Dr Anamik Saha, Lecturer in Media & Communications at Goldsmiths, University of London, is an expert in diversity within the cultural industries.
2017 has seen a number of incidents within film, media and television which have brought the issue in to sharp focus, the most recent of which involving white British actor Ed Skrein's withdrawal from a production of Hellboy in which he was cast as an Asian character.
Dr Saha's new book, 'Race & The Cultural Industries', seeks to undercover and understand the reasons why such incidents continue to take place. I spoke to him soon after its release.
Chris Smith: What do this year's racial controversies tell us about the state of diversity in the cultural industries?
Anamik Saha: Quite simply, that there's a lot to do. On a positive note, it is encouraging that cultural industries do appear to be taking the issue seriously, whether in terms of ther workforce or their output. Though we should acknowledge that this has been mostly due to campaigning from specific groups (Media Diversified, Spread the Word, Creative Diversity Network), public figures (Lenny Henry, Riz Ahmed, Idris Elba) or the public in general, who have put pressure on media organisations to prioritise representation.
But what has been clear is that cultural industries have a very superficial understanding of diversity. The case of Munroe Bergdorf is interesting in this regard. As the first transgender model to front a L'Oreal campaign, she was hired precisely to reflect the company's supposed openness to all experiences. But she was sacked after a Facebook post where she spoke of systemic racism in Western society, and white people's role in it. This demonstrates how the media likes diversity when it helps to sell products, but when anyone actually attempts to discuss what it actually means, the media recoils in horror. For me, this really exposes the cultural industries' true indifference to difference.
CS: How can incidents like this be explained?
AS: The racial controversies we've seen in 2017 could be explained by a lack of diversity in the cultural industries, but I have also found that people of colour themselves are implicated in racial profiling. For example, it was in fact an Asian photographer that airbrushed Lupita Nyong'o's Afro hair on a cover of Grazia in November this year. My research has found that because people of colour have less creative freedom than their white counterparts, they end up reproducing particular representations of race.
CS: How are issues like this explored in your new book?
AS: With this book, I wanted to show how industry practices/logistics thamselves contain racialising effects which lead to the mostly reductive representation of racial minorities. My argument is that these logics appear as common-sense business practice which hides their racial qualities. So embedded within the standardised practices of commissioning, marketing, publicity and design, are ideas and assumptions about race which are shaped by the legacy of empire. These industry logics are so strong that they are internalised by minority writers as well as their well meaning white colleagues, which explains the constant churn of particular tropes of race. Though that sounds abstract, the book contains concrete examples of how this occurs.
CS: Why do you think there is so little understanding of how and why representations of race in the media form the way they do?
AS: I believe the media is not taken seriously by scholars of race, by activists and campaigners. It is too often dismissed as a marginal concern, or even trivial (especially when we're talking popular culture) and a distraction from the real political work of fighting the subjegation and economic exploitation of racial minorities. While it is hard not to disagree with this critique, I would nonetheless assert that the cultural industries is where most people's encounters of difference occurs - even in a cosmopolitan city like London. If that encounter is mostly negative then this will of course feed in to the politcal, legal, educational and everyday arenas. Thankfully, as I allude to above, the representation of minorities in the media is now increasingly seen as a matter of social justice, so I am hopeful that it translates into new reserch, and that the current work that is being done in this area becomes less marginal and more of a core concern.
CS: What do you think needs to be done to increase diversity in the cultural industries?
AS: The fact is, as much as audiences crave familiarity, we also demand novelty and originality. And what is more novel and original than narratives about racial experience? I know that sounds a bit glib, but there is a serious point hidden in there. While the media portrays minorities in overwhelmingly reductive ways there have been, and always will be, moments and spaces where something radical, alternative and subversive can emerge.
We need to move beyond the current culture of 'tickboxing' and try to create truly radical diversity. Firstly, corporations must take more risks on black and brown cultural productions. They should be prepared to take a hit if it fails and reap rewards if it succeeds. Secondly, policy should exist that enables forms of independent productions through subsidies and grants. Finally, I believe there should be a focus on public service broadcasting, as it can help to buffer people of colour from market forces that might otherwise hinder their progess.
The media is where our understandings of race are both reinforced and challenged. I argue that we need the politics of representation to be coupled with a 'politics of production in order to effectively mount a truly radical version of diversity in the media.
Anamik Saha co-convenes the MA Race, Media & Social Justice.