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Damilola Odelola Headshot

Whitewashed TV

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A while ago I wrote this piece about the lack of black leads in BBC drama, Dancing on the Edge. Considering the show is about a black jazz band in the 1930s, you'd assume majority of the lead roles would be black. This then begs the question, where are all of Britain's black and POC (people of colour) talent?

David Herman wrote an article in which he (and Lenny Henry) criticise the Baftas, and British television and radio for the lack of positive Black images on television, radio, and other popular media. All 31 Bafta awards were given to white faces, and all nominations were either completely white casts or majority white casts. The weekly primetime schedule is a sea of white faces saving the world, delivering the news, being funny, commenting on sports, etc. and while you may get the occasional blackface doing one (or all) of these things, our media still remains very imbalanced.

A long, long time ago, when I was seriously considering a career in acting, professional actors and dramatists constantly warned me about the difficulty of being a black actress. "Being an actress is hard enough", I was told, "but being black... there just aren't any roles." I remember talking to an acquaintance who had just started acting professionally, her main worry was getting type cast as the 'black ghetto girl' because that seemed to be the only role out there for black women. I was so excited when I saw the Doctor Who adverts with Freema Agyeman, the fact that she was black and starring in a sci-fi show is the only reason I started watching, and although Noel Clark came before her, she was The Doctor's companion, she would be in every show!

Last week our news headlines were filled with the story of the murder of a soldier in Woolwich. The men who claimed responsibility for the murder were black and this has been emphasised repeatedly as the men, who are both British born and raised, are constantly being referred to as being Nigerian. Generally speaking, when one sees 'Nigerian', a white face is not the first face that comes to mind.

Two weeks ago, two different rape gangs were uncovered by the police, one was made up of predominately Pakistani and Somali men, the other: white men. Only one of those cases made major headlines. Our news and entertainment outlets work together in portraying a very negative and (most times) exaggerated image of people of colour, thus the general public only get one image and are consequently taught to hate us.

For centuries we have had to hear our narratives from white mouths, and we've had to see our pictures being conjured up by white imaginations, from Conrad and Kipling to Darwin and Huxley. Through time, the western school of thought has taught that black brains are smaller than white brains, we're more stupid, we're far more ugly, and we are savage; the image we see on television today only slightly differs. When we are given roles on television we're corrupt in one way or another and are stereotyped. There are a few anomalies, for example BBC's Luther starring Idris Elba, however there aren't many more.

Part of the problem is that we've been conditioned into thinking there are only two interesting black narratives, one involves gang culture, poverty, or a single-parent household, and the other involves depicting African/Caribbean/Asian households and using heavy (and usually very flawed) accents to be laughed at.

On British television, I don't think we've seen a drama on what it's like to be the only black person in a predominately white community (I may be wrong, and let me know if I am), or multiple stories where the black characters are the heroes, or a drama about a middle-class, two parent, black family. When you see a programme advertised with more than one main black character, you kind of know what to expect. You'd think in 2013, in a proclaimed "post-racial" Britain, we would be in a position to speak for ourselves? To tell our own stories? To display our own talents?

I enjoy seeing black faces on TV that are doing regular things, that are in dramas that are not about gangs or postcode wars or poverty, and comedies that aren't about stereotyping cultures. Every week I face the same struggle, I actively search for shows that have a majority black or POC cast, often settling to watch something American rather than British and even the search for those too are a little strenuous. When the season finale of Doctor Who aired and it was revealed that John Hurt would be the twelfth Doctor, I was disappointed.

The Doctor Who saga stops at #13 and I was kind of hoping we would see a woman, POC Doctor towards these end times. Even on an article about the series, somebody commented saying they would like to see a woman doctor, I responded that a POC doctor would be nice too and they said they couldn't see a POC doctor. Our media is so whitewashed that a black Doctor in a fictional show is unrealistic, and a show about a black jazz band is really about corrupt white people.

It gets to the point where, as Herman says, we have to ask "where are the positive faces of Black-Britain?"

A shorter version of this post can be found at damiiodelola.wordpress.com

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