Diversity still isn’t happening on U.K. stages, TV and film

Ed SkreinSo, Ed Skrein has entered the fray when it comes to the continued wanton whitewashing of roles, characters, history, and fiction regarding the inclusion or should it be the exclusion of East Asians, whether they be people of hyphenated or multiple combined heritages.

On my side of the pond, I recently read three excellent pieces by three great British East Asian artists.

Vera-Chok-393x253 First, actor and writer Vera Chok,

I went in for an interview at a giant news corporation. The make up artist, bless her, should she have been notified in advance? I don’t know. She did not have makeup to match my skin colour. I ended up on national TV a few shades paler than I am. I heard somewhere that privilege is walking into a store and finding a shade of foundation that suits your skin.

A white, working class person wrote to me about their relative being shot in the street in Ireland. We discussed Irishness and being stuck as working class. They felt that I was saying all white people are demons and I said, let’s break that down – what do we mean by “white”? Do we mean the Polish or Albanians, the Swiss or Italian? We categorise and rank people and groups of people. Who is feeding us stories and what can we do about it? Who are we prepared stand up for? Why did this white person come at me combatively with a #NotAllWhitePeople stance?

I am trying very hard not to talk using phrases which might make some people glaze over e.g. “power differential”. I am trying not to feel a bit ground down by being wheeled out as a presentable, ethnic minority representative. I don’t love it when certain disinterested interviewers read out their questions about racial stereotyping. Focus on the good people, the ones who understand that we are nowhere close to being on a level playing field. Focus on the folks who inspire me, who do their best to live the best way they can, which includes self-awareness and self-care. I’ve met such a lot of incredible people in the last day.

Matthew-Xia second, Matthew Xia director

Despite the humorous response I often get – “Count yourself lucky, who wants a thousand flyers to a thousand dreadful shows?” – I don’t count myself lucky. I want the right to be informed, to be included, or rather, not to be excluded – I want the right to refuse. This is a problem the festivals have to deal with. Due to their very nature, from a point of governance and policy this is an impossibility. Therefore the individuals who comprise the festival have to address this issue. If every person of colour who attends reports a similar experience – of isolation, invisibility, and exclusion – then, along with the galvanising and unifying work by artists of colour, it is up to everyone to invite us, to include us, to see us.

Xia hits the nail squarely on the head – I want the right to be informed, to be included, or rather, not be excluded – I want the right to refuse.

And last, but by no means least

Daniel-York-1024x683-1024x683 Daniel York.

Many of us have campaigned long and hard against movie industry “whitewashing.” We’ve recently seen a whole slew of bleached-out castings in films like Aloha (Emma Stone as a Eurasian Hawaiian), Dr. Strange (Tilda Swinton as a Celtic version of a Tibetan martial arts guru) and Ghost In The Shell (Scarlett Johannson as the Japanese manga character Major).

No actor of color is looking for “positive discrimination” or a leg up; we just want a level playing field. And if you take a character written as Asian or black and cast a white actor in that role, you’re effectively saying that there was no Asian or black actor good enough or clever enough or talented enough or capable enough to play that part.

Or that they simply did not exist. There’s a word for that: erasure.

And there is it is.

Between East and West

British East Asians (BEA) period, are not seen, not recognised, we are given no real, artistic quarter. We are invisible, we are forgotten, we are excluded from our own culture, erased from history, side barred in many, if not most of the conversations and debates when it comes to diversity and inclusivity in the arts. We remain still a minor footnote even within the overall British Minority Ethnic “umbrella.”

I and many others, far more qualified and erudite have written and spoken out about this on more than one occasion.

I’ll say it again, now.

BEAs are the only British minority that you can still be openly racist towards in the media. Whether it’s the comedian on day time or prime time TV regaling us with a “chinky joke.” Or an over-the hill, white, middle-class, male petrol-head TV host, engaging in racially derogatory terms. Only to be excused and protected by his superiors (also white, middle-class male and Oxbridge educated) as public-school humour, harmless, affectionate comedic banter. To the London fringe theatre, facilitating and enabling the continuance of that odious practice, of Yellowface. Then telling the many British East Asian artists (BEAA) who raised their concerns, that we should not be offended, as no offense was intended. Just because a play is set in ancient China doesn’t really mean anything, Giving characters, “East Asian” sounding names, does not denote that the character should be of East Asian heritage. Setting the play in ancient China was nothing more than a metaphor.
At that point, I lost the will to live in more ways than one.
My point is this, exchange the word China, the character names from Chinese to, African or South Asian (Indian, Pakistani or Bengali) would a similar situation have arisen? I am pretty confident that neither of these British minorities would have been told, to shut up. Such an equivalent blackface or brown-face production would never have gotten that far. Questions would have been raised in the house of Parliament, any other British minority, apart from East Asian, it just would not have happened – thank goodness.

What is it then, about being Chinese, being East Asian in the UK, being a citizen of Britain, with East Asian heritage,? That excludes us from full participation and consideration in our own the country?  We grow up, we are educated, we graduate, we work and pay our taxes, we constitute 1.6% (according to 2001 UK census figures) of the UK population. Some statisticians, however, project that people of East Asian heritage will be the fastest growing British minority in the UK.  Our numbers are predicted to overtake those of British Black, African, Caribbean and South Asians. Whether this proves to be the case or not the overall BAME percentage of the British population is expected to rise to 20%  by 2051.

chinese-tourists-UK

If that is the case, why do we BEAs, in the 21st century, still find ourselves being excluded, ignored and by and large “rejected” from participation in our own culture?  It is still a rarity to see an East Asian in a leading role on a British made TV program or film. Not for a lack of projects that have, do employ East Asian themes.
Yet many of those in charge of commissioning, programming, casting, being the de facto arbiters of our modern culture, deciding what is good art or popular art, rarely engage substantively with East Asian artists, in front or behind the camera, on stage or backstage. Yet these very same professionals continually declaring that diversity is definitely something that is lacking, and that something needs to be done.  Instead of nurturing and cherishing the existing, home-grown BEA talent, their preference is to look overseas. Because “true ethnic authenticity” can only be achieved by casting overseas East Asians. Commissioning overseas East Asian writers. More worryingly, it’s not just some of the predominantly white, male oriented UK production channels that are guilty of this behavioral bias, there are also a few BEA arts professionals sharing the same blinkered (and frankly racist) views.

Until these producers in their ivory towers start supporting the home-grown BEA talent very little is going to change. Until BEA writers (and there are many of us) start getting true breaks in Theatre, TV, and film, progressing from the endless round of unfunded R&D/scratch nights, having to pay for development weeks on supposedly BAME centred initiatives to “discover” talent in “underrepresented” communities in the UK nothing will really change. Where will the next tranche of new British writers, filmmakers, producers, and directors come from? Where will the next British equivalents of Hiroshi Kashiwagi Frank Chin David Henry Hwang Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig where, how will these writers emerge?

As much as I love seeing these playwright’s work and in some cases actually having had the good fortune to perform in their plays in the UK, I’d like to see work that actually reflects our stories, our lives, tales that relate directly to our experiences and histories.
It really isn’t rocket science, it won’t happen no matter how many initiatives are instigated unless there is buy- in, substantive investment (time, resources and cold hard cash), real work opportunities and roll out from the top down.

As we all know diversity sells, it’s a financial success, it creates and grows audiences and puts bums on seats –  or maybe that’s it, maybe “British” art and culture don’t want us East Asians sitting in theatre’s, cinemas and tuning into, mainstream, popular TV programs, because the default setting is white, western and European?  And, us colonial types don’t figure in that UK cultural landscape?  If that’s the case then chew on this . . .

Call The Midwife S6, Ep3
Alice Connor (Lucy) Lucy Sheen Oilen Chen

Call The Midwife, a popular British TV series aired an episode earlier this year (episode 3) it included a storyline of a British-Chinese family, it netted  9.6 million viewers (it might have been more) and this is a “period” drama – just saying…

 

 

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Equity as a Trade Union is the priority representing its entire workforce or safe-guarding artistic licence?

Paul Hyu has just written and extremely thought-provoking (some might say controversial) article regarding Equity and their British East Asian actor members.

You see, Equity follows a Policy, for which we, the BAME members, are apparently responsible.  If that Policy doesn’t translate into Equity being able to act in a way to support and protect us from being excluded, then we, the “Minority Ethnic Members Committee”, have to change it.   We shouldn’t expect non-BAME or majority ethnic (aka white) actors to do it for us.  But here is the rub:  it’s not easy to do.

To reads the full article please click here

 

This is my initial response as an actor, a British actor who happens to be EAST ASIAN

This is a huge problem, which is has now become “historical” much as the cutting of sheet metal to particular size in the 70s, and 80s. It was always cut a particular size because it had always been done that way. In spite of the huge amount of waste and until someone had the courage and common sense to challenge the “it’s done this way because we’ve always done it this way” and asked the question WHY things would never have changed. So it is, I feel with Equity. It’s always been this way, so we’ll continue to do things this way.
Artistic license to me is mounting a production of the Tempest and setting in the Chinese Celestial Court, or casting Adrian Lester as an English King. One could argue that casting a Black actor as an English King allows the production to explore deeper the political and socio-economic themes of this piece in a more modern context. Or is it just about accepting the society and the culture that we live in today in 21st century Britain and getting on with it and casting whomever we like in the productions that we want?
Allowing a theatre, film or TV or radio production to cast a White actor as an East Asian character in the 21st century, does not in my mind enhance any production. An in terms of the modern context of equality and employment legislation – how can this be?
Thirty years ago the situation was very different, when I graduated there were just six East Asian actors registered with Equity as actors and on Spotlight again classified as actors. And I was one of them. There are now plenty of East Asian actors. So the matter of not being able to find an East Asian actor is a moot point. To those who complain that it’s tough to find East Asian actors and that they don’t know where, and that they’ve resorted to having to pull people of the streets; I’d say isn’t that part of your remit to know where and how you source your talent? That relying on Spotlight and the personal managements and agents isn’t enough? Yes everyone is pushed for time, everyone is trying to squeeze out of their budgets as much as they can – but trying to apportion some kind of onus on the artists for not being found in the “usual places” seems a tad odd to me. Perhaps they cannot be found in the usual places because they have not, as yet had the opportunities that will allow them to employ a regular agent or have the credits required for an entry into Spotlight?There are plenty of organisations out there, even a google search could put Casting Directors in touch either directly or indirectly with the wealth of East Asian talent that is now available. Numbers as far as I am concerned is not a valid argument as it was when I first became an actor. Artistic license should not be used as a cover all, a euphemism for racist behaviour – but essential this is what it is, and it’s happening to British East Asian Artists who are, who have been consistently denied the opportunities to participate in the making and representation of their own history and their own stories. In a modern poly ethnic and multicultural society one would think that the casting an East Asian in any non-specified role should be the norm. But it is not. The programs or the productions that do cast East Asian actors seem to, have to have an overt East Asian theme. Usually one that involves characters who are not indigenous to these shore. In other words ‘Overseas East Asians, students, immigrants, usually illegal. I very rarely see British East Asians. The representations we see are victims of crime because of the way that we look and the foreign accents that we have. People fleeing from a terrible past (true this does occur) but I think that I need only count on one hand the instances that I have seen on UK TV a fully rounded representation of a British East Asian (without foreign accent). By the way I do have an accent, just not the one that many casting directors and producers think that I should have!
For those that say (and there are plenty of them out there) that Yellowface/Yellowvoice is nowhere near as repugnant as Blacking up or Brown face, I’ve even had people in person trying to make a case that Yellowface is a form of benign micky-taking and actually comes from a place of fondness; from one who is East Asian I assure you it engenders precisely the same gut wrenching feelings when exposed to this type of ‘behaviour’. To clarify further calling an East Asian a CHINK, CHING-CHONG or any other such derivative is to this East Asian just as abhorrent and insulting as using the “N” word to a person who is Black, African or Caribbean or the “P” word to a South Asian. It carries the negative weight and remembrance of colonial atrocities, indentured labour and suffering and the brutal inhumane treatment that many East Asians were subject to. As well as the more subtle and equally as damaging structural and institutionalised racism many East Asians encountered – still encounter to this day.
Yes times have moved on, but have the hearts and minds of the wider society also moved on at the same pace? It would appear from where I’m standing that a considerable number of hearts and minds need to catch up.As long as those who sit in power on the top table of my union. Yes my union. I pay my subs like a good little member, as long as those people continue to think in the manner that they appear to be doing the union will never be able to advocate and fight for the rights of ALL of its members. A trade Union should be looking after the interests of ALL its members. This is one member that feels as if my interests in the work place are being ignored.Equity should be part of the solution not part of the ongoing and continued cultural and artistic ‘blockade’ that sees East Asian artists and artists of colour, duel or tri-heritage, side barred and essentially squeezed out onto the fringes of mainstream British culture. All this talk of diversity and inclusion is great, but let’s first get our own house in order.

Are we being led down the diversity cul-de-sac?

Lenny-Henry_2562992bSince Lenny Henry gave the BAFTA Television lecture and he presented the model for diversity in the media, now referred to as the Henry Paper; diversity once again has become a hot topic for discussion in offices and corridors of the gate keepers in their media ivory-towers.

I get the sense that the large institutions once undisputed bastions of media production and broadcasting, are worried. Diversity is a “problem” that just keeps on giving, it keeps on coming back. Biting its masters initially on the ankles now it’s gotten a firmer hold and has wrapped its jaws around a more vulnerable and sensitive part of the industry’s anatomy. This time we are striving hard with all of our collective might not to let go.

Bafta-TV 2014
BAFTA TV awards 2014

September is the month when all these initiatives about diversity and how the BBC, ITV, SKY and Channel 4 plan to implement measures that will address the cultural imbalance on our screens. The content that British broadcasters create is not reflective of modern-day 2014 Britain. But being the cynic that I am, the British East Asian that I am and long in the tooth – I cannot help but think in spite of all the PR and statements emanating from the broadcasters mouths – those that hold the power to decided what programmes are made, how, the nature of the content and even how it is cast and with whom, they really aren’t that keen to loosen their grip on the reigns of power.
If we are going to change the face of British broadcasting and start producing content that retains the same high production values we already have, we are going to need a bit more than just seeing more BAME (Black Asian Minority Ethnic) faces on TV or in British films. We need to start seeing BAMEs being cast in central roles. Driving the dramas being integral to the plot and doing it all without the need for accents. We’ll need to start seeing productions, writing, producers and casting directors accepting the authenticity of BAMEs as British as well as their historic heritage. We need writers with BAME backgrounds. Not just writers that broadcasters feel safe with. How is this to be achieved?
We need writers that reflect and portray the diversity and complexity of multicultural and ploy ethnic Britain. We need BAME writers that are willing to challenge the old historic ideas of country, culture and politics. Writers that are not afraid to expose the soft underbelly of today’s society. We need Broadcasters that can see beyond, that see the potential of a costume drama which doesn’t have to be cast entirely with white actors. We need to have facial, age and gender variety. In short more opportunities for ALL. As good as the current handful of head-liners are, appearing in practically all media content on British TV and film for that matter,  one can hardly say it is diverse, varied or bringing on unrecognised talent whether that be discovering and championing new BAME talent or finding more experienced BAME artists who have never had the opportunities that seem to come so much more readily to their Caucasian counterparts.

For diversity really to be accepted and made part of the foundations and bedrock of our culture and media, the stewards and gatekeepers either have to change their outlook radically and accept the reality of things as they are in 2014; or we have to change those stewards and gatekeepers to ones that can accept and are willing to portray the realities of British BAMEs on TV.

 

Tony Hall
Tony Hall BBC
Adam Crozier ITV
Adam Crozier ITV
David Abraham C4
David Abraham C4
Anne Mensah Sky
Anne Mensah Sky

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

No one relinquish power without a fight. Abdication from such positions of media and creative power will not happen without a struggle. With all these supposed announcements stating what the broadcasters intentions and actions will be to achieve greater diversity in the media. Are we being herded in to a diversity cul-de-sac? When the announcements and PR dust has settled, will we find that what’s on offer, actually isn’t an offer? That any notion of “ring-fenced” funds to specifically encourage, bring on and nurture BAME talent, ideas and artists, once again is just smoke and financial mirrors?  Will quotas ever be introduced to ensure that the playing field is properly levelled and even for all?  If broadcasters fail to staff their productions with BAME creatives and talent, what real sanctions will there be? Will there be anything to force unwilling or recalcitrant media companies from just continuing as they are now? What of Section 29 of the Equality Act?  Will UK broadcasters continue to be able to opt out and therefore continue not to make it illegal to broadcast racist material?
Will we find that diversity is just a hash-tag, a label and box that can be ticked but that is never filled?

hashtag-movements-and-the-need-for-a-diversity-of-tactics-1401481715

Until the major players on the media stages start talking openly and honestly about the BAME elephant in the room – everything that they propose is just superficial dressing. Until we have hard cold cash and investment in the BAME talent pool it’s all cultural sensitivity elastoplast. Until broadcasters start using the existing pool of talented actors in their long-established weekly dramatic serials, one-off dramas and series there will be no real change. If BAMEs are just “popping” up more regularly but still as migrants, outsiders or ” the other” with accompanying foreign accents. Then we’re still not being seen, accepted and incorporated into our own “British” culture. Culturally we’re still being extrapolated from being British. We’re being corralled away from being included in a British artistic interpretation of our own landscape.
I hope that will not be the case. I hope that the existing movements and groups such as Act For Change, TV Collective, Media Diversified and The British East Asian Artists group will help us to secure a richer, more exciting and diverse media both in front and behind the camera.
Just as I was about to publish this came across my news feed.

RSC to translate Shakespeare for Chinese

audiences

£1.5m project announced to translate all the Bard’s works into Mandarin and translate key Chinese plays into English.I think that this says it all. The industry is so busy trying to gain a foot hold in overseas markets that they are negating and forgetting the power of the domestic market. There are more innovative ways to create links and artistic connections with China and East Asia which would enable Shakespeare to be produced and shared, other than spending £1.5 million on translation.
How much of that 1.5 mill is from the public purse?

More on Diversity in the Media

BAFTAThis morning Paul Hyu, Daniel York and myself  as representative of The British East Asian Artists group attended the Ed Vaizey ongoing round table discussions about diversity (or the lack thereof) in the British media at BAFTA

I didn’t stand up and speak, I wasn’t quick enough on raising my hand. Also the points I wanted to raise had already been put to the floor. One of the more important points having been raised by Paul, about the meaning of British Asian Minority Ethnic. And could we please be assured that Asia did not just refer to the cricket playing Asian countries!  That Asian would extend beyond the sub-continent.

But as is usual with me I started to re-think on this mornings proceedings as I rode the tube back towards London’s East End the very epitome and in some ways one of the cradles of British diversity throughout history.

The discussion touched on multiple factors, but my focus turned to something that Adrian Lester said. The truth of our history and that is where my focus has remained.

Yes monitoring is incredibly important and it’s a foundation to collecting robust factual data. Of course that’s only as good as the monitoring specificity and protocols set to ensure that the data collected is accurate and robust.

There is a disjunct between the reality of diverse modern Britain and the assumed idea or concept that some people have, of what diversity actually is. I don’t think that anyone in that room would have refuted or denied that diversity is real. Britain is a diverse nation. It is multicultural, poly ethnic, populated by people who have dual and multiple heritages.

diversity-006

But the diversity that is offered via poplar media is something else entirely. It isn’t one that truly reflects the reality of Britain today. It’s an assumed understanding that comes from a position of privilege. It is trying to be inclusive and diverse but without understanding the broad politics and historical context of diversity. I feel we’re being shown the diversity that they think, we the viewing public want to see. We’re being given the programs, the central characters, that it’s assumed we want to see. Diversity is being interpreted by people who have no real reference to the BAME world. Many of the commissioners, producers, top media influencers, casting directors and gatekeepers don’t need a racial or ethnic moniker to fit into society, to be given context or value.  If Adrian Lester can stand up and feel dis-included, given the progress that British Black African and Caribbean artists have achieved, then spare a thought for us, the British East Asians.

We don’t even figure in the term BAME unless we remind people that Asia covers a huge continent, not just a sub-continent.
I too would like to stand up and say it’s about truthful historical representation as well as the here and now.

We’re a century on since the Great War. We hearing about the Black-British during first world war. What of the Chinese and the Chinese Labour Corps? In Noyelles-sur-Mer, thirteen kilometres from Abbeville there is a cemetery. It houses 41 unknown graves of members of the Chinese Labours Corps who died on land and at sea for this country.

NOYELLES-SUR-MER CHINESE CEMETERY
NOYELLES-SUR-MER CHINESE CEMETERY

The base camp for the Chinese Labours Corps was at Noyelles-Sur-Mer. By the time the Armistice came the corps numbers had reached 96,000. About 2,000 perished during the war. In Chinese inscribed around the entrance is the following (in rough translation)
‘This site commemorates the sacrifice paid by 1900 Chinese workers who lost their lives during the 1914-1918 war, these are my friends and colleagues whose merits are incomparable.’ The inscription was chosen by
Shi Zhaoji, the then Chinese Ambassador to Great Britain at the time of The Great War.

Just one piece of British history that we don’t hear much about, if at all.

We need to redefine what is British. Only then will monitoring actually mean anything especially to us, The British East Asians. Otherwise in terms of fulfilling and aiding diversity,  production company A could go off to the US and cast an Asian American in a British drama and still think that they are being diversity conscious and responsible. Surely any measures have to encourage, nurture and support British talent front and back of camera, on stage and off and not just the young and “emerging” but the mature and seasoned as well. Lets see real variety and diversity on our screens and stage. Otherwise, for the British East Asians, nothing will change and we’ll still be stuck seeing representations of ourselves as the perennial outsiders.

Don’t get me wrong what’s happening now is great, it’s also long overdue. But if we’re taking diversity then let’s ALL have the same understanding of what diversity is and who this includes. The British East Asians have for far too long been the poor country cousins left out in the cold. This time we need to be included we are after all part of modern British society.