‘I’ve never experienced such dark racism’: What it’s like to work in TV as a person of color | the television

NSOn the surface at least, British television has finally woken up to the race. The success of a new wave of proudly British Black programs such as Steve McQueen’s Small Ax 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 major impact in terms of showing commercial advertising and the critical feasibility of shows focused on Black experience.

At this critical juncture for media diversity, The Guardian spoke with five black Britons and Asians in the industry about their experiences: the discrimination they faced and whether they had hope for the future.


After decades of working in the arts, I’ve never encountered such dark racism as it does in television and film. Every year, all channels give commission briefings where they talk to the elite of black production companies as if we were amateurs. Often when we come up with an idea, they will associate us with a major production company, as if we needed a white helping hand to make our ideas work. It’s a world away from the collaborative tone they use with their “favorite partners,” major production houses with almost exclusively white staff. They talk to us as if we are just there to check the box.

For a long time, the diversity solution was seen as more visible, more black people in roles; Add another black family to the EastEnders or Coronation Street team. What we really need is diversity of content created by a diverse group of people. People don’t mind being in front of the camera, as an actor or presenter. This is not a threat. But when you’re a producer or a director, that’s when the real problems arise.

I remember one incident where I got a call later than anyone else. The producer of the series had a meeting before my arrival when he told the whole crew that I was not an expert, that they had not listened to anything I told them, and that they should check everything with him. Keep in mind that I’m the only black guy in the group; 99.9% of the people in my group have never worked with a black director before.

the actor

Acting is a tough profession that discriminates against everyone in all fields. I remember when I was a young actor, I attended a training workshop where they talked about your cast; Basically how the industry sees you. They walked around, putting the blonde young women on the “avenue”, or a working-class person on the “street”. They hit me, the only person of color in the room, and I’m simply “Asian”.

Like a lot of actors from South Asia, I ended up in the “geek” box. One agent told me, “No matter how good-looking you are, you’ll just play geeks.” Another person in a meeting got annoyed, saying, “You’re not what I expected. You look so much better.” Since when was this a problem for the actor? But it has been a burden throughout my career.

When they were casting Aladdin in 2019, there was a lot of “we can’t find any brown actors who could play this role”. Can you imagine if they applied this logic to Harry Potter? No, they are excited to find new young talents. Moreover, when they turn to terrorists, they don’t seem to have a problem finding brown actors.

The Bodyguard, for example, attempted to argue that the presence of a Muslim terrorist serves to empower women. What an arrival! Bad representation has consequences in the real world, for true Muslims – including my family members. For them, the veil is not a costume.


People who are influential in the industry have told me that only a small percentage of actors have the charisma they show on TV. Is the implication that only white people have what it takes?

I think there is a tendency for people at BBC and ITV to point out exceptions, as if to say there’s no problem, ‘It happens to ‘my people’. I’ve even been questioned about whether there is a ‘talent base’ among people of ethnic origin.

I’ve been called the agitator more times than I can count, as if I wanted to make my life more difficult. As if I don’t realize that speaking in public basically hurts me. I’ve now accepted that my career may never recover, but it’s frankly ridiculous that we British-born Chinese should spend faking Chinese dialect just to make ends meet. Time and time again, we have to pretend we don’t speak English as a first language.

With Asians we often see racism as a sign of shame, as if we were somehow responsible for it. Even within society, there is a feeling that racism is caused by the way people act. I don’t blame people who think so; It’s the survival instinct just like anything else. They believe that the path to the top is clear: be calm, and accept what is given to you.

the actor

Small attacks on British film sets are common. As a black woman, I’ve made a personal decision to wear my hair naturally, but the vast majority of hair and makeup departments lack the experience to deal with afro hair. They don’t know the products, tools, or patterns well enough that we feel confident that they can do the job.

I had to keep laying my hair that I’m not happy with; It’s annoying but you have to be professional because you still have your job to do. It is especially difficult when you see that the needs of other actors are being met; You look in the mirror and know that you haven’t received the same level of support or willingness.

The problem is not with the stylists. I’ve never heard anyone say, “I don’t want to learn how to do your hair.” But there is a problem with access. Learning time is not in a job.

The solution is for educational bodies to include this in the curriculum. What always happens in the UK is that you are trained in Caucasian hair and skin and this is also true of the vast majority of ethnic minority artists. More diversity in the crew would be a positive step towards greater openness, and increased awareness of how to address these issues with the required sensitivity.

Drama school graduate

You hear a lot about how diversity is huge, us in a Immediately. For me, this fuels an identity crisis, because you feel like you’re suddenly going to be treated differently based on how you look, when that’s exactly what you don’t want to happen. It really fucks with your mind.

I’m constantly told I’m trendy but then if I get a job is it just because I’m ticking the box? If I’m not working, does that mean I’m totally sloppy? These are mostly internal thoughts, a reflection of my personal biases. 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 a few leads from East Asia. It feels like we’re going to drop in the click rank, so it’s incredible when you get a view like Squid Game. I loved that the korean show was the most watched all over the world.

But then it really reaches me; How can such a show be so successful yet it is still so rare to see the image of a British Asian family on TV? I feel the officials don’t think our show is relevant to a general audience. But someone has to take a chance. It is not good for the British television industry to rest on its laurels.

I graduated in industry at a good time. Obviously, things are changing. But honestly, I’ve actually spent years struggling with my identity, hoping to wake up with blue eyes and blonde hair — because that would solve all my problems.

If you are an artist who is discriminated against while working in the TV industry, you can report the incident and seek advice by visiting fairness. org.uk/contact and choose the relevant contact.

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