As a black woman born and raised in Britain, conversations about the lack of representation of black people within different spheres of British society are not unbeknownst to me. We are underrepresented in the education sector, particularly in higher positions. We are underrepresented in the boardrooms across the country. And of course, we are underrepresented in the world of media and entertainment. It is seldom that I see someone who looks like me when watching a British TV show or film. And although recently there has been a rise in shows and films that showcase Black British talents out there (Chewing Gum is the first series to come to mind), I still don’t see myself represented.
Growing up in a village in Cambridgeshire, going to a predominately white school and receiving a private education had me immersed in the world of the British Middle Class, something I never see reflected in black characters in British entertainment. In terms of Black Britishness and its portrayal in entertainment, we are still only witnessing one way of life, one single story, which has become the main way people outside our communities are viewing us and in turn, informs the way they interact with us.
Now before I continue, let me just declare that I am in no way a proponent in the use of class to identify people and to assign people with labels. However growing up in Britain, you can’t escape the fact that class is such an issue and is used as an indicator for social status, which I hate. Nevertheless, growing up in what I would call a Middle-Class environment, I was caught in this weird in-between where the portrayal of people that looked like me was not really representative of my everyday life. The existence of black people within the Middle-Class status is still something I think that is hard for both black and nonblack people in Britain to reconcile with.
When you look at the makeup of British journalism, you can’t help but feel a twinge of sadness at the lack of diversity. As of March 2016, the British journalism industry was 94% white, 86% university educated and 55% male. As you can see, our media is greatly influenced by class and race, which contributes to our lack of representation within the industry. The fact that we’re so few in this line of work reflects the way our voices are diminished and contributes to the lack of exposure our stories are able to get. The lack of exposure is further highlighted by the fact that the powers that be are only interested in promoting one side of the Black British experience. This leads to perpetuating the stereotype that Black Brits are immersed in gang culture, grow up on council estates and fill a narrow selection of job roles.
As a result in my own experience, amongst other black people, there is the fear of sounding “too white” and of being seen as “bougie,” and with my white peers, it’s hard for them to imagine that black people in the UK can ever belong in that sphere, due to the stereotypes that have been imposed on us by outsiders. Growing up in this suburban, middle-class environment, it was difficult to feel like I ever 100% “belonged.” Yes, my peers and I have gone down many of the same routes; attending great universities, graduating with good grades and starting off our careers in London, very much aided by where we have come from. However, the systemic issues that I face with regards to my race are issues that all black people in Britain, regardless of class or socio-economic background, will unfortunately deal with. Throughout my education, I’ve dealt with the micro aggressions and prejudices from both teachers and other students, such as being asked if I’m the first in my family to go to University and if my family lives in a mud hut back in Nigeria, and the old-age favourite “oooh can I touch your hair?”
What I’m trying to say is that growing up as a middle-class black person in Britain is to grow up with a sort of internal dichotomy. You are deemed as “other” amongst black friends for not fully “getting” all the London slang and understanding the gravity of “postcode wars” and you are deemed as “other” amongst middle-class (white) peers, and all the while never seeing yourself represented in the media you consume. As we continue to strive to see an accurate representation of all aspects and sectors of society in TV and Film, I am cautiously optimistic that the story of black people living in the “Shires” will eventually be told and that the emerging black Middle-class in Britain will feel less and less like outliers.
Written by Aisha Rimi