On one restless July evening, I came across Love Island UK, Season 7. Hardly one episode in, I had already started routing for Kaz Kamwi, a black (dark skinned) fashion blogger from Essex, who originates from Zambia. Kaz was such a breath of fresh air. Whilst before, black girls and black couples were relegated to periphery characters, Kaz distinguished herself right from the beginning, becoming one of the most intriguing characters.
Unfortunately, the usual storyline for the black girl on the show started right from the beginning, with her not being picked in the first coupling and eventually ending up in a default couple. Essentially, the intersecting nature of microaggressions based on race, gender and skin complexion (colourism), started playing out; men praised her energy instead of acknowledging her as an attractive person worthy of being coupled up with.
Kaz, as black on one hand and female on the other, was being held to an impossibly high moral standard, which she was bound to and inevitably failed to meet. There were a number of nuanced 'erasure' attempts aimed at her through reduced screen time when she finally coupled up and refusals to properly acknowledge her and Tyler Cruickshank (a 26 year old real estate agent from Croydon) as finalists, despite being the first black couple to reach the final in the franchise history.
Beyond the show, a magazine blatantly put another couple that didn’t make it to the finals and dubbing the headline ‘the real winners’. Another example is Kaz being subjected to online racial abuse for her engagement with Matthew Macnabb, a white Irish contestant.
The most common acts of racial bias or prejudice aren’t blatantly visible but mostly unconscious. Being subjected to unconscious bias is the most psychologically painful experience due to its insidious nature. It can be equated to emotional violence or in this case, racial gaslighting where the perpetrator shames the victim for the acts they themselves have committed.
Another aspect of the conversation is the proximity to whiteness. In a context like Europe where White is the mainstream - understandably because that’s what the majority of the population is comprised of, whilst mixed, coloured, black are on the minority side - it comes as no surprise when the acknowledged interaction, apart from the predominant white one, is proximity to whiteness. That is why, the comment from Clarisse Juliette (a mixed race contestant) ‘he would have been with me in the real world’, after Tyler picked Kaz over her, cannot just be taken at face value. It’s also why the results of the final should not be surprising. They were literally in order of race and skin complexion; a white couple first, a white and mixed (light skinned) couple second, a white and black (dark-skinned) couple third, then a black couple fourth.
One could argue that the results were based on the audience preference, which is very true. But you also have to peel back the various facets of ‘preference’ to understand that race, and by extension, skin complexion, is definitely included in this ‘preference’. These issues are so deeply ingrained in society that calling them out is excused away, frowned upon, belittled or disregarded. However, that is the very reason why they should be addressed.
So, can shows like Love Island continue hiding behind the excuse that they are merely reflecting what society looks like? Or even prioritizing drama induced ratings over protecting cast mates’ mental health? For me, the answer is NO.
TV shows like Love Island can no longer continue doing the bare minimum, by merely including black people and people of colour in the cast in order to simply fill the diversity quota, but rather commit to comprehensively tackle diversity issues, on account of their wide platform. This will require deliberate, dedicated production teams and programmatic thinking about racial nuances, from mindful casting, carefully considered production and people behind the scenes who understand racial undertones.
Finally, it is critical to remember that what you say, is just as important as what you don’t say. For instance, how does it look if you put out a statement when a white person is bullied online and then stay silent when a black person is on the back end of racial slurs? Even worse, not having done enough background checks on the contestants you bring on the show, to the extent that you find yourself in the midst of controversy with a participant who has casually used racial slurs online, in the past.
Ultimately, while shows like Love Island cannot be expected to solve societal racial prejudices and biases, they should be seen to be authentically playing their part in comprehensively tackling racial bias and prejudice.
Written by Daphine Agaba
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