Riz Ahmed Expertly Nails Why On-Screen Diversity Isn't An 'Optional Extra'

Riz MC just dropped some truth about diversity in British media. 

“Rogue One” actor, Riz Ahmed, spoke to UK Parliament earlier this month on the subject. He explained why it’s not only important to cast more minorities in television roles, but also to represent them beyond two-dimensional tropes. 

In the speech, which was caught on camera, Ahmed explored how a lack of representation can affect a person of color’s self-perception and even push minority youth into extremism. 

“If we fail to represent, we are in danger of losing people to extremism. … In the mind of the ISIS recruit, he’s the next James Bond, right? Have you seen some of those ISIS propaganda videos—they are cut like action movies,” he said in the speech, which was hosted by Channel4. “Where is the counter narrative? Where are we telling these kids they can be heroes in our stories?”

And the consequences of lacking diversity aren’t limited to losing people to extremism, the actor explained in his speech. He pointed out that minorities want to know that they’re important to society.

Ahmed described how his mother and sister would excitedly shout “Asiaaaan!” when they saw some representation on TV. He said that, especially to people who don’t usually see themselves on screen, the inclusion of those characters with diverse backgrounds sends a message that “they matter.” Unfortunately, this doesn’t happen enough in the industry. 

“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.”

“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,” he said. “They want to feel represented. In that task we have failed.” 

Ahmed, who added that there are economic benefits to a more inclusive industry, also mentioned that the scarcity in representation denies minorities the opportunities to be exposed to the true range of possibilities of who they can be. Our imaginations need to be as expansive and as broad as the minority community actually is, he said. 

Ahmed himself had once thought there wasn’t a place for him as an actor and nor did he feel he’d have a future playing the trope “Cabdriver #2.” It was only with encouragement and luck that he said he persevered and succeeded.  

The “Night Of” star emphasized, however, that his success ― along with that of a few other actors of color ― doesn’t point to proper inroads made in the industry’s diversity. In fact, he said these actors represent “exceptions to the rule,” citing data from Creative Skillset. The research showed that from 2004 to 2012, ethnic minority representation in the UK television industry stayed below 10 percent. Perhaps even more shocking, as Ahmed pointed out, it actually dipped from 2009 to 2012. 

“We need to step up decisively and act,” the actor concluded. “Let’s do what’s right, let’s represent.” 

“There’s this body of research and a term known as ‘symbolic annihilation,’ which is the idea that if you don’t see people like you in the media you consume, you must somehow be unimportant.”

While Ahmed was addressing officials in the UK, his remarks carry some truth when applied to the U.S. film and television industry as well. Hollywood is far from perfect when it comes to diversity. People of color nabbed just over a quarter of all speaking roles in 2015’s top movies. And when it comes to the director’s chair, Asian and Blacks were barely represented in the top movies over the past decade. 

Nicole Martins, an associate professor at Indiana University Media School, previously told the Huffington Post that lack of on-screen representation can influence one’s self-perception. 

“When you don’t see people like yourself, the message is: You’re invisible. The message is: You don’t count. And the message is: ‘There’s something wrong with me.’”

And when members of underrepresented communities are cast as stereotypes, minority viewers of color “may wonder if that is all that is expected of you in society,”  Ana-Christina Ramón, assistant director of the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA, told HuffPost. 

So, as Ahmed wrote in a Facebook post, diversity isn’t “an optional extra. Representation is fundamental to what expect from our culture.”

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Source: HuffPost Black Voices

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