A couple of months ago, I was watching music videos with friends when a band made up of Cambridge graduates came on the TV. As images of the musicians flashed in front of our eyes, someone made a “joke” about one of the non-white band members: ‘he can’t have gone to Cambridge, he’s black’. While it’s easy for some to dismiss this as a harmless aside, this one comment tells us a lot about British society. Even if a minority ethnic person succeeds at their creative endeavour (whether academic or musical), the focus is not on their talent, but the colour of their skin.
This is because we rarely see non-white people in stereotypically respectable creative jobs ( which are seen as different from the jobs of singers, performers or presenters in the ‘entertainment industry’). Take the creative terrain of journalism, a recent campaign Media Diversified has highlighted that the mainstream is dominated by white people: until Amol Rajan was appointed to head up the Independent last year, there had never been a non-white editor of a mainstream British newspaper and between 2009-2012 the number of minority ethnic people working in the media fell from 6.7% to 5.4%. Much in the same vein, even though there are many successful ethnic minority musicians in the entertainment industry, they are seen differently from their white counterparts. Britain’s Got Talent judge and black musician Alesha Dixon was told by a journalist that they wouldn’t ‘put a black person on the front cover because the magazine wouldn’t sell’. Ultimately, what all of this evidence shows is that there’s an acceptable face of mainstream, 'respectable' creativity. And this face is white.
To address this kind of institutional racism, we, as a society, should take a lesson from the person who made the crude but unmistakably clear racist joke. We need to stop skirting around racism in the UK and start calling it what it is. Only then can we disrupt the status quo that privileges white people and their creative products above others. So I’ll begin: Britain is an institutionally racist society and society needs to find creative ways to do something about it.
Media Diversified is making a start. Launched by journalist, film-maker and RSA Fellow Samantha Asumadu, Media Diversified combats the lack of diversity in British media by showcasing the work of minority ethnic writers. In doing so, the campaign proves that the whiteness of British media is in no way due to a lack of talent in non-white communities but rather embedded racism in the media. What is particularly powerful about this campaign is that at the same time as highlighting unfair media representation, it provides a platform for minority ethnic people to speak for themselves, and not just on issues of race.
Yet the campaign which is crowdfunding via the RSA crowdfunding area still has a way to go to meet its target. You have to wonder why. My guess would be that when we talk about overcoming institutional racism, most people can’t agree on the most effective way to do so. Many still buy into the age-old, misinformed false dichotomy that pits ‘equality of opportunity’ against ‘equality of outcome’ and leaves us mired in abstract debate as opposed to taking effective and positive action, like Media Diversified hopes to do.
there’s an acceptable face of mainstream, 'respectable' creativity. And this face is white.
The proponents of ‘opportunity’ over ‘outcome’ imply that if everyone was given an equal chance in life then people would succeed on hard work, talent and merit. The old chestnut of meritocracy appears again. Yet, the political terrain of 2014 proves beyond doubt why this approach fails to unpick the racism that’s embedded in British society. At the start of the year, it emerged in a Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) report that austerity has a disproportionate effect on minority ethnic groups, the most disadvantaged of whom are more than twice as likely to be unemployed than their white counterparts. Even when minority ethnic people are from similar socioeconomic backgrounds, they fare worse than their white counterparts. So while the ‘equality of opportunity’ argument shouldn’t be dismissed (I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t look to create a fairer education system, for example) when it comes to race it fails to undo the systemic racism that circulates throughout our society.
Similarly, we won’t unpick racial discrimination by simply investing all of our hopes in the ‘equality of outcome’ idea. This line of argument suggests that if you promote minority ethnic people to positions of power, racism will slowly be eroded. I’m in no way suggesting that society shouldn’t look to promote the many qualified minority ethnic people within British institutions. Rather, the problem with relying solely on this American-style affirmative action is that although minority ethnic people may be in positions of power, they are still operating within a system that privileges the views of white people over all others. And there’s a risk they become the ‘token’ non-white person, expected to speak on behalf of all minority ethnic people.
So, instead of buying into the idea that either approach on its own will somewhat passively erase racial (and gendered) discrimination, we need to recognise the merits of both ‘equality of opportunity’ and ‘equality of outcome’ and invest time and energy into addressing racism in a multifaceted way.
To start with, race needs to be a mainstream issue (after all, four months since the DWP report showed minority ethnic people suffer disproportionately under the cuts, what is being said or done?). This must include deconstructing contemporary and historical fallacies about non-white people: they are more than capable of going to Cambridge or becoming journalists and editors at mainstream newspapers.
With this in mind, for those of you reading who want to help ameliorate institutional racism, I would urge you to support the creative solution Media Diversified offers to institutional racism in the media, by donating via the RSA crowdfunding area. This campaign directly challenges conventional myths that ethnic minority people aren’t as talented as their white counterparts and does so by allowing people of colour to speak for themselves. Only through innovative solutions such as this will we begin to move towards a world in which creativity is respected in more than one colour.