Throughout 2015, we’ve heard and read a lot about the current lack of opportunities in Theatre and Arts for those of working class and BAME backgrounds (Black, Asian, and minority ethnic, an acronym used to refer to members of non-white communities in the UK).
Early, in January ’15, Julie Walters hit the pages of the main broadsheets warning that “acting would soon become the preserve of ‘posh’ students because working class people will not be able to afford to pursue it as a career’. And only last week we heard about the BBA Shakespeare database which shows that ethnic minorities hardly get to play the main roles.
In February ’15, The Baftas were heavily criticised for the lack of ethnic minorities and working-class people in the awards. Soon after that, the Acting and Social Inequality Project published the depressing results of their survey which show that only 10% of artists were from a working-class background. Theatre and Arts were “worse than any other comparable occupation” for diversity.
The results were pretty damning. In fact, all one needs to do is to observe what is on at the Theatre and on TV and you can get a clear picture of the current theatre and arts demographics. More often than not, I feel quite lonely when I go to see theatre: I look around and I am one of the few, if not the only person of colour in the audience. Seeing my reflection on the stage is even rarer. It is rather worryingly that the stories told on stage and screen are coming primarily from a narrow set of voices.
Last September, Viola Davis stated in her acceptance speech as she becomes the first black woman to win an Emmy for Best Actress in a Drama: ‘the only thing that separates women of colour from anyone else is opportunity”.
And it is as simple as that: opportunity, a time or set of circumstances that makes it possible to do something; a chance for employment or promotion. Why are these so restricted to a small number of individuals from a certain class and cultural background?
Lack of opportunity equals inequality. And inequality has obvious historical roots, both in the UK and Brazil. It is one of the bitter tasting after-effects of colonialism and slavery. It is complicated, but it needs to be addressed.
The Arts Council of England has announced a creative case for change, and one of its directives is putting more emphasis on changing leaderships and making employers accountable to this change, even if it means instigating diversity quotas. The BBC is working hard to address the issue and produce work that is reflective of the country’s population. The US is making wider strides in this area, with larger number of TV programs aimed at BAME audiences and with inclusive casting policies. So much so, that the majority of the TV programs in Brazil featuring BAME artists come from the US.
Lack of opportunities for working class and BAME artists is not just rampant in the UK, but also in Brazil. In Brazil, however, race and social class goes hand in hand, more so than in the UK. In a recently published article, The Guardian newspaper stated that Brazil is starting ‘to slowly confront the countries deeply entrenched race issues’ as it discusses small changes happening on Brazil’s TV programs who seem to be airing more diverse work.
We don’t have to look just at the arts in Brazil: I was surprised to read that all 39 ministers of President Dilma Rousseff’s cabinet are white, except one: the head of the Special Secretariat for the Promotion of Racial Equality. Widespread prejudices were made more visible by the reaction to the results of the last presidential election where a very working-class northeast were publicly put down by a middle/upper-class southeast. And yes, I know I am generalising, but why is that, though? Why is it that out of 100,000 university students in Brazil only 10,000 are of BAME origins and working class? And how can we address this inequality and create more accessibility?
Almost three years ago, the introduction of a new policy of positive discrimination means that Brazilian universities are now required to devote a percentage of their admission capacity to poor students enrolled in public schools and to increase the number of university students of African descent. There has been a lot of criticism. One of the biggest Brazilian newspapers has taken a firm editorial stance against racial quotas in universities, holding that a system encouraging socioeconomic diversity would be enough. Critics have regarded quotas as reverse discrimination, or worry that they might incite racial hatred in our imagined ‘racial democracy’, where blacks and whites play side by side in the streets without being shot in the chest.
There is this myth that Brazil is a ‘racial democracy’ and everyone has equal opportunities, but in the past few decades, more and more Brazilians are discovering the truth, sharing their experiences and speaking out on how much race factors into the lives of Brazilians who are not white.
Affirmative actions has its origins in the US in 1961 when the term was first used by Kennedy who introduced a policy whereby government contractors ought to ‘take affirmative action’ to ensure that applicants are employed without regard to their race, creed, colour or national origin. In the UK, throughout the 80s and 90s positive discrimination was widely used by employers in order to create opportunities to those of BAME backgrounds, and, although it has had immense benefits, there is still a lot more ground to be covered, particularly in the arts. Brazil has had anti-discrimination policies since the 1950s, but only in 1988 the constitution made racial abuse and racism crimes. And, despite all these policies, the country still struggles to change attitudes.
Nigerian writer, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was astonished to learn, during a visit a few years ago, that Brazilians don’t talk much about the subject, as if racism were not an issue. “I couldn’t help but notice that race and class are connected in Brazil. I would go to nice restaurants and not see a single black person. Brazil is in denial about the racial issue.” And sadly, I see what she sees too.
Namibia, Não, a new play written by Brazilian Audri Anunciação, deals with such denial in a very intelligent and direct manner; Anunciação presents two black men very well placed in society until the government declares that all citizens of black descent are to be deported back to their country of origin in the African continent. In this setting, the audience is taken through the journey of the two protagonists in a comical but thought-provoking manner, exposing Brazils’ attitudes and inner prejudices.
If prejudices created the mess we’re in, do anti-prejudice actions fix it? More opportunities are needed and unless commissioning and financing are socially and ethnically diverse, nothing will happen. We urgently need to take responsibility for a more equal society.
The Parable of the Polygons puts it all in a clear and simple way: ‘creating equality takes work. And it’s always work in progress… Reach out, beyond your immediate neighbours’.
Too much talking? May 2016 be a year brimming with tolerance and positive actions.
*This article was originally published in the November printed edition of BrasilObserver