Non-UK born artists want to end their invisibility in British media. A British union is setting up a network to help them fight against discrimination. But it will need a culture change.
First published in September 2020.
When did you last see a doctor, a bus driver, an accountant or just an ordinary, everyday neighbour in a British TV show, who was not British but just happened to live and work in Britain, in an ordinary, everyday way? And when did you see a non-UK born character in a UK film or on the British stage? When did you last hear someone on a British radio show, playing an ordinary, everyday person who happens to live in the UK, who was a non-native speaker?
The answer is: probably never.
If you did hear a non-British accent, almost certainly, that character was a ‘foreigner’, someone who doesn’t live in the UK. People who live and work in the UK but are not British or British-born, are exoticised and portrayed as ‘not one of us’.
What you may not be aware of is the fact that even that ‘foreign’ character you saw in a British production was quite likely also played by a British actor, putting on a ‘foreign accent’ without actually speaking the language. There are many examples of this in current TV series and recent stage productions.
How can this be when there are millions of non-UK born people living in the UK in an ordinary, everyday way? When we are, in fact, your neighbours, doctors, train drivers, shop assistants? How is British reality portrayed in British media?
The answer is that, sadly, British reality is hugely misrepresented in British media. It paints a picture of a country were ordinary, everyday people who live and work here all speak with British accents.
British media portray the UK as a country that is ‘pure’ in terms of national origin and certainly ‘pure’ in terms of British and non-British accents. Everyone who is not ‘pure’ in this way can only be a ‘foreigner’, someone who doesn’t belong here.
Or, as the union of British performers and creative practitioners Equity* puts it:
“Almost 10 million people in the UK were born abroad. That is 14% or 1 in 7. In London, it is a staggering 37% or more than 1 in 3. Despite some very encouraging progress in the industry on diversity overall, non-UK-born talent both on- and off-stage and -screen remain vastly underrepresented, experience a wide range of discriminatory practices and are virtually never mentioned in any equality efforts. Both “nationality” and “national origin” are protected characteristics under the UK Equality Act.”
This is the view from the audience side. This is also the view that British media decision-makers see all their lives. How many even realise that this is actually a distortion of British reality?
Now look at it from the side of performers and creative practitioners: What does this mean if you are a non-UK born artist?
We are routinely passed over for acting roles because we don’t look or sound ‘British’. Most of the time, we don’t even make the list. Sometimes, even having a foreign-sounding name can be enough to create a barrier to our professions.
If we do manage to be cast, it is often as a ‘national stereotype’. There is little to no discussion about these stereotypes and how they should be interpreted. One can only assume that the ideas British decision-makers operate on comes from years of watching British TV, film and theatre.
Sometimes we are even passed over because we don’t look or sound stereotypical enough, in the eyes and ears of the British casting team. A French actor playing a French character was paired with a ‘husband’ played by a British actor who put on an accent that brutally ridiculed her own original French accent. A German actor with long blonde braids was told she wasn’t German enough. A Danish actor was cast instead.
And the discrimination neither starts nor stops with actors.
I am an author and published with HarperCollins UK – but I had to anglicise my name in order to be even considered. Writers, directors, creative practitioners of all kinds must pass a cultural ‘purity’ test in order to get access to British cultural institutions.
Even technical and administrative careers have many barriers for non-UK born practitioners in the UK arts scene.
But: all of us, all of us non-UK born artists who live and work here – many of us for a very long time – are part of British culture just as much as any other minority. But until now, we were invisible. Erased from representation on stage and screen. And the discrimination against us was not even acknowledged.
Earlier this year, just before lockdown, at an event for EU citizens just after Brexit, I met a group of members in Equity, the performers’ and creative practitioners’ union, who were preparing a motion for the annual general meeting (AGM) in London. Their goal was to end our invisibility, to put us as a minority firmly on the table within the union and, through the union, in the industry overall.
I felt inspired by the young actors who organised in this group, and I am very honoured to now be a part of it. This is the perfect place to start our campaign. Equity has over 47,000 members.
At the AGM in London, our motion was unanimously passed. With tears in their eyes, members talked of lifelong discrimination. British members declared themselves our allies.
After many months of discussions and hard work, we are now very proud to announce that Equity is creating a network within the union for non-UK born artists. The launch takes place on 1 October.
I feel very emotional about it. After a long lifetime contributing to British arts, this is the first time I have actually been acknowledged without having to change my name, keep my head down and, most of all, shut up. And there are thousands of my non-British born fellow artists in the UK.
However, this very positive and hopeful development comes at a particularly dark time for non-UK born people in the UK, and even more so for EU citizens in the UK like myself. I am very aware that our campaign will operate in a climate of ever-growing hostility towards us. Increasingly, we have to contend not just with barriers to our professions put up against us because of our national origin, we also have to fight a hostile environment in the country overall, and in the policies of Brexit in particular.
Over the past nine months, we have found many supporters in our union, and beyond. An informal Equity Zoom event in July about our situation was immediately oversubscribed, and we now receive numerous daily emails from non-UK born artists who want to join us.
We are part of British culture, and we want to be acknowledged as such.
We want you to remove the barriers to our careers you put up through exclusion. We want to be shown as your neighbours, your doctors, your colleagues, and your family.
Because we are.
This will be a long fight. It needs a culture change, as Equity told us.
But it is a change that is necessary, and all British artists can be part of it.🔷
(*) Equity is the union of British performers and creative practitioners.
Note: Equity has opened this network and the launch event on 1 October to non-members as well. If you are a British artist, and particularly if you are non-British born, join us at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Disclaimer: “I am a member of Equity, but I am writing this article in a personal capacity, and all the opinions are my own. I speak only for myself, not for Equity or other members of my group. The facts, however, are facts.”