For Those Who Don’t See Colour

One of the things I love about social media is the ability to bring subjects, that mass media formerly had the last word on, to the forefront. Previously if you were upset about an issue you wrote a letter in to a paper, or hoped it came up on Points Of View or a similar themed user response programme. Or it was limited to the discourse of your mates over a drink or other social gathering.

Platforms like Twitter and Facebook have brought these subjects front and centre, because they happen in real time. Often such platforms then leave many of the mainstream media reacting to said streams of consciousness or longer thought pieces. Quoting tweets and status updates.

One of the perennial subjects is that of race and lack of diversity.

Over the last week, American conversations around race have come to the forefront whether that be around Beyonce‘s Formation performance and whether it was connected to attacks on police or how radical it really was. Formation, is a song that is a megaphone around being black in America. Even so it was jumped on specifically by many as an anti-police song, rather than a protest against police brutality. Ironically there was a less muted response to the incredibly pro black performance by Kendrick Lamar at the Grammy’s. Maybe it was so because of the sucker punch Beyonce landed at the Super Bowl. Twitter and Facebook provided some rather interesting (and scary) points of view on both events.

Of course you would have to be hiding under a rock to not know about the issue surrounding the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag. Although prominent actors such as Jada Pinkett Smith and her husband Will have said they would be boycotting this year’s Oscars, alongside director Spike Lee, the issue is so much deeper than that. The fact remains there is a problem of diversity in Hollywood. The Oscars represent the pinnacle for many actors who share their craft, but deeper than that, long before it gets to that ceremony, there are incredible biases, assumptions and prejudices inherent in the industry. The whole issue around green lighting projects and the assumptions that come with them is where a lot of the problems actually start.

It is easy to get sidetracked and celebrate Shonda Rhimes, Denzil Washington, Samuel Jackson, Lupita Wyong’o or the handful of other stars that crop up on our screens (or behind them) and miss the bigger issue at stake here.

This piece by the Huffington Post, highlights the underrepresentation of black, Latino and Asian nominations by the 450 member Academy. 96% of whom are white, 87% of whom are male. And yes, I know the chair Cheryl Boone Isaac is black, but even she expressed her disappoint at the lack of diversity in race and gender.
Incidentally I think it is inherently wrong to think that just because the board is primarily white that it is racist or ignorant. On paper however here is little evidence to suggest that those making the nominations do reflect the variety of talent and there is just cause for people to be up in arms about those blacks who do win, being cast in a slavery or musical role.
But that’s another essay.

So why does it matter? Why another piece about race or colour Dave? Why is this a persistent theme?

Sometimes when I write about racial discrimination and prejudices I often think I am banging my head against a wall.
I sometimes get self doubt about whether this is a box I am going to placed in, but take heart that my frustrations around inequality and thinking also extend to education reform, gender and that most of my written content online is ACTUALLY about business and career thinking. So I’m good.That self doubt evaporates when I realise too often people want to address some of our own shortcomings or lack of sensible dialogue around race and injustice here in the UK. This subject recently became evident when I was reading the #BritsSoWhite hashtag being used in social media.

Like the ceremonies in the US, the UK has also showed an alarming lack of willingness to embrace diverse narratives in many of our own awards. Token nods to artists in the past does not negate the fact that in the face of overwhelming evidence many popular acts of black heritage are sideline when it comes to awards. It’s one thing to get recognised for a Mercury or have the nod as a rising star, but when you have charted music, or as the winds have changed, have increasing engagement with fans on YouTube, Twitter, Facebook or other social channels, something is amiss when you don’t get a look in at what is the UK equivalent of the Grammy’s.

Lily Allen, who has had her own issues around cultural appropriation, took the Brits to task about not recognising grime in their nominations. Whilst her positioning was more about the industry trying to protect itself financially, there is no denying the artists she mentioned being ignored were black. Grime has its fair share of black, white and Asian emcees and producers for the record. Other artists such as Big Narstie, Stormy and Laura Nvumla all expressed dismay at the lack of diversity in the awards.

Laura made a strong point
“Growing up my black identity is something that is hugely important to me and something that as I’m now going in to my 30s I’m thinking lots and lots more about. I guess the problem for me is knowing that there are young black kids growing up feeling that they’re not acknowledged in society, in media and in mainstream music.”

The reason an award like the MOBO’s, was created in the first place, was a total lack of representation in mainstream music. Although the likes of African, Caribbean and African American music has had major influences on many of today’s popular music, be it pop, rock, rap or house, the creators and innovators of such music often get left out of things like the Brits. The dancehall infused Sorry by Justin Bieber may see many people dancing but only awards like MOBO would celebrate such artists as they stand. Ironically artists such a Krept and Konan, Ella Eyre and others who charted well only seem to be applauded in such alternative awards. Seriously, all things considered why would we need a MOBO if an organisation like the Brits could be as embracing as the Grammy’s to not only recognise genre but successful artists of all races as whole.

So why did I name this about those who don’t see colour?

Let me explain.

In the discussion that followed the #BritsSoWhite debate, the artist Lianne La Havas called out the hashtag as racist and unfounded. This took a number of people by surprise. Primarily because she is mixed race and they assumed, rightly or wrongly, that she would align herself with this. Performances at MOBO and AfroPunk probably got some people thinking that “maybe she is one of us”. Whatever that means. Her argument, like those who contend against OscarsSoWhite, is the assumption that the awards are made solely based on talent and one shouldn’t worry about whether there is cause to question racial bias.
She got into a heated debate rubbishing the fact that racial bias had nothing to do with selection even going so far to post a (now deleted) tweet that #AllLivesMatter. Maybe Mark Zuckerberg needs to school her on why that statement, as a reaction, is problematic.

The problem in dismissing a debate or the possibility of a problem around race without engaging in the discussion doesn’t mean a problem will go away.
The police had to address this at the Stephen Lawrence enquiry.
The fashion industry has had to tackle the lack of diversity and perceptions of beauty
Harking back to Mark Zuckerberg, his company and other leading tech companies have had to rethink about diversity and opportunities within their space. Not only on race but gender too
Workplaces had to address race this through Equality and Diversity Acts.

Too often people don’t want to see colour.
They don’t want to see race.
They don’t want to include the possibility that racial bias is part of the conversation around inequality.
But we are different colours, races, ethnicities and with that come a lot of assumptions whether we are conscious of them or not. Few things can be more insulting than someone who says they don’t see colour. In an attempt to posit one’s self as free of prejudice one actually ends up causing more offence, because if you can’t see colour as part of someone’s identity, what do you see?

The fact is our society has been built with racism so deeply entrenched in our fabric, that to deny the oppression that comes with that, would to quote Friere, would make us part of the oppression.
I have had to unlearn my own racial biases around how I saw Indians and Pakistanis
I had to unlearn my own racial assumptions around South East Asians.
Dammnit, I had to unlearn my own racial biases around white English people and later in my  life around Eastern Europeans who migrated here.
Owning up to that is hard but necessary. Especially if you want to have empathy for others.

By avoiding what could be deemed uncomfortable conversations we wade into murky waters.
When activism is created to getting institutions to challenge their thinking why not stop a minute.
It’s not always about playing a race card, or having a chip on your shoulder, but saying “hold on a minute, do you realise how this is perceived and how it could be problematic”?

Thankfully some of the campaigns for the Brits and Oscars and varying initiatives have got many of these institutions to have a think about how they do select and recognise talent. Without a doubt I agree that the best talent should win based on reviews, numbers, sales and quality, but you can’t chose the best talent if your eyes are focused on the pool and missing the ocean.


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