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Matters of representation

By Sinem Bilen-Onabanjo
21 November 2020   |   2:40 am
There are quite a few thousand things I don’t identify with in the world. For example, I do not identify as male. I don’t identify as black, or LGBTQ.

There are quite a few thousand things I don’t identify with in the world. For example, I do not identify as male. I don’t identify as black, or LGBTQ.

I am quite clear on my identity as a White Other woman of Turkish/Kurdish descent and British citizenship, who is a heterosexual female.

This doesn’t mean I don’t read consume the work of black cultures, or boycott a TV show on the basis of LGBTQ+ characters, or don’t enjoy work of other nations because I don’t see myself represented in these.

I also don’t identify as a superhero, nor as a jungle cat, nor Kevin the Carrot in supermarket chain Aldi’s seasonal TV spots. This doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy The Avengers, or watch Big Cat Diaries or have a laugh when I see Kevin the Carrot on TV.

This week in the UK, we discovered quite a few thousand people struggle with light entertainment when the characters they see on the box fail to represent them, especially if said characters are not White British.

The furore kicked off midweek with a feel-good Christmas advert by the supermarket chain Sainsburys depicting a young woman calling her family to let them know she’s coming home. What ensues is a syrupy sweet moment between father and daughter who reminisce over Christmases spent around the dinner table enjoying mum’s cooking and dad’s gracy. The conversation becomes the voice over for what is made to look like old family reels with a vintage reel of the great memories the family made over the years, sharing food and laughter.

You may be wondering how such an innocent ad may have offended so many people. You see, there is a catch: it was a black family whose memories were depicted so beautifully. It was not an interracial or ethnically ambiguous family either; it was a dark-skinned black family. That was enough to make the British see red. They took to social media to air their frustrations, which mainly concerned of not feeling represented by Sainsburys and threatening to stop shopping at the supermarket.

In a flurry of racist tweets, people threatened to boycott Sainsbury’s, deeming the advert “disgraceful, disgusting, shocking” and “absolutely sickening” because in the starring role, there was an all-black black family. This was not a mixed race family, featured amongst other families, as in the 2017 Marks & Spencer ad, nor a white mum and a black dad starring in the John Lewis Moz the Monster ad of the same year. Surprisingly, these ads also received backlash from British bigots.

Even more surprising is the number of social media attacks Dr Shola Mos-Shogbamimu every time she is on TV trying to educate the masses about racial equality or lack thereof in Britain, or how Afua Hirsch, biracial British journalist, is told to “go home” by a TV presenter for merely discussing the role of the trans-Atlantic slave trade in today’s systemic racism in the UK.

Each time a person of colour questions bigotry and racial inequality in the UK, the masses are quick to argue, “Not everything is about race.”

Sadly, Sainsbury’s has inadvertently proven that everything in the UK is still very much about race. Having lived in this country for half my life, it dawned on me during the Black Lives Matters protests of early summer that, I’d never been as conscious of my ‘otherness’ until I settled in the UK. Previously, my identity was a personal affair, I could define and label myself as I wanted – I felt a person’s race was an individual matter. It was only when I arrived in the UK, bright eyed and bushy tailed I discovered just how many shades of skin colour exist and where they rate on the colour chart.

“Your skin is kind of tan, isn’t it?” was one of the first questions that puzzled me. Previously I had never thought of the different shades of white my people back home tend to come in – my dad was fairly lily-white and my mum was more of what is called ‘olive-skinned’ – I turned out the happy medium which got a couple of shades lighter in bleak midwinter, only to turn a darker shade of café au lait in summer. Now in my new country of residence, I was “tanned”.

Along with skin colour, Britain also teaches the immigrant where they rank in terms or ethnicity and race; sadly this is nowhere near the centre, but always on the peripheries of what is the acceptable norm. No wonder, when Prince Harry married Megan Markle, a biracial American divorcee – anything but the norm – the British media was quick to push a vile agenda of attack against the woman they revelled in describing as ‘dusky’ or ‘exotic’, and regaling in tall tales of how ‘Princess Push’ had made Kate Middleton – by all means, the British norm – cry. No wonder, when Sainsbury’s comes along and flips the script and places a black family right at the heart of a feel-good Christmas narrative, bigots lose sleep.

The irony in all this is that now it is the bigots crying out about how representation matters when they find themselves not the default at the heart of the story, despite having enjoyed decades of the ‘representation.’

Even bigger irony? If an ad depicting a black family on TV gets more backlash for not being representative of the people than Kevin the Carrot, we have a problem that goes way beyond bigotry and borders on stupidity.

Representation matters, but not only in the sense the bigoted Brits have been calling out for in the last couple of years; it matters in all walks of life, in every area of our society, and it matters so that the ‘other’ and the ‘marginalised’ gets as much ‘screen time’ as the people seen as the norm. If Kevin doesn’t bother you, neither a girl in a hijab, or a black James Bond, or a black family taking centre stage in a feel-good ad.

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