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Diaspora Drama
via Amal Hassan and Diaspora Drama zine

Why are the British arts still so white?

With diversity across the country’s cultural scene at an all time low, the lack of platforms for POC is more obvious than ever

It’s been a good few years for British creativity. Our homegrown filmmakers are helming billion dollar blockbusters, our musicians are captivating the international stage and our art scene is thriving. And, while the future may be looking a bit shaky, there’s hope that our cultural landscape may just be able weather the storm. Despite this, there’s still something that feels a bit off. When you take a closer look at the stories we’re telling and the art we’re creating, it’s alarmingly easy to notice a pattern emerge. These stories that we're telling so well? ...They're sort of all the same. They’re just being told in slightly different ways. Take an even closer look and you may even be able to notice something else: almost all of the people telling them are white.

It’s a difficult subject for a lot of people to face up to. Many will argue that, as a predominantly white country, that should be how it is. They'll act like this justifies the fact that these ‘other’ voices aren’t being heard. But, according to 2011 data from the Office for National Statistics, 14.6 per cent of us are from BAME groups – and this jumps to an even greater number when you look at our cities. This is just too significant a number to ignore. Yet, when you see the talent we're using across our TV, film, music and theatre industries, there is nothing to even hint at their existence. 

Young BAME actors in particular are facing up to this struggle. While their white British counterparts will get the chance to play a range of roles that reflect their day-to-day experiences, the options for them are limited. The parts they'll be offered never really seem to deviate from a set list of two-dimensional, cliched roles – whether that's a faceless hoodie or a token best friend. In fact, last year's Second Coming shockingly felt like the first time ever that a young, middle-class black family were having their story shared on the British big screen. 

This disparity is particularly obvious when you compare it to the arts scene in America. Where POC are slowly beginning to get offered more realistic roles, or being offered platforms for their creativity, Britain is still refusing to budge. It's a fact that actors have always been very vocal about. “I do notice that – over the last year – I’ve had maybe two scripts from Britain and tens and tens from America,” Hotel Rwanda star Sophie Okonedo told The Guardian last year. “The balance is ridiculous. I’m still struggling (in the UK) in a way that my white counterparts at the same level wouldn’t have.”

“Immigrant stories are some of the best, but for whatever reason just aren't told as much as they should be” – Kieran Yates

This is a problem that stems from the people who dominate casting, commissioning and production. These careers are exclusive – limited to the white middle classes who can afford to climb up the ladder through years of interning or through nepotism. As long as these jobs remain dominated by them, getting these stories told authentically will be a struggle. For example, when journalist Kieran Yates's Muslim Drag Queen documentary was taken over by a cast and crew of white, British men in July of this year, it whipped up a storm of controversy. “There's a real need for a structural reform so that the people making commissioning decisions make it their business to represent a range of voices,” she explains. “It's important that people from immigrant communities are allowed to tell our own stories. It's our capital. The continual whitewashing of culture is being challenged because its basic, lazy and unrepresentative.”

There has been a slow and steady uprising though. In the world of self-publishing, BAME creatives have started to take things into their own hands by looking to DIY culture as a way of sharing their stories. Yates herself has even done the same. Her new zine British Values, which came out late last month, was created as a rebuttal to the recent demonisation of immigrants by Farage, Cameron and the Calais crisis.  “I wanted to rewrite the narrative of all these foreign aliens coming in and fucking our 'great country' up for everyone. Immigrant stories are some of the best, but for whatever reason just aren't told as much as they should be.”

Of course, the real problem lies with getting a wider variety of voices to tell their story – whether that's POC, women or even just the less financially stable. They need to have more access to the positions where they can really make the difference – and with social mobility almost at a complete standstill, this can feel harder than ever. However, there are still things that can be done, and the first step is becoming aware of it. While the arts are often dismissed as an unnecessary luxury, they're actually some of the most educational and eye-opening tools we have, which is what makes this change so urgent. People need to hear these stories in order to understand more about the people telling them. It's not a question of limiting the white voice, but instead opening our ears to others.