Having characters on screen from different backgrounds helps to challenge myths and stereotypes.
Earlier this week, Barack Obama made his first presidential visit to an American mosque. His speech touched on several important issues, but one thing which particularly stood out was his reference to “distorted media portrayals in TV or film”. He said that television shows “should have some Muslim characters that are unrelated to national security” and went on to mention a time “when there were no black people on TV”.
These comments come whilst the storm clouds continue to gather around the Oscars in three weeks’ time. Not a single actor nominated for the Awards are from black or ethnic minority backgrounds, and this has led to an outcry from celebrities and others from across the globe who see this as a failure to accurately reflect the modern world. As ever, social media has embraced the issue with a personalised ‘hashtag’, ‘Oscars So White’.
This lack of diversity on the big and small screens has been around for a very long time. When I was younger, my family would get excited as soon as someone in a turban popped up on our TV. We’d rush into the living room and gather around the box, relishing every moment of screen time that our fellow Sikh was having, even if he was killed off in the first five minutes of the show. Our family wasn’t the only one. In fact, there’s a popular Twitter account dedicated to recording the random appearances of turbaned Sikhs on TV.
Having characters on screen from different backgrounds helps to challenge myths and stereotypes. The idea that there could be a black James Bond or a Muslim superhero may have seemed absurd at the turn of the century, but now it’s a question of ‘Why not?’. Characters from specific faiths have already made their mark, with one example being the Masoods in Eastenders who’ve helped shift views regarding British Muslims. Times have changed, and so have attitudes towards diversity.
However, if we really want to challenge our worst preconceptions, then we need to start by getting to know people personally. We need a meeting of hearts and minds, not just remote controls and set-top-boxes. It’s one thing to see a Sikh character in a soap, but quite another to get to know your Sikh neighbour or work colleague better. Such personal interactions have a long lasting impact on how we then view others from similar backgrounds.
One of the most beautiful teachings from the last of the living Sikh Gurus, Guru Gobind Singh, was to ‘recognise the whole of humankind as one’. It’s only by treating those we meet as our equals, and by acknowledging that we all have the same essence of humanity, that we can truly see people for who they are. As individuals with their own story to tell. As people like you or me.