We Revisit Martyn Ewoma ‘s Photo Series on the stereotypes and perception of Black men in British media.
This project originally took place in 2018. Some of the examples in the text seem time specific to 2018 such as Stormzy or Rhian Brewster. But now you can just swap their names out for Headie One or Moise Kean. From the media emboldening racist stereotypes to legislators introducing further restrictions non-white people’s ability to practice their culture and religions, to the performative pseudo-social media wokeness that follows the endless public executions of black people in the street – nothing has changed in the past two years. People think the passing of time and awareness naturally erodes hegemony but it doesn’t. Only action does. Hopefully re-visiting this project and realising how applicable it is to the events of literally any year in modern history helps people see that.
Now more than ever people are aware of the fact that representation in the media is an important component in the social progression of any minority group, whether this is in terms of race, gender, sexuality, or religion. You only have to talk to the countless young black men who like me were horrified to learn of the tragic murder of trailblazing Nigerian model Harry Uzoka in January 2018. For me growing up seeing a West African thriving in the fashion industry gave me hope that there was a seat at the table for people who look like me.
Unfortunately, media representation is a contributing factor (of which there are many) to the fact that people’s perception of the nature of young black men is rife with jaundice which this photo series aims to explore.
The above photo refers to the (much too integral) role athleticism plays in people’s perception of what black men are. There are a few problems to address here, firstly the idea that because some black athletes have made astronomical sums of money, it somehow means that as a race we receive equal treatment which is simply not true. The rhetoric from some American right-wing political commentators on Colin Kaepernick’s national anthem protest is a testament to this. Tomi Lahren of Fox News has voiced the opinion that a man who reportedly earns $19m a year has no right to claim America has mistreated him. What this viewpoint fails to consider is the fact that no amount of individual wealth or success alleviates one from racism. The Guardian interview with Rhian Brewster towards the end of 2017 (in which he spoke with candor and intelligence far beyond his years) about the abuse he has suffered from opposition players and fans is an example of this. As too is the cowardly defacing of basketball player Lebron James s’ home with the word “n*gger” last year.
Equally pertinent is the fact that assuming people are good and basketball, physically strong or faster is stereotyping. These are positive attributes which is why some may not understand the harm done but the problem is that once you begin attributing traits to people solely on the basis of their complexion it is not much of a leap to start doing this with negative stereotypes which causes many problems. Heavy-handed policing on the basis that a young black man is physical “more imposing” being the obvious example. To expand, if we are to look at the idea of black men being faster; Jamaicans and African Americans specifically dominate sprinting events at the Olympics whilst Kenyans and Ethiopians have had a successful history in long-distance running. These are specific nations that do not represent all black people. No one has ever claimed that all white people are good at Rugby simply because people from New Zealand are predominantly white and historically have done well at Rugby. People discern different cultures and countries when referring to non-black people because profiling is something that is traditionally reserved for the black community.
The above photo refers to the issue touched upon by the first photo. Young black men are rarely given credit for academic accolades or portrayed in the media as a demographic that value education. Throughout my adolescence I have countless memories of being told that I “sound white” or act as though I am “trying to be white” because of my vocabulary and interest in reading. This implies that whiteness represents being educated which would imply that blackness is the antithesis of intellect. I would be remiss to not point out that disappointingly this is an accusation that has been levelled at me by other black people as well.
The two photos above represent the cycle of fear created by the notion that hoodies and tracksuits are the uniforms of criminals. Arachnophobia being one of the world’s most common phobias represents fear in the form of spiders. Myself and the subject of this series have spoken of a mutual internal dialogue that is necessary whilst navigating through Britain as a black man who dresses a certain way. I am embarrassed to say I have been complicit to prejudice in the sense that I often avoid crossing the street to the same side as a white person, particularly women, for fear that they will think I am crossing the road to endanger them. It is a cycle of me thinking “I don’t want to scare them because despite just needing to cross the road the connotations of being tall, young black and wearing baggy trousers are something that is intimidating to people” whilst also being frustrated with myself for entertaining an unreasonable fear (which in fairness may not even be harbored by the people I am worried about intimidating). The killing and subsequent absence of justice for the killing of 20-year-old father Rashan Charles in July 2017 serves as one of the all too frequent examples of why this paranoia is still a necessary survival tool for young black men though. We still live in a country where death can be the price for “looking the type”.
The above and final photo refers to the hypocritical and toxic narrative that often surrounds urban music, particularly grime and UK rap. At times it can be argued that it is literally used as an instrument of violence against the black youth. Stormzy has repeatedly been chastised by the Daily Mail and recently was on the receiving end of an article insinuating his references to smoking weed were an attempt to glamourise drug-taking and poisoning the sensibilities of his young impressionable listeners. Many were quick to point out how intrinsic drugs are to the subject matter of rock and roll music through the genre rarely receives the same scrutiny. Whatever one’s opinions of Stormzy’s music, it is a shame that a young man who has achieved so much musically is being villainised rather than commended. Especially when there are many examples of him actively caring about the wellbeing and mental health of his fans.
As well as drugs, violence is a feature of the subject matter of grime and rap music that is often criticised. In fairness, in the midst of a knife crime epidemic throughout London, it is a reasonable debate if undertaken in the right way. The problem lies in the fact that music, like any art form, is a means of expression. Artists from low-income areas make music about gang culture because they are telling stories of experiences that have literally happened to them. It reeks of judgment rather than a yearning for understanding that some people are more offended by hearing about people’s difficult living circumstances than the fact these living conditions exist in a first world country.
So fervent is the agenda to destroy the grime and UK rap scene that article 696 (a “risk assessment form for musical acts that was widely seen as a racist loophole to stop grime events) was reviewed by Sadiq Khan. Though some may think these events are nothing more than gigs, culture, and (music specifically) is tantamount to the identity of a people. Cultural genocide is recognised by the UN such as the seriousness and potential damage of it. I would not go so far as to say that Britain is guilty of committing a cultural genocide but the gravity of the situation can not be understated.
What also cannot be understated is the fact that whilst progress is being made, this country still has very troubling attitudes towards young black men and the conversation about that can not go unheard.
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