The Diaspora Screen Media Network (DSMN) is a research project headed by Professor Janet Wilson (Principal Investigator), Professor Rajinder Dudrah (Co Investigator) and Dr David Simmons (Research Co-Ordinator). DSMN explores the new developments taking place in Black British and British Asian cinema and screen media in the digital age.
The network does this by bringing together creatives, cultural hubs, scholars, students and members of the public to craft new ideas and conversations about the exciting changes that digital and new media is bringing about for audiences by way of production and consumption.
In their first symposium hosted on 5 February at the University of Northampton, the DSMN welcomed discussions in an interactive roundtable with undergraduates and graduates, filmmakers and academics, new media content creators, media professionals and artists.
With a varied group of people from different backgrounds and age groups in attendance, the conversations quickly moved to diversity and the need for positive media representation of Blacks and Asians on screen. Debates on ITV’s Love Island and Netflix’s Sex Education quickly took centre stage in two separate group discussions which was later fed back collectively in the roundtable. This was followed by conversations on the evolving content of cinema and the influence of digital media on its consumers. We discussed and shared ideas with questions asking the following:
“Is it enough to have a black and brown cast without their cultural experiences being written about in the screenplay?” “To whom do the primary roles in ‘diverse’ shows belong to?” “Are the stories of Black and Asian characters written for Black and Asian audiences or are they largely intended for a white audience?” “Is representation in mainstream Black and Asian media problematic in their coverage of certain issues? If so, is this then symptomatic of the burden of representation that minorities face?” “Is BAME a problematic term?” “Are we grouping ethnic minorities with a type all approach by using acronyms like BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) and POC (People of Colour)? “Is this acceptance of language implemented in to our linguistics to appease the colonisers tongue, can you label two races – Black and Asian as (B) and (A) ME?” “Do we need to approach the conversation of institutional racism in the media more analytically by looking at tokenism more critically?”
What these questions seem to come down to is this: are we prioritising white audiences over black and brown audiences in the ‘diverse’ shows being watched?
From our conversations on the day, covering the burden of representation and tokenism, and the language of diversity and inclusion were important topics that came up. It appears we have now reached a point in British society where Black and Asians are reflecting on the use of language when discussing race and how this needs to be remodelled by and with Black, Asian and other ethnic minority people – the ones impacted by the conversation the most.
To elaborate further on my point I use the term ‘coloured’ as an example. Once upon a time this was an accepted term of reference, until it no longer was because of its colonial history. In fact, there is a definitive scene in Hidden Figures (2016) that addresses the mistreatment of ‘coloured’ people and acknowledges through its screenplay why we no longer use this expression.
In the same way then, the questions asked – ‘should we continue to use the terms BAME and POC?’, is a legitimate one. Of course, this then opens up dialogues on what is the alternative? Is it ‘ethnic minorities’? Is the term ‘minorities’ minimising given the literal meaning of the English term minority? Minority suggests that which is a minority is less than the majority – the majority in the context of race is white. It is important to note that identity can be a very personal thing, and the terminology we choose to describe it can affect our understandings of it. We all have our own personal preferences to terminology, and therefore not everyone will have a problem with expressions like BAME or POC. Perhaps what we need is a more robust narrative or debate around the use of such terms and their definitions. For this reason alone what we need is ongoing dialogue on Black and Asian identity in the mainstream media. In turn this will filter through in society. This is something DSMN aims to do over its 18 month research period. By looking at the language we use to debate diversity and inclusion on screen – especially in the age of social media – the DSMN will be instrumental to the development of research in race representation on screen.
Blogging and social media content creating is a way to speak back offering audiences a challenge to the status quo in both mainstream media and Black and Asian media. Social media gives us a space to be seen and heard and celebrated. ‘Black’ is not any one identity any more than ‘Asian’ or ‘South Asian’ is. We are a diverse group of people with as many cultural differences as commonalities in our respective black and brown identities. Instagram pages like black history and brown history provide us with a corridor to our lost history. The histories whitewashed out of the curriculum – something else we debated.
Sex Education is one of Netflix’s most successful shows at the moment and has a number of black and brown faces on screen. Frequently seen actors Simone Ashley, Ncuti Gatwa, Kedar Williams-Stirling, Patricia Allison, Rakhee Thakrar, Chinenye Ezeudu and Chaniel Kular all have a role to play but they are not primary ones. Furthermore, their cultural stories are not being explored wholly as Black British and British Asian individuals. With the exception of Eric Effiong’s character (played by Ncuti Gatwa) having a significant role in the show, we still see it more about him supporting his best friend Otis (played by Asa Butterfield) on his journey as a student-elected sex advisor, then it is about the young Black British gay voice of Eric. Whilst I appreciate a diverse cast on screen I also acknowledge the lack of representation beyond seeing these faces. It is no longer good enough to just cast us – and this is the point. Compared to our white counterparts, the experiences that differ for Black and Asians culturally and socially are not often considered or fail to be scripted in screenplays properly. This is then echoed in the diegetic and non-diegetic language used (or not used) to explore our identities on screen.
Alongside seeing diverse faces and representations on screen, it is also important to be able to hear different voices, accents, languages, and dialects from around the BAME world in our screen media. This is something that the DSMN hopes to look into at its future meetings and symposia, and ties in nicely with the work being undertaken by the Creative Multilingualism and Slanguages research projects that Professor Rajinder Dudrah is also involved with.
American academic Stephen D Cooper refers to blogs and vloggers as ‘constituting’ to the ‘fifth estate’ – with the fifth estate being an alternative voice to mainstream media outlets (Jericho, 1, 2012). William H Dutton takes this argument one step further saying the fifth estate is the internet or ‘social media’ (Jericho, 1, 2012). The idea here is that content creators, influencers or social media itself exists to inspect mainstream media. These statements hold a lot of weight, and given the area of research the DMSN is engaging with, it is a project I would encourage Black and Brown artists to connect with, and one for everyone else to watch out for.
I leave black artists with a parting note in Hindi taken from Sex Education actress Ashley Simone’s interview with the online media platform veylex:
What advice would you give to the next generation of Desi youth who want to pursue acting?
There is a lyric from the Indian musical movie ‘Lagaan’ that says :“Koi raah mein na thaam jaawe, chale chalo. Toot gayi jo ungli utthi Paanchon mili to ban gaye mutthi. Eka badhta hi jaawe Chale chalo, chale chalo”
Which translated to English means: “May no one halt in the road, come. The accusing finger upon us has been broken because we five have come together like a fist. May our unity only grow. Come, let us move on”
So my advice in a nutshell would be: “Be a wolf! If you want to do it, then go do it. Don’t let anyone stop you or tell you otherwise.” – Ashley Simone
This blog was written for the DSMN and Slanguages research projects by looking at the use of language in diaspora screen media and how this translates on screen in communicating identity, diversity and inclusion to the Black and Asian audiences it sets out to represent. This blog can also be accessed via the Slanguages and DSMN websites.
Display image – artist is unknown: no copyright infringement is intended.
Book: Jericho, G (2012). The Rise of the Fifth Estate: social media and blogging in Australian politics. Australia: SCRIBE PUBLICATIONS PTY LTD. 1, 2.
Website: Veylex. (2019). Exclusive Q&A with Simone Ashley of Netflix. Available: [WWW] https://www.veylex.com/single-post/2019/07/02/Exclusive-QA-with-Simone-Ashley-of-Sex-Education-Netflix. Last accessed 27th Feb 2020.