Growing up, I was an absolute bookworm. I still am, but over the years I’ve been faced with the realisation that the formation of my identity was through literature. Literature and film play a role in forming young minds. People from ethnic minority backgrounds are largely absent* from both, so how do young people from ethnic minorities form their identities through these mediums?
Darren Chetty’s chapter in The Good Immigrant: ‘You Can’t Say That! Stories Have to Be About White People’ explores the effects of underrepresentation of BAME characters in children’s literature. He believes that it links to something so much bigger than beauty. There is the expectation that children are “colour blind,” so therefore it has no longstanding impact on their development whether they are represented in literature. Critics of Chetty’s thoughts will state that children are simply too young to be considering ‘race’ issues and it is not something that they consider when reading.
Young children, who are not yet able to grasp the concept of racism, do not think of themselves as representative of success or power. When given the task of writing their own short stories, the descriptions of their characters were worlds away from what they are and did not necessarily culturally represent themselves. This, in turn, has an effect on the way in which BAME children feel about their own success, and even exploration, as their ‘own life does not qualify as subject material.’
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie explains the effect that literature had on her own work as limiting, ‘because all I had read were books in which characters were foreign, I had become convinced that books by their nature had to have foreigners in them and had to be about things with which I could not personally identify.’
“When you’re young, you translate yourself through representations of people that look like you.”
Reni Eddo-Lodge’s chapter in The Good Immigrant, ‘Forming blackness through a screen’ explores the issue surrounding the lack of British black people on Television. “When you’re young, you translate yourself through representations of people that look like you.” Eddo-Lodge speaks of television shows such as The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, although this was not a British show, it was the closest thing many young people viewed as BAME representation. Comedian Shazia Mirza relates, describing family excitement at Trevor McDonald appearing on the news as “he was the closest thing we had to a British Asian woman at the time.”
‘a rare acknowledgement of our existence in the U.K’
Wei Ming Kam, co-founder of ‘BAME In Publishing,’ recalls her mothers reaction to seeing a culturally representative person onscreen. It was something which she assumed to be excitement, but came to realised it was simply shocking: “I’ve noticed our long, gaping absence from the cultural landscape and come to recognise the mix of shock and curiosity at seeing a face like mine onscreen, a rare acknowledgement of our existence in the United Kingdom.”
‘Long, gaping absence from the cultural landscape’
The large absence of positive depictions of familiar faces on screen does not mean that they are not displayed entirely, however, the existing displays are usually negative. The display of black women is as loud, angry and rude. Arab and Asian women as docile and submissive, the illiterate African and the suspicious Muslim. A British actress who is of African heritage should be able to easily play the role of doctor, princess, mechanic, lawyer, and vampire. The basis of her casting should not be, “we need an African, to play an African.” A character is a character and an actress is an actress.
*This does not mean that I am blind to the recent rise of BAME writers, actresses, poets, photographers and models. By largely absent I am referring to the bigger picture, in which if you were to see all works in one space, the work from BAME creatives would be overshadowed.
Rihana Osman is a researcher, with a postgraduate degree in Global Ethics and Human Values and