THE MEDIA – – >
When you think back to the TV shows you watched as a kid, you’ll probably remember waking up early on a Saturday to watch your favourite cartoon; laughing hysterically over the practical joke your favourite character pulled pretty much every single episode. It’s unlikely that you’ll remember how you responded to the media, how you absorbed it and it absorbed you. Who was your favourite character on TV growing up, and what was it about them that made you aspire to be everything they were? For me, those characters were pretty, white slim girls that were probably head of the cheerleading squad. Even the misfits, who we were supposed to identify with, were white- at best, with glasses and a “geeky” persona to show that they were indeed, “different.” Speaking of, you may recall the cast of High School Musical breaking out into song “stick to the status quo.” Dig your old soundtrack out if you have to, but the film hardly broke the status quo; pretty white (with a dash of Latino) girl gets together with a pretty white (with a dash of chiseled abs) guy. And the black kids, Chad and Taylor? (yeah, I had to google their names,) they were forever the sidekicks, unlucky in love and with nothing to offer but a skill for spinning a basketball on one finger and a sassy one liner about weaves. How boring. How tragic. How boring and tragic that this same narrative is repeated, where the black kids are always left behind, and never represented as beautiful or worthy of love. This is the language that became part of my cultural dialect. White was clever. White was beautiful. And if you were anything but, you only had a choice of stereotypes A and B to choose from, and growing up racially ambiguous, I had no clue which box to tick.
THE CURRICULUM – – >
The stereotypes of coloured people in the media are essentially just a continuation of the way they have been represented throughout history, and the state of the curriculum today doesn’t show any signs of straying off the beaten track. My two favourite subjects in school were History and English. In hindsight, I should have taken a comfort in a more uncontroversial subject like math; maybe then I wouldn’t have been so damn frustrated by everything that was handed to me on a comic sans font worksheet.
I’m actually horrified that I never studied a non-white writer in English Literature. Race was reduced to a theme that was being mediated to me through a white tinted lens, and that was extremely damaging. It makes me feel sick to think of the amount of times we were expected to write “In this novel, black people are represented as inferior.” History was one in the same, in which historical events are seen as a story of heroes and victims. In this sense, unsurprisingly, black people were always treated as the victims. Slavery was mentioned in whispers yes, and I always remember feeling uncomfortable as the whole class turned around to look at me in silent pity. It felt like I was being made to feel ashamed of my own heritage, my own history. I knew all about Abraham Lincoln, but knew nothing about the likes of Fredrick Douglass. I was taught that Carol Ann Duffy was the ultimate “feminist poet” but knew nothing of Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Gwendolyn Brooks, or the dozens of other black female writers I’ve come to know and love in my awakening to a more colourful world.
The world I learnt about in school was black and white, it was dangerous. The white curriculum that I and so many other ethnic minority students were dragged through epitomises what feminist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie called “the danger of a single story*,” that is, that having a secular perspective is dangerous because it cuts you off intellectually from the world around you, no matter how often you travel to Spain or like to eat Indian food. The proportion of ethnic minority pupils in state funded schools has increased dramatically since 2014, and in order for them to succeed in an inclusive learning environment, the curriculum should aim to teach a broader, universal history in an increasingly globalised world.
BEAUTY – – >
In an increasingly globalised world, you would think that our society, with a constant overlapping of cultures, races, religions, we would have a greater, more compassionate understanding of each other. If you are not blessed with the gift of optimism however, you will notice how life is moving so fast that often, someone’s appearance is the most convenient way in which to form a judgement of someone. Picture this; there’s a black guy walking down the street, he has a bunch of other black guys behind him. You saw a sitcom on CBS once refer to such people as “homies” before. They laugh loudly and seem to constantly be pulling their trousers up. You assume they must be selling drugs, so you walk to the other side of the road. Of course, there’s nothing hereditary in the human psyche that causes you to make these assumptions, so where did you get them from? If you guessed the media, you get a gold star. Any other answer renders you incapable of understanding what I have to say next. Just how the media paints all black dudes such as my aforementioned imaginary friend with the same brush, the media likes to paint white people with a brush that just happens to make you prettier. Remember the public outcry that accused L’Oreal of lightening Beyoncé’s skin for an ad? How about more recently, when a Japanese advert for washing powder showed a black man being thrown into the washer and coming out as a whiter than white Asian? Or, if you want to bring colourism into it, the fact that the light skinned Zoe Saldana used black face to play Nina Simone? These examples all boil down to the fact that historically, particularly during the colonial period, there has been a white European hegemonic ideal (I know; who knew right.) Thus, the closer to white you are, in this instance, the better, prettier, or more attractive you are made to seem.
I am mixed race, light skinned, or hey, just feel free to stick whatever label you want to my forehead and be done with it. Anyway, from the day I was old enough to say “NO YOU CANNOT TOUCH MY HAIR,” my visual appearance has been fetishized by everyone from grandmas to perverts in nightclubs. A girl behind me in a queue for a club said my hair was “fascinating” so many times I wanted to drown her in a vat of Smirnoff ice. I’m the poster girl for school prospectuses, and my mother and father are commended on countless occasions for the “beautiful” brown children they’ve managed to produce. My best friend and I are told that we “really should” be a couple on the basis that we are both mixed race, which, in other situation, would be a completely bizarre concept to base a relationship on. I’m not ignorant towards the tribulations of dark skinned women, but I can’t speak for them either. White people fetishize light skinned people because they represent an exotic ideal, the aesthetics of being black in the absence of its sociological burdens.
WHAT WE CAN DO;
You may have notice how I’ve used arrows at the end of every sub heading in this article. It’s not because I’m trying to be original or outrageously indie, but because it represents how all these things; the media, the curriculum, how we define beauty, are undeniably linked. And this is where my degree in English Lit comes in handy. In the first instance, the fact that these issues are all connected is good, because it means we can discuss them much easier. However, when issues like these are so integrated, it makes them difficult to break apart; instead we just end up with a cycle of what we’ve become used to as the norm, a concept that makes us so dizzy that we can’t see what’s right in front of us- and that is that something has GOT to change.
We have to make sure the next generation of BAME students have access to an educational environment that supports others’ and their own understandings of themselves and their history.
We have to make sure the media uses its power for good and that the images it produces are just as colourful as the realities of the people it is trying to portray.
We have to make sure our kids have the unalienable right to feel beautiful in their own skin, no matter what shade it is.
I don’t have all the answers, but together, by just talking to one another about race and diversity, we have the power to change the world we live in. If you’re not sure where to go from here, you can start by waking up- look at the world around you, educate yourselves, watch the news- and then notice what’s missing from it. And then start to wake everyone else up, until we make so much noise that the people at the top of the pyramid can no longer sleep in peace.
There’s a semi colon at the end of this subheading. People often don’t know what to do with semi colons, or where to put them in a sentence. But semi colons are used by an author when they could have finished a sentence with a full stop, but have chosen not to. So don’t let this be the end of your story, because we’re not even halfway through it yet.
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