After the Bechdel Test, I propose the Shukla Test for race in film

It’s not often that Ranjit is at the pub having a universal experience with Steve, Bob, Andy, Joe and Paul. While Steve, Bob, Andy, Joe and Paul have their universal experience, Ranjit is off somewhere worrying about being brown. Probably because of his j

The most racially diverse film I’ve seen all year is Fast and Furious 6. The film is notable for two things: one is the sight of The Rock doing an air head-butt in slow motion to take out the bad guy. The other is that the main cast comprises people from every race and ethnicity and at no point do they resort to crude racial stereotypes.

Sadly, in 2013, that fact is actually amazing. A rare sight to see.

The second best film I’ve seen all year is the wonderfully bonkers The World’s End, full of jokes and warmth and frenetic sci-fi-infused action. There isn’t a single person of colour in this film.

So what? you might think. So what? I’m not a racist. I don’t see race. Especially when it comes to art. Especially when it comes to the representation of comedy and drama and action onscreen. What do I care what colour the actors are? But if everyone who claimed to be colourblind really was, then we wouldn’t be seeing the whitewashed productions we do, again and again and again.

The lack of representation of ethnic minorities in film and television isn’t, of course, a new problem. Things are changing – but slowly, and with an abundance of people of colour cast in roles that centre around their ethnicity. Luther and Hustle have successfully shown that you can be cast in roles where your ethnicity isn’t a character trait or an elephant in the room, but a matter of fact barely ever referred to. Nevertheless, it’s rare that you get more than just one person of colour interacting with another on a matter which doesn’t concern their race.

Someone once wrote of one of my short stories in a review that it was ‘an amorphous mess of Indian names’. The implication was that, had I gone with more traditionally British names like Steve, Bob, Andy, Joe and Paul, he would have liked the short story more. The same reviewer then ended his piece by commenting that despite the fact the characters were Indian, there was a recognisable universal experience - again, the implication being that usually, Indians don’t have universal experiences; they have Indian ones.

It has occurred to me many times in the past that everyone in books, films or television is white unless they have to do something brown. It’s not often that Ranjit is at the pub having a universal experience with Steve, Bob, Andy, Joe and Paul. While Steve, Bob, Andy, Joe and Paul have their universal experience, Ranjit is off somewhere worrying about being brown. Probably because of his job or his parents.

Leaving to one side for the moment whether the film is any good, let’s take a look at the recent After Earth, a Will/Jaden Smith movie about a space detective and his scaredy-cat son. A film like this is rare. Two black actors, in the major roles, converse with each other on issues entirely removed from race: they talk about fear, survival and weird goofy space creatures. Race is, unusually, not at the forefront of these characters’ personas. They manage to achieve an entire narrative arc without a single moment defining either one by race. That’s why the Fast and Furious franchise, despite its downfalls, is commendable for showcasing a diverse cast who never resort to a racial stereotype as a character tic.

As for recognition for their performances, actors from ethnic minorities continue to lose out. 2002 was the first year in the history of the Oscars that two black actors – Halle Berry and Denzel Washington – won Best Actress and Best Actor respectively. This demonstrates the fact that it takes longer for people of colour, once they’ve cut through to the mainstream, to achieve validation from their peers. Validation from fans can seem even more remote: for every Morpheus or Django or Alex Cross, there is an online furore at actors in The Hunger Games or Thor or the Bond franchise changing the ethnicity of a character. Sadly, there is clearly an enduring perception that with the change in ethnicity must come a change in character, suddenly transforming them into a black Norse God or a mixed race CIA agent, not Heimdall and Felix Leiter, performing functional (white) roles like being the gatekeeper of the bifrost or expert on international espionage.

A common complaint from producers who whitewash their films is that they don’t want to ‘seem tokenistic’ by inserting a brown character ‘just for the sake of it’. The sad thing about that type of tokenism is that it presupposes that everyone is white, so to have anyone ethnic would look out of the ordinary, deliberately tokenistic, rather than entirely normal. And what exactly is the problem with so-called conscious tokenism, if it means that we can break down the barriers of colour casting, of affording roles to people that have been specifically delineated as ‘racial’? What TV needs is more characters like Tom Haverford in Parks and Recreation, who is more beholden to swag than ever having a conversation about his race. Or Kurt from Teachers, who was just Kurt, a selfish fool who got himself in bigger messes every time he opened his mouth, played by an Indian guy. This is never referenced.

I call for a test to be applied – (originally called The Shukla Test - or, if you think that's arrogant, we could call it The Apu Test) – akin to the Bechdel Test for gender. I want to see a film where two ethnic minorities talk to each other for more than five minutes about something other than race.

Tell me the films you’ve seen this year that pass the test… and pass it as well as Fast and Furious 6.

Fast & Furious 6: one of the most racially diverse films I've seen all year. Image: Getty
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Is Google Maps discriminating against people with disabilities?

Its walking routes are not access-friendly.

“I ended up having to be pushed through a main road in London, which was really scary.” Three weeks ago, Mary Bradley went to London to visit her daughter Belinda, who is just finishing her first year at university there. Her other daughter joined them on the trip.

But what was supposed to be an enjoyable weekend with her two children turned into a frustrating ordeal. The apps they were using to find their way around kept sending them on routes that are not wheelchair-friendly, leading to time-consuming and sometimes frightening consequences.

Bradley has been using a wheelchair – when having to go longer distances without a vehicle – for over a year, due to a 45-degree curve in her spine, severe joint facet deterioration in her back, and other conditions.

She lives in Weston-super-Mare in Somerset, and has made the trip up to London to visit her daughter a handful of times. Each visit, they use Google Maps and the transport app Citymapper to find their way around, as neither of them know London particularly well.


Belinda and Mary Bradley. Photo: Belinda Bradley

“It was just horrible,” says Bradley of her most recent trip to the capital. “We’re following the maps, and we go along, then find we are faced with a footbridge, and realise there was no way I was going to get over it, so we had to go back the way we’d come. At one point, we were faced with a strip of narrow pavement the wheelchair couldn’t go down. That was something we found all weekend.”

While Google Maps did highlight accessible Tube stations, they found that once they had alighted to do the rest of the journey to their destination on foot, “it took us three times as long, because the route that it takes us just wasn’t passable”.

They ended up having to try different routes “having no real idea of where were going”.

“It meant that it took so much longer, the girls ended up having to push me for longer, I got more and more embarrassed and frustrated and upset about the whole thing,” Bradley tells me.

At one point, her daughters had to take her down a main road. “Being pushed on a road, especially in London, is scary,” she says. “It was scary for me, it was scary for the girls.”

When they returned home, Belinda, who is a 19-year-old Writing and Theatre student at the University of Roehampton, was so furious at the situation that she started a petition for Google Maps to include wheelchair-friendly routes. It hit over 100,000 signatures in a fortnight. At the time of writing, it has 110,601 petitioners.


Belinda's petition.

Belinda was surprised that Google Maps didn’t have accessible routes. “I know Google Maps so well, [Google]’s such a big company, it has the satellite pictures and everything,” she says. “So I was really surprised because there’s loads of disabled people who must have such an issue.”

The aim of her petition is for Google Maps to generate routes that people using wheelchairs, crutches, walking sticks, or pushing prams will be able to use. “It just says that they’re a little bit ignorant,” is Belinda’s view of the service’s omission. “To me, just to ignore any issues that big needs to be solved; it needs to be addressed almost immediately.”

But she also wants to raise awareness to “make life better in general” for people with disabilities using navigation apps.

Belinda has not received a response from Google or Citymapper, but I understand that Google is aware of the petition and the issue it raises. Google declined to comment and I have contacted Citymapper but have not received a response.

Google Maps does provide information about how accessible its locations are, and also allows users to fill in accessibility features themselves via an amenities checklist for places that are missing that information. But it doesn’t provide accessible walking routes.

“There’s no reason that they couldn’t take it that bit further and include wheelchair accessible routes,” says Matt McCann, the founder of Access Earth, an online service and app that aims to be the Google Maps for people with disabilities. “When I first started Access Earth, I always thought this is something Google should be doing, and I was always surprised they haven’t done it. And that’s the next logical step.”

McCann began crowdsourcing information for Access Earth in 2013, when he booked a hotel in London that was supposed to be wheelchair-friendly – but turned out not to be accessible for his rollator, which he uses due to having cerebral palsy.

Based in Dublin, McCann says Google Maps has often sent him on pedestrian routes down cobbled streets, which are unsuitable for his rollator. “That’s another level of detail; to know whether the footpaths are pedestrian-friendly, but also if they’re wheelchair-friendly as well in terms of the surface,” he notes. “And that was the main problem that I had in my experience [of using walking routes].”

Access Earth, which includes bespoke accessibility information for locations around the world, aims to introduce accessible routes once the project has received enough funding. “The goal is to encompass all aspects of a route and trip,” he says. Other services such as Wheelmap and Euan's Guide also crowdsource information to provide access-friendly maps.

So how long will it take for more established tech companies like Google to clear the obstacles stopping Mary Bradley and millions like her using everyday services to get around?

“You can use them for public transport, to drive, you can use them if you’re an able-bodied person on foot,” she says. “But there are loads of us who are completely excluded now.”

Sign Belinda Bradley’s “Create Wheelchair Friendly Routes on Google Maps" here.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.