There is a trend in the way people of colour (POC) are treated in the media. It’s an issue that has been discussed, but in my experience, quickly brushed off – only spoken of in hushed tones among a trusted circle of like-minded friends.
In the UK, we discuss varying forms of media bias all the time. What we do not do, however, is address the media’s obsession with pigeonholing POC to the extent that they’re only allowed to speak on certain issues that specifically relate to their racial identity and more often than not, their trauma.
Like Bame or “ethnic minorities”, the myriad identities under the umbrella term “POC” are often presented as a monolith, rather than the complex collection of realities they really are.
As a result, discourse surrounding what concerns us tends to fall out of our control, limiting the spaces we can appear in. Instead, we’re classified under a perceived ”shared experience”, or stereotypes. While there is a collective experience of being a minority in a predominately white country, there are many problems with this narrative.
Firstly, it ignores the nuanced differences between ethnic groups, generations and classes by dangerously clumping POC together as a large “other”. Secondly, it ignores the fact that POC are able to comment on issues that don’t directly concern their race or ethnicity. Thirdly, these forms of media bias in the UK reinforce the idea of POC being “traumatised” or “in need” and this devalues whatever pertinent point a POC may have to make.
It’s rare for POC to be called upon to comment on more “neutral” topics, like current affairs, sports, culture or lifestyle. Take Brexit, for example. Even though the majority of the population may be bewildered by the convoluted state of affairs regarding the UK’s relationship with the EU, reporting and comment pieces on Brexit are dominated mostly by white people, often men, usually middle-aged. I find it difficult to believe that only these individuals have an interest in this aspect of British politics, rather, it’s another example of spaces being limited in the press.
There is a distinct lack of diversity in British journalism, to the extent that in December, the Black Journalists Collective UK demanded that the journalism industry work harder to serve all communities. As part of the open letter from over 100 Bame journalists, it was argued that “there is a direct correlation between the ethnic makeup of the staff in a newsroom and how issues are covered”. Building on from this, a study conducted by the National Council for Training Journalists found that 26 per cent of white candidates were more likely to secure their desired roles within journalism after graduation, while only 8 per cent of their black contemporaries were likely to be as fortunate.
This curtailing of personal identity isn’t limited to journalists only: if you are a POC in the public eye, there is evidence to suggest that you will be treated differently. See the recent case of the press linking singer and presenter Jamelia to a man who they claimed was her “stepbrother” when their parents briefly dated more than 30 years ago, as one of many examples.
Historically speaking, the press has held a lot of social power, and this social power has usually been held by a narrow section of society. Despite the rise of less conventional news outlets and social media, the press still wields an inordinate amount of influence over society. With this influence comes responsibility to ensure that the press operates almost as a microcosm of society. But we’re far from achieving that goal. Representative discourse is not yet in reach and this is because we do not have people from different backgrounds working in tandem on a wide variety of topics.
If we continue to follow this path, we risk creating almost segregated political journalism where you have black people commenting on “black people issues” *only*. Or worse, black people commenting on issues that have been thrust into their spheres of influence by the powers that be. This is not to say that first-person pieces are unimportant – I myself have written a fair few based on my own lived and observed experiences. Who else can write convincingly, emphatically and in an informative manner on issues that pertain directly to our own lives? Of course there are issues that need be uncovered and marginalised voices that need to be amplified.
But when we begin to encounter structural problems and deep-seated inequality, it’s usually because we’re muting certain voices on certain topics. On occasion, a POC may wish to comment on a particular music trend, or a political development, rather than being carted out as a spokesperson whenever there is a particularly sensationalised and contentious race issue at play.
We can have first-person pieces about racism, we need first-person pieces, but we also need a more diverse range of people commenting on a more diverse range of topics.