A watershed in UK broadcasting, saw 22 men of African, African Caribbean descent, being interviewed on the Victoria Derbyshire programme. Cephas Williams whose idea it was to put together what is already becoming an iconic photograph of 56 British Black Men wearing black hoodies to address a debate not often aired, about how media stereotypes Black men through a lens of a dominant white culture, that has created a narrative for this group in UK society that we have been fed, lapped up for breakfast, lunch and dinner like it is the norm.
Within the picture entitled “56 Black Men I am not my Stereotype” you have an MP, actor/filmaker, entrepreneurs’, architects and other accomplished professionals and achievers who are Black Men.
Cephas explained once he decided to do the project, it gained momentum as each member of the group were photographed other high acheiving candidates were referred to him which illustrated how connected they were. His motivation being to put forward the positive narrative of achievement and contribution that Black men were making to society and their own communities contrary to the negative perception of Black men, we see in the UK Media, which is not a balanced representation of what we know of ourselves as Black Men.
Victoria sits in centre of an arc seating arrangement flanked by 22 Black men (not something you ever see on mainstream British Television) and seeks to facilitate the discussion with Cephas Williams and the group who explains his reasoning behind creating the image to challenge the status quo and address an issue that subsequent generations of black boys and black men will continue to face, if wider society does take notice.
Having seen the picture the previous week in The Guardian, I thought the idea more than cute and sensed that we are seeing the beginning of the push back against the mainstream building upon ‘Raheemgate’ (Raheem Sterling’s also cute use of Social Media to compare the treatment of Black Professional Footballers to their White counterparts), which forced a number of media institutions (See Hugh Woozencroft, Black sports journalists piece on BBC sport) to reflect on the racial bias of their editorials, and why this bias still exist today, causing a public debate about where and who this comes from.
The first thing I noticed, was the tone and pitch of the Men’s voices. They were different to what I necessarily expected. Here I am a Black man born in the UK having everything in common with these young men, especially how they spoke, but specifically I noticed their voices. Why was this? Whilst their voices didn’t seem odd, it was something I noticed straight away.
The conversation soon evolved to where several of them spoke about having to sound “white” or put on their best English, to appear professional or competent, which I immediately identified with. They were all well spoken.
I suppose I had never heard so many Black Men, speak sequentially on TV ever before; so effectively I was being treated to a confectionary of well spoken Black Men who were successfully negotiating the interface British economic corporatisation, and were sober about the identity challenges that occupying this space brought.
All had anecdotes of working in senior roles and being challenged by their “White counterparts” as to how they arrived or achieved their positions. Also how the challenge to reconcile not being allowed to be your authentic self as Black Man impacted one’s journey. Stories having to dress down and appear culturally neutral were themes that were spoken to as well as forming your own standards of success; and the options for the next generation of young blacks are far wider than the media would allow you to believe.
Cephas Williams the founder/curator of the idea/project articulated that the iconography sought to challenge not only society at large about Black Stereotypes but to the next generation of young black men that Black men in hoodies can achieve anything that they put their minds to, and that many have despite the images of negativity that the media foisted upon them.
This made really made me think how we all are influenced by the media and how we seek to categorise and label what we see. Especially how I automatically fell into this thought process as the group interview unfolded.
Throughout the piece feedback from viewers on social media either identified with the group or not with one questioning the group about internal racism amongst Black Men, to which there was a response from the group saying, that there were many issues that we complex and nuanced when considering the plight of Black Men in the UK.
Back to when I first heard the voices, I think secretly in the back of my mind I had the famous Eddie Muphy’s “We’re not gonna fall for the banana in the tailpipe” skit in Beverley Hills Cop.
This noticing of mine of the group whilst familiar to me, saw this as an unfamiliar phenomenon in the context of this broadcast. Effectively here I was presented with a representation of what I knew very well, Black men expressing a commonality of an experience that was also mine. But also in that moment, as a viewer I was subconsciously giving them and what they each said, a critique as the scene unfolded. That, I think placed me in a point of view of the British public. Having for years being indoctrinated by the BBC and ITV, let’s also add a 70’s and 80’s comprehensive education system, an experience of 80’s/90’s UK corporate culture, I could clearly see a juxtaposed systemised viewpoint that I also held in my own consciousness. t
The very antithesis itself that Cephas set out to disturb with his photograph of Black Men in hoodies.
Victoria does well to give everyone a chance to say something; getting the voiceless to be heard is a theme her programme is adept at doing and is continually winning awards for.
Hearing from Black Males in groups about their experience in the UK is something that is not usually seen on UK TV, unless it is in the form of an expose relating to criminal gangs, county lines, drug dealers or Gun and knife crime. Here was a programme where a group of Black Men were able to celebrate themselves and ideas, on their own terms expressing their views about how they were represented in the media.