffering with my identity, hoping to God I wake up with blue eyes and blond hair – because that would solve all my problems.
If you are a performer who experiences discrimination while working in the TV industry, you can report the incident and seek advice by visiting equity.org.uk/contact and selecting the relevant contact.