“Even Salt Looks Like Sugar”

I was brought up on a notorious council estate in Harlesden Northwest London called Curzon Crescent, and when we were there in the 1960s the estate was known for poverty and became a vandalism hotspot. As it happens, we were the only Black family….and as you can imagine we stood out! We lived on the top floor and there was a balcony outside where you could see the street below and watch the Teddy Boys saunter past with their leather jackets, slicked hair and intimidating bravado. Teddy Boys were the 50s/60s version of the National Front, and they were no fans of Black people. There were six kids in our family and the older ones took turns to watch my dad’s pride and joy, a Ford Consul car, which was parked in the street below; to make sure that the Teddy Boys did not break off the aerial or inflict some other damage; and of course, name calling was normal. We could do very little about that and lived with the hope it did not escalate into physical violence.

In those days White people in this country had strange ideas about Black people. Much of their information was drawn from the notion that they were part of an Empire that ruled the world and Black people were one of the lowest forms of human beings….only a few steps away from “beasts of the field”. Some argue that it was that spirit that contributed to Brexit, even though this Empire had essentially disappeared. This wasfurther confirmed by an education system that compounded these mistruths by portraying Africans as living in mud huts with no discernibleculture or language. I will always remember the pictures in schoolbooks showing Africans in loin cloths dancing around huge cooking pots with super white teeth shining through grins that were Broader than Broadway! If we tried to step outside of those stereotypes it made some White people very uncomfortable.

We got a television quite early on and I remember the splendid “Ambassador” television, the one with the wooden cabinet, taking pride of place in our front room and the Empire’s vision of the world was transmitted directly to us with ever present images of the Queen and the lords and ladies of the land in all their pomp and circumstance! TV series such as “Tarzan”, White Hunter, “Love Thy Neighbour” and the Black & White Minstrel Show only confirmed our poor self-image. Imagine a Black kid watching white people blacked up and serving that up as entertainment….how do you assess that damage!  Many of us still remember those days when there were shouts all over “Black family land” resonating with cries of “there’s a Black man on TV” and we were all so shocked we did not listen to a word that he said….. that very presence shocked us into silence.

I guess the question we must ask ourselves is how much have television images really changed and how distanced are we from the days when Ebony Rockers, local Southampton reggae band, were filmed in the 80s and Southern TV, the local ITV company, labelled the editing suite “Coons Cabin”. Is it that only the labels have been removed and the sentiments still remain the same?  The media have become savvier regarding marketing and the inclusion of Black images, and if we turn on the tv and watch the adverts now we will find that it is sprinkled with many images of peoples of many races and it seems to me someinteresting choices are made regarding the complexions of the characters selected…. but I should not be picky…., for so many years wewere only featured as entertainers, sports people, or criminals. I recently heard that there are calls for “The Bill”, a popular and longstanding cop show, to be revived, and I always remember that many black actors were given jobs as residents of the notorious Jasmine Allen estate where all the Black criminals plied their trade and was described as “a hotbed of gang crime, with a major problem with drugs, petty violence, theft and guns”…..Oh happy days, reminds me of Curzon Crescent!

The marketing departments of police services must be very pleased as Black police officers seem to be popping up all over tv. Even infictional small villages in the shire counties of this green and pleasant land there are an unusually high number of Black police officers and detectives. However, back in the real-world facts suggest that more Black officers are leaving rather than joining….I suppose this is what we call artistic licence! Perhaps this is part of a campaign to assure us that the police services are far more diverse than we know and therefore they cannot be racist….much like the Cabinet and we know how that has panned out.

So, what do you think?...yes there are more Black people on television and there are many that are portrayed in many more roles than the usual….but something still does not feel right. I suppose that, despite how we are portrayed, the social issues that were prevalent back in the old days are still with us and that does not seem to be accurately reflected. More Black people are stopped and searched, more Black people are in the criminal Justice system, there are low employment rates amongst Black men, exclusion rates are 5 times higher for Black Caribbean pupils and the list goes on.

The presence of people from all backgrounds on television and in the media is a good thing and very important. Let us not forget that there are many parts of the country that have few encounters with Black people and a false representation of diversity obscures the reality. Sometimes tv and the media can create a la la land that is very far from real life experiences and we must ensure that the narrative of the media does not create a false positive and detract us from core issues that we need to address that require far more attention and sometimes provides false evidence of how well we are doing at the expense of White people that fuels racist ideology! As they say….don’t believe everything you see on TV…and the phrase

“Even Salt Looks like Sugar sometimes” characterises that illusion!

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