Melanin without tokenism: black people are slowly being allowed to be normal on TV

In her first column on television and pop culture, Bim Adewunmi explores the progress made by non-white characters on British telly.

Last Sunday night I felt, like Obi Wan before me, a great disturbance in the Force. No one had died, thank goodness, but my Twitter feed was abuzz with activity. The euphoria was evident: “What's this advert??” tweeted a friend. “Never seen so many black people in a prime-time advert in my life!!” Another replied to the post with: “British peak time ad full of black people. #WellINever”. My favourite was: “Listen... the way I almost snapped my neck, by doing a double take cos there were still black faces on the second time I looked up!”

Yes, there was an ad, full of black people, on terrestrial British television, during one of the most watched programmes on a Sunday night. The Force was properly disturbed.

The advertisement – starring singer Janelle Monáe and a coterie of attractive, well-dressed people, hanging out – was for Sonos. I have only a vague idea what the product does, despite the ad being about a minute long. But more importantly (for me, not Sonos) the ad was a small thing highlighting a much bigger thing: the – slowly – increasing presence of people of colour on television. Let me qualify that: we (or at least one version of us) have been on telly for a long while now. I’ve watched a lot of television, and I remember that much. What I’m talking about here is the evolution of people of colour on television. Things are still far from perfect, but that have got so much better than when I was a child or even a teenager. Back then, spotting brown people was like a game of Where’s Wally? except instead of the distinctive striped jumper of our cartoon hero, they were sporting assorted stereotypes, from aggressive criminal to street kids in need of a hot meal and a chance meek ‘model minority’ – tokenism at its purest.

I remember reading a Sidney Poitier interview in which the Oscar-winning actor spoke about his role in Stanley Kramer’s 1967 film Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner. He spoke of the character Dr John Prentice’s qualities, and the thinking that he had to be perfect in the context of the movie. Not merely "very good", but absolutely perfect, a paragon: a highly-educated and qualified doctor, and a world traveller (stopping off to give talks at the UN, as you do). I read later that he was going to be written as divorced, but it was decided to make him widowed, to complete his "perfect" image. He had to be utterly above reproach in order for white audiences to embrace him as an equal. But more than that, he had to counter the prevalent representation of black people onscreen.

Here and now, in 2012, we’ve reached the latest stage of our evolution onscreen: we are "normal". We are just like everyone else. We’re not over what I call the "Poitier Exemplar" just yet, but we are slowly moving past it. Monáe – hanging out and listening to music with friends – did not look entirely dissimilar to me and my life (pompadour and expertly tailored suit notwithstanding).

That’s what struck me the most about seeing it – in a world where the default experience of "normal" is "white", and more and more people of colour are finally being seen as possibilities when casting the default. Seeing that ad was seeing a reflection of what my life looks like. At the start of the ad, it was Janelle Monáe and friends, evolving into a black woman and her friends, and ending on just a woman and her friends. It’s the normalcy that strikes. Finally.

And most fantastic of all, it’s all over telly. My current favourite black woman on television is Vod (played by Zawe Ashton) on Channel 4’s Fresh Meat, a role that has almost nothing to do with her melanin. She is a fully-formed character, written as a rounded individual, and a full part of the world she inhabits. In US TV (and also on More4 at the moment), Kerry Washington is kicking arse and taking names as Washington power player Olivia Pope in ABC’s Scandal. Keeping her company is Mindy Kaling’s new comedy on Fox as well as Brit-doing-an-accent-and-wielding-a-baseball-bat Archie Panjabi in the superlative The Good Wife on NBC. Other casts with a dose of melanin that sidesteps tokenism include the very funny Happy Endings (will it ever return to E4?)and New Girl (Lamorne Morris’s Winston is fantastic if somewhat underused).

Some Girls. Source: BBC

But wait, there’s more! BBC3’s new comedy Some Girls follows four teenage girls and has a black lead in Adelayo Adedayo. The rash of ads in the run up to the orgy of consumption that is Christmas has yielded a bumper crop of "normal" brown folks too. Sainsbury’s has a black family with the little boy doing the dishes to the surprise of his parents, and Tesco’s campaign also makes use of another, sipping on champagne in the kitchen on Christmas Day. Baileys’ Blondie-soundtracked ad features several hues and shades. As a lifelong telly addict, I can’t lie: it’s all kind of thrilling.

There is still a need for the Poitier Exemplar, for we are not yet at the Promised Land in terms of the narrowness of our represented reality (hello, Top Boy). But what struck me the hardest about Sunday night was that we’re firmly on the way, and that is A Good Thing.

Viva from Some Girls. Source: BBC

Bim Adewunmi writes about race, feminism and popular culture. Her blog is  yorubagirldancing.com and you can find her on Twitter as @bimadew.

Photo: Getty
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Sheepwrecked: how the Lake District shows up World Heritage's flaws

Here's hoping future statements about farming and the environment aren't quite so sheepish.

“Extremists like George Monbiot would destroy the Lake District,” tweeted Eric Robson, presenter of Radio 4’s Gardener’s Questions. But he’s “just standing up for nature”, others shot back in Monbiot’s defence. The cause of the clash? The park’s new World Heritage status and the continuing debate over the UK’s “sheep-wrecked” countryside.

Tension is such you can almost hear Cumbria’s Vikings chuckling in their hogback graves – for sheep farming still defines the Lakes as much as any poem. Hilltop farmers, like Lizzie Weir and Derek Scrimegeour, have sweated the landscape into shape over generations. And while Wordsworth may have wandered lonely as a cloud, a few hundred pairs of pricked ears were likely ruminating nearby.

UNESCO’s World Heritage committee now officially supports this pro-farm vision: “The most defining feature of the region, which has deeply shaped the cultural landscape, is a long-standing and continuing agro-pastoral tradition,” says the document which recommends the site for approval. 

And there’s much to like about the award: the region’s small, outdoor farms are often embedded in their local community and focused on improving the health and quality of their stock – a welcome reminder of what British farms can do at their best. Plus, with Brexit on the horizon and UK megafarms on the rise, farmers like these need all the spotlight they can get.

But buried in the details of the bid document is a table showing that three-quarters of the area's protected sites are in an “unfavourable condition”. So it is depressing that farming’s impact on biodiversity appears to have been almost entirely overlooked. Whether you agree with the extent of George Monbiot’s vision for Rewilding or not, there are clearly questions about nibbled forests and eroded gullies that need to be addressed – which are not mentioned in the report from UNESCO’s  lead advisory body, ICOMOS, nor the supplementary notes on nature conservation from IUCN.

How could so little scrutiny have been applied? The answer may point to wider problems with the way the World Heritage program presently works – not just in Cumbria but around the world.

In the Lake District’s case, the bid process is set-up to fail nature. When the convention was started back in the 1970s, sites could be nominated under two categories, either “cultural” or “natural”, with the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) advising on the first, and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) on the second.

Then in 1992 a new category of “cultural landscape” was introduced to recognise places where the “combined works of nature and man” are exceptional. This means such sites are always evaluated principally by ICOMOS, giving them more resources to research and shape the verdict – and limiting the input IUCN is able to make.

Another weakness is that the evaluation bodies can only follow a state’s choice of category. So if a state nominates a site as a Cultural Landscape, then considerations about issues like biodiversity can easily end up taking a back seat.

According to Tim Badman, director of IUCN’s World Heritage Programme, this situation is in need of redress. “The way in which this separation of nature and culture works is increasingly out of tune and counter-productive,” he says. “Every natural site has some kind of relationship with people, and every cultural site has some major conservation interest, even if it might not be globally significant. We should collaborate much more to make that a virtue of the system.”

The more you think about it, the madder the notion of a “Cultural Landscape” sounds. Landscapes are, after all, inherently scoped out by man, and there is little in the natural world that humanity has left untouched. Especially those in Western Europe and especially those, like Cumbria, that have been felled and farmed by a succession of historic invaders.

Relationships between advisory bodies are also not the only failing in UNESCO’s approach; relationships between nations and the convention can be problematic too. At this month’s meeting of the committee in Poland, it was decided that the Great Barrier Reef would, once again – and despite shocking evidence of its decline – not be on UNESCO’s “In Danger” list. It prompts the question, what on earth is the list for?

The reluctance of many nations to have their sites listed as In Danger is a mixed blessing, says Badman. In some cases, the prospect of being listed can motivate reform. But it is also a flawed tool – failing to include costed action plans – and causing some governments to fear attacks from their domestic opposition parties, or a decline in their tourism.

On top of this, there is the more generalised politicking and lobbying that goes on. Professor Lynn Meskell, an Anthropologist at Stanford University, is concerned that, over the years, the institution “has become more and more political”. At the most recent session of the World Heritage Committee earlier this month, she found nominations being used to inflame old conflicts, a continuing regional dominance by Europe, and a failure to open up many “at risk” sites for further discussion. “All Yemen’s sites are in danger, for instance” she says, “yet they couldn’t afford to even send one person."

Perhaps most challenging of all is the body’s response to climate change. At the recent committee gathering, Australia raised the subject by way of suggesting it cannot be held solely be responsible for the decline of the Great Barrier Reef. And Turkey attempted to water down a reference to the Paris Climate Agreement, claiming the language used was overly “technical” and that the delegates present were too inexpert to comment.

According to Tim Badman, climate change is certainly an area that needs further work, not least because World Heritage’s present policy on the subject is now a decade old. Even the most ambitious interpretation of the Paris Climate Agreement would still see very significant damage done to Heritage sites around the world, Badman says.

There is hope of change, however. For the most polite yet sturdy response to Turkey’s objections – or, as the chair ironically puts it “this very small ecological crisis” – I recommend watching these encouraging reactions from Portugal, Phillippines and Finland (2h30) -  a push-back on technical objections that Meskell says is rare to see. IUCN will also be producing the second edition of their World Heritage Outlook this November.

Positions on the Lake District’s farms will also hopefully be given further thought. Flaws within World Heritage’s approach may have helped pull wool over the committee’s eyes, but future debate should avoid being quite so sheepish.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.