To all my ladies, sisters, friends and lovers of women,
Those who have been getting to know me over the years may be aware that I have been campaigning for women particularly in the UK to be accounted for more in society. There is visibly a lack of us seen within business, on television, within society. Ironic.
Much of my work is inspired by women for women. You may have heard that I’m currently in pre-production of what I like to call a “ground-breaking” documentary series called (In)visible Women which turns the spotlight on black, British women in the UK – within media, music, sport, politics, business.
Some may wonder why I’m only focussing on black women in this series and not simply women in general, so I’ll get this part out of the way early on…
I’d like to point out that I am proudly from a very multi-cultural family of black, white, asian, mixed race – we pretty much have it all – so I am accustomed to accepting others and being accepted amongst my own. However, I have been within the entertainment industry for almost 30 years. I’ve grown up in it and witnessed things from many angles. I’ve been hired because I’m black. Fired because I’m black. Demoted or not even given an audition because I’m black.
Once I was working for a particular show where one of the executive producer’s candidly explained to me that I would never be allowed onto what was percieved to be the “prime-time show” because I was “black”. Full stop. No sugar coating. No glossing over it. Just blatantly in my face he told me in the nicest way possible “Leah, we think you’re one of our top presenters here. Definitely the best out of all the girls… But, you’re black. You tick a box [as our only black cast member]. But we [the company] will never put you on to our main show because viewers don’t want to see black people on [television] screen. They’ll turn elsewhere.”
Sadly it wasn’t the first time I’d suffered at the hands of racism, but on this occasion it really knocked me sideways. I remember finishing my shift and fighting back tears all the way home on the train. Trying to figure out what on earth this guy was telling me. So I’m talented. I’m (one of) the best. I’m professional. I’ve got star quality. Blah blah blah. But, I’m BLACK!!!!! I’m black. I’m black? Really??!! Now should he have said I needed room for improvement, or I wasn’t good enough in his eyes etc, I would have lapped that up as constructive critisism. I would have “checked myself”. However, this man was telling me something I have no control over. And even if I did why would I or should I change it to “fit in” with his perception of society.
A little while later I went through a phase of campaigning in getting a meeting with every head of department and every executive producer at all the major networks. I figured at almost 10 years of paying my dues in television alone and watching all my (blonde hair, blue eyed) peers passing me by up the ranks that I no longer had anything to lose. I did my research and contacted them all whilst boldly telling them they had a lack of black women on screen and if they are looking for new talent there was plenty out there like myself who they should give a chance to.
I became determined. I was so empassioned about my cause that it was no longer about myself and my career. It was now about my younger cousins. The little girl next door. Kids and teens in the street who I’d never met. My own children who I haven’t even conceived yet. I felt so strongly that I didn’t want them experiencing the types of discrimination that I was experiencing in the 21st century. I wanted them to be able to choose from a range of role models who they could identify with, and not a “token” forced upon them.
I got the meetings. Whether out of curiousity. Sympathy. Guilt. I got up to a 45 minutes with some of the biggest decision makers in telly. Many were lovely people. But all said pretty much the same thing.
I got to have a coffee with a well respected head of department at the Beeb. He’s responsible for some of the best shows you may have watched on telly and was actually a really nice man. I genuinely appreciated the time he gave me. However after explaining to him my plight and the fact I believe there needs to be more women and to add ‘black women’ on screen, he went on to tell me this: “Leah I’ve watched your showreel. I’ve seen your work. There’s no doubt that you are extremely talented. But unfortunately the UK are racist outside of London. Without regional television it’s almost impossible to put black people on TV unless they have already been accepted by the public. So unfortunately, until you get yourself famous [by whatever means}, as much as you are talented, we just can’t take that chance. if you get famous, this means you have been accepted by the public, which means it’s okay to give you a chance.”
Here we go again. The “you’re black” excuse. As if I hadn’t noticed. Gee wizz. But now you’re actually telling me that I am unaccepted and potentially unsafe to travel across the country I’m born and bred in? That outside of London the vast majority of people do not and will not accept “black folk”. For goodness sake, man!
I’m no wallflower. I will fight to the death for what I believe in. I have no idea how I kept my cool that day, but I did. Like I said, he was a nice man and I dont think he was meaning to be rude, but perhaps just real. I certainly wasn’t going to adhere to yet another stereotype of “the angry black woman”, so I tried calmly putting across the point that if people outside of London are as racist as Mr Executive is claiming they are, then the BBC and all the other major networks have a duty of care to change those views. Unless they too agree with them?
Television is one of the most powerful tools we have. People pretty much believe everything they see on TV, and if any big wig sitting in their lovely central london glass office wants to make a change on how a certain genre or enthnicity is viewed within television, then the change begins with them.
Unfortunately, said Exec wasn’t having it. He was pretty firm in his belief and advised me to “get famous”, despite my talent. Hooking up with a famous footballer, making a fool of myself in clubs with wannabe wags or hanging out with the “too cool for school overtly trendy T4 crowd” would get me a few rails up the ladder. Screw all the years I’ve put in. Just “sell your soul, Leah. And sell it good, girl!”.
I admit. I considered these tips for about a minute. Almost every TV Exec up to this point had pretty much told me the same thing. Perhaps that’s the new way of the world and they had a point? Maybe I should discredit all my long, hard years of blood, sweat and tears in exchange for a few weeks, months, maybe years (if lucky) of fame? It’s clearly the way forward. Or is it?
By the end of my meeting with the nice man from the BBC, I was so accustomed to hearing this style of diatribe I merely thanked him for his time, picked up what was remaining of my dignity and left with my head held high.
I decided at that moment I will never compromise my moral standing for a “job’. It’s about a career. Longevity. Legacy. A way to stand up for good old fashioned values whilst sticking two fingers up to the ‘all about me – get rich or die trying – don’t want to work for it – fame monster’ culture of the modern 21st century generation. [Rant over. Now breathe]
I can’t change the colour of my skin. And I certainly ain’t cheatin’!! What happened to the “work hard and you will certainly be rewarded” ethos in which I and many other generations were brought up on? Now not only must I compete with my contemporaries, I must also do it alongside a bunch of charlatans too. People who want the easy life, and simply don’t want to put the work in. And unfortunately it seems like they’re the ones getting ahead. I’ve got some first hand experience on this subject which I’ll save for a whole other blog!
Since my campaign with the Television Executives I made a decision to no longer “beg bread” from any one any more. I don’t mind working my butt off. In fact I’ve worked even harder because of the colour of my skin as there have been times I felt I had to over-compensate. So if anyone doesn’t take me for that job, or gives me some lame ass excuse, they have to look me in the eye and tell me that despite being the best for the job I won’t get it because a) I’m black and b) I’m a black woman.
I met this guy once who asked me, “why does it matter whether your role model is black or white? A role model is a role model. Why can’t it just be a woman, why must she be a black woman?”. I thought he had a valid point, which did stop me in my tracks for a while.
How do I answer it. Apart from saying “why not?!”. Why is it damning in my face that I cannot identify with a huge black female television star, who is not a criminal, a bitch, a man eater or some other stereotype that has been casted by a TV company agent.
Off the top of my head, America at least have Oprah, Wendy Williams, Tyra… The list goes on. And many would complain the US is still mostly racist. I’m not so sure. But at least there are opportunities. And black people in high places. The UK still has a long way to go in gaining black decision makers in the right spots who can make a big difference within their fields.
No disrespect intended, but even our very own and closest thing we can get to a black, British talk show “superstar”, Trisha Goddard has fled the UK for greater recognition and opportunities stateside.
I really shouldn’t have to scratch my head in being able to think of a number of major British television presenters who have climbed the ranks and has not got there by default such as dating the right person or being in a different industry before and is perhaps famous. Can’t present for toffee, but she’s famous. Which apparently means she’s qualified.
The UK enjoy a plethora of major television accolades such as the National Television Awards, the TV BAFTAS etc, but I couldn’t tell you the last time (or any time) I have seen a black woman nominated along with the likes of Fearne Cotton, Holly Willoughby, Davina McCall et al. Equally talented black female and British presenters are out there. So why are we not being recognised? Why are we still invisible?
I recognise that I am surrounded by some amazing women who are doing great things but are seldom heard. Whilst I appreciate the contribution that all women have made in society – particularly in my chosen industry of the media business – I wanted to do something that celebrates the contribution of black women in society. Starting off with women in the UK. If I google black female leaders, most are american. So I feel I must begin a resource for black brtish females role models and hence why I believe my (In)visible women documentary series is very relevant and very important.
I’m brimming with ideas, emotions and excitement which I can barely contain. It’s been a long time coming. Believe me.
Things don’t appear to be getting better for us, but worse. Being a woman in business or society is tough enough, let alone being a black woman. I can only speak from my experiences and I encourage you all to get talking and expressing how we feel about the issues we face. No matter your colour or creed. As cheesy as this part may be, it’s time we unite and raise our voices. Get seen. Be heard. And retain our integrity.
Coming from a family of many nationalities under one proverbial roof, I also recognise that for women as a whole it is still very much a man’s world. And so whilst the first series of my documentary (In)visible Women is all about black British females, I have decided to start a blog series which highlights all women. Great women. Known women. Unknown women. Black women. White women. Green women. Blue women.
As women we are more than mothers, sisters and friends. We have so much more inside of us. Only we can be responsible for unlocking it. But once opened, who knows what we are truly capable of? This blog series is entitled “How Women Change the World“. I will be highlighting all types of women past and present. Women who are making or have made changes in their communities. Society. The world.
There will be no order in the how I write about these wonderful women, other than I will choose a lady who has inspired me to write about them in that moment.
I invite you to Tweet, Facebook, Email me and suggest any women whom you think is changing or has changed the world. They could have had long, lengthy careers or been a public figure or just someone in your community who is doing something great.
If you find them interesting I would also be grateful if you would kindly share my blog posts with your own networks and perhaps together we can start networking and creating a community.
This blog series on ‘How Women Change the World‘ will offer up a stream of profiles on amazing women such as actress and celebrity activist, Rosario Dawson who has tirelessly dedicated her life to activism within her community. Dame Cleo Laine, english jazz singer who is the only performer to have ever received Grammy nominations within the jazz, popular and classical music categories. Dido Elizabeth Belle Lyndsay, the illegitamate daughter of a black slave who became a British aristocrat within the Georgian era. And so much more.
I decided a while back that if I wasn’t going to have a role model then I would be an inspiration to others and along the way open up to be inspired by others. So that’s what I’m going to do.
But I can’t do it alone. I need YOU!
So calling all women worldwide…. It’s time to stand up and be counted!
It’s time to be seen more.
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