In 2009, Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie gave a compelling TED talk called “The Danger of the Single Story.” In her presentation, Adichie warned of the risks involved in reducing complex human beings and situations to single narratives. Whether in the media, politics, or popular culture, power is central to who tells which story – and where it begins. “Power,” she said, “is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person.”
In this vein, British-Pakistani actor and musician Riz Ahmed passionately delivered Channel 4’s annual lecture on diversity to Britain’s House of Commons last week. Referencing the polarized climate of post-Brexit Britain, Ahmed warned that the entertainment industry must be more representative of Britain’s diverse population, and tell more culturally inclusive stories on-screen.
“We are in search of a new national story,” he told parliament. Representation matters because “people are looking for the message that they belong, that they are part of something, that they are seen and heard and that despite, or perhaps because of, their experience, they are valued.”
In the past, Ahmed has written candidly about his own personal experiences with racial profiling in the entertainment industry. During his talk, he spoke about the difficulties minority actors face in finding roles in British TV, particularly because of the ‘nostalgia industry’, which dominates the marketplace of cultural narratives, exporting a romanticized story of Britain rooted in the past. This industry is embodied in successful period and costume dramas, such as Downton Abbey, The Crown, Victoria, Poldark, and Call the Midwife. While part of Britain’s story, through their domination of the industry, these series supplant the experiences of underrepresented groups.
“If you’re used to seeing yourself reflected in culture, take a minute to understand how much it means to someone who doesn’t,” Ahmed told MPs. “Every time you see yourself in a magazine or on a billboard, TV, film, it’s a message that you matter, that you’re part of the national story, that you’re valued. You feel represented.”
While many British minority actors have achieved critical acclaim, often in America, their success masks deeper structural problems with unconscious bias in a largely white industry. “Diversity” often becomes a “frill,” or a “luxury,” Ahmed said, which undermines the goal of genuine representation. In his closing statement, the actor proposed “tying public money to representation targets,” in order to ensure that decision-making rooms are diverse and sensitive to the problems of unconscious bias.
Despite his clear-sighted proposal, the British media chose to emphasize the link Ahmed made between social exclusion, a lack of diversity in the UK’s entertainment industry, and extremism, specifically young Muslim men being recruited by ISIS. “Where is the counter narrative? Where are we telling these kids they can be heroes in our stories, that they are valued?” he said.
Yet it is clear that the national story of British identity, and who it includes, is becoming increasingly narrow and unrepresentative. In the ongoing ideological battle over national narratives, we must reject the single story, and realize that there is indeed space for many.
“The power of stories to allow us to relate to experiences that do not resemble our own is phenomenal,” Ahmed said. “And every time we see those experiences, it reminds us that what unites us is far, far greater than what divides us.”