In the wake of this year’s Black History Month, there is no doubt that we’ve come a long way since the days when 60 per cent of employed black women worked as domestic servants, or since 44 per cent of white people said they would relocate if a black family moved in next-door. In the not so distant past, we have witnessed movements from Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr, the passing of the great Civil Rights Act of 1964 and most recently, the inauguration of the first black President of the United States.
There is a common belief that the struggle against racism has been from the ground upwards; that it has always existed and that with every bold step forward, ethnic minority people have achieved a greater social standing than they ever had before. History, however, tells us otherwise.
Racial prejudice as we know it today simply didn’t exist, for example, during the Egyptian, Greek and Roman empires. It was noted that people came in a variety of hues, but only as an indication of where they may have come from.
Does responsibility lie with the millennial generation to move forward? Not necessarily. Another recurring belief is that to change societal perceptions, we must start with those in their 20s and 30s. These people are thought to have enough knowledge of the world to understand the issues at stake, but their opinions can still be influenced and moulded. The sad truth is that the attitudes of this generation are already too far ingrained and that when we reach a certain age, we actually shift the responsibility onto the next, and expect them to lead the charge.
In reality, biases start to take hold during childhood, so unless we are encouraged and led to reject them at a very early age, we won’t move forward at pace. We won’t build a society in which people’s experiences and the wider perception of racism is different to that of today.
It’s encouraging to see some brands making concerted efforts to address this issue. In 1980, an official African American Barbie doll was created, alongside a Latina Barbie. These were the first of a collection that, to date, includes more than 40 different international Barbies. Fast-forward nearly 40 years, and this trend is still continuing. Thomas the Tank Engine, for example, has just recently introduced a roster of multi-cultural characters, such as Ashima from India and Yong Bao from China.
This trend can be seen in adult entertainment too. Don’t forget that 50 or so years ago, it was rare to see ethnic minority characters on TV, and when you did, they were often “blacked up” white performers. Take the programme, Curry and Chips, for example. Black singer and actor, Kenny Lynch, was a regular on the show, but the lead role of a Pakistani immigrant was played by Spike Milligan; a white man. Whilst this would be unthinkable today, at the time the show was incredibly popular, even with minorities, who actually related to the stories and events depicted.
Aside from pandering to stereotypes though, historically, very few minorities have featured in adult entertainment. Again, that has changed dramatically. The most recent series of Doctor Who, for example, though experiencing criticism from some viewers for being ‘too politically correct’ features its first female lead, as well as a black actor and Asian actress as the titular character’s companions.
Despite some backlash though, the progress that has been made over the last 50 years shouldn’t be underestimated. We need to ensure that this trend continues until diversity is seen in all forms of entertainment, both for adults and children, as well as in educational and business material.
The more we highlight the issue and encourage discussion, the more attention we’ll draw to the fact that racism still exists. Currently, debates on race are fractious, challenging and confrontational. This is why most of us choose to avoid the topic altogether, looking the other way until a case arises that we simply can’t ignore. Even then, we may have no better response than to wring our hands and wait for other news to push whatever has made us uncomfortable out of the headlines.
We may have come a long way, but there is still a lot to be done. First and foremost, we need to recognise and deal directly with the new strain of subtle racism that exists today. Racism is not a thing of the past – yet. But we can make it so.