A seat at the table


Words || Ilhan Abdi

About a year ago, I did a short placement on a television program. Every single person, save for a couple of white-passing folk, and the host, visibly of colour, was white. This show was supposed to be progressive, and it told the stories of a range of people in Australia and world-wide. I learnt a lot, enjoyed the experience and the people who worked on the show were nice people. However, it really opened up my eyes to what it’s like behind the scenes in the media. In meetings, I silently watched as they pushed for their host to be the face of the show, all the while, the huge bulk of the people pitching the stories, directing and producing the content looked very different.

This is what it’s like when brands worldwide, the entertainment industry, and every other facet of the media jump on the diversity train and – in their desperation to look progressive – stick one or two black or brown people on their ads, TV shows, films and campaigns so as to not get called out for excluding people of colour (PoC). The problem with this is that it tries to paint over a problem – that the people involved in the decision making and creative process are all behind the camera, and minorities do not get to be a part of that. The issue is that when minorities, in this case PoC, are given a position behind the scenes, behind the camera, in the writer’s room and the editing suite, the diversity naturally comes out on the screen. Using minorities as talent to boost woke levels and brand value excludes minorities from the decision making process, both behind the idea as well as at the front of it.

When white writers tell the stories of PoC and other minorities in television, the trauma and violence they face is often amplified for impact. The ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK writer’s room came under scrutiny in 2015 after the season finale of their fourth season when, one of the characters, Poussey (a black woman), becomes asphyxiated by a police officer during a prison protest, mirroring the way Eric Garner was killed by a police officer in 2014. Except in the show’s, case, it was an accident. The show was previously lauded for its diverse cast of characters who weren’t represented in mainstream programs, but after that finale, a photograph of their writer’s room began to make rounds over the internet. Every single person who wrote for the show was white. There wasn’t a single black writer on the team. It’s no wonder the writers thought it would be a brilliant idea to use black pain and trauma as a source of entertainment. No matter what kind of message they were trying to portray, the show further traumatised black viewers with its insulting, patronising, and police-sympathising approach to such a sensitive and potentially triggering topic.

People of colour and minorities should be the centre and the creators of their own stories. They are the experts. When someone who does not know your experience tries to tell your story, it comes off as exploitative because they’re using it to further their own narrative. So what happens when we become in charge of our own stories? Recently there’s been a tiny shift in the number of content creators of colour – less so in Australia, more so in the United States – and most of these stories are sourced from personal experiences.

Technical aspects in the entertainment and beauty industry often discriminate against PoC. Countless black models have shared stories about makeup artists not knowing how to do their faces. These models, and even some celebrities, often have to bring or do their own makeup to sets because makeup artists do not have the materials, or do not know how, to work on a black face. These professionals aren’t fully skilled at their own craft because the standard they learned was based on Eurocentric features. Bad lighting has been a problem for not just black film and TV stars, but people everywhere in dark and grimy clubs, dimly lit restaurants, and bathrooms. In films, darker skinned black folk have often been left in the shadows of their lighter on screen partners. The second season of Issa Rae’s HBO show INSECURE, which she co-created, wrote, stars in and produces – was the subject of a Mic piece which discussed the revolutionary way in which it lit its characters. The show makes its stars looking dazzling, even in the mostly dimly lit club scenes. Issa Rae saw that there was a problem with the way black skin was shown on television, and sought to correct it by hiring cinematographer Ava Berkofsky, who knew how to use lighting to sculpt black skin, and capture the richness of it rather than making the camera’s subjects look washed out.

Speaking of INSECURE , the show has two dark skinned women as the leads, best friends – a rarity on TV – and draws from the cast and writers’ personal experiences. Often the dark-skinned black woman is the sidekick, the one-dimensional sassy best friend to a lighter skinned black or non-black woman. INSECURE’s girls are frustrating, they constantly screw their own lives (and people) as they try to navigate life in their late 20s, unhappy relationships, being black in a white workplace, and living in an area which is becoming more and more gentrified. Rae’s aim for the show was to depict regular black people living their lives, and have it be relatable. And it is. When the show is on air, it garners impassioned debates – especially from men who have taken a certain cheating storyline very personally. This is because these people see themselves – perhaps for the first time – and their own personal experiences in the trials faced by the show’s characters. Yes, the show’s events are specific to the writer’s experiences, or maybe even made up, but there is ubiquity in specificity.

The same can be said for last year’s Aussie rom-com ALI’S WEDDING . The film, based on Osamah Sami’s life and written by him as well, features an incredibly diverse cast for an Australian film. It centres on a Melbournian Iraqi Muslim struggling to balance pleasing his overbearing parents and his community with his own identity and pleasing himself. Sami has said that every single event of the film was a true event that he experienced, and yet not only was the film relatable to Iraqis but for any Australian Muslims, or even Muslims who grew up in the West and are the product of two cultures, trying to navigate life in the West as Muslims, as first generation immigrants and the children of immigrants.

I think it’s time media, especially Australian media, started taking the small steps American TV and film has in funding and giving space for multicultural Australian (and I don’t just mean Europeans) writers, directors, and producers to share their stories and create their own work. Inclusion starts in the drawing room, and when more people of colour are directors, writers, or producers of a film or television show, the more diversity there is on screen.