Why Are the Main TV Shows Still Under Representing Black Characters?

Why Are the Main TV Shows Still Under Representing Black Characters?

On my way to the office, I love nothing more than earwigging into people’s conversations on the train; insights into the worlds of folk I will likely never learn more about are far more intriguing than anything I’ll find in the discarded, crumpled, free newspaper left by the previous occupant of my seat.

I found myself sitting in front of two chattering women who were excitedly discussing the latest goings on in the soaps on television recently. Aside from dropping an almighty spoiler about Corrie’s Peter Barlow that I did not want to hear, one sentence in their conversation stuck out jarringly for me.

They had moved on to discuss the latest medical adventures of the staff at Holby City and one of the ladies, evidently being a more casual viewer, was struggling to keep up with her friend’s tale of gore and inappropriate ward romances.

“Which one is he again?” she asked.

“You know, the black one,” her friend replied casually.

I didn’t find what she said particularly offensive; I am not the kind of person who would advocate leaping on to the outrage bandwagon at the sheer mention of the word ‘black’. What troubled me was that her friend instantly knew who she was referring to in the show and that tells me one thing. If a character’s skin colour is a distinctive enough feature for them to be instantly recognisable, then there is a clearly unbalanced ratio of their ethnicity represented in the show.

If the soap loving chatterbox had said something along the lines of: “I love that white character in Holby, what a heartthrob,” then her friend would not have had a clue as to who she was talking about. It would have been far too vague a description, and rightly so.

I paid particular attention that night to the soaps that were on television, which happened to be Emmerdale and Eastenders and noticed just how unrepresented black characters are on the shows. There was not a single black character in the episode of Emmerdale and although this is partially understandable given the size of the village setting, it manages to stretch the rules on how many murders you would find in one village so surely it can do more, as a primetime show, to feature some of the many talented black actors out there.

Eastenders is almost as bad and here, there is less excuse. You couldn’t possibly find an area more ethnically diverse than the East End of London and, even after almost thirty years on air, the show still seems to be behind the times. It is simply baffling that in this day and age, the highest rated shows on television feature only a token few black characters who can be identified by fans simply by describing their skin colour. Particularly in an urban London set show like Eastenders where, statistically, the population of white characters far outweighs the proportion of who you would find in the real East End.

I am not suggesting that each show starts casting black actors left, right and centre for the sake of it; each character, regardless of their ethnicity, should be written in with a purpose for the show. But in a world where it surely should matter less than ever whether the person in the lead storyline is black or white, why is it taking so long for these problems with under-representation to be ironed out?

It’s a question I simply cannot answer, but will continue to monitor with interest for any improvements.

-Duncan Lindsay



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