Only now am I glad to have lost the Saturday morning battles to my siblings over the remote.
I was lucky to have older siblings. It meant being able to watch a wider range of films at the cinema or swear a little more freely and not receive (all) the blame. It also meant having a wider variety of shows to watch on a Saturday morning. I could be watching the always-brilliant Arthur one minute, before switching over to the action-packed Pokémon the next. But then fights would erupt for the remote between us kids and I’d end up watching something I didn’t want to. Only now am I glad to have lost these battles.
Growing up, Pakistanis and other South Asians weren’t really a thing on British television. Goodness Gracious Me was - and remains - an exception. Heck, even now when topics that affect us directly are discussed, such as greater inequality or Islamophobia, it’s always a series of non-brown faces doing the talking. It’s incredibly odd to watch political discussions like these on TV, given inclusive dialogue is the way you usually build your sense of empathy. Thankfully, I learnt this valuable life lesson by watching American teen sitcoms. Specifically, African-American teen sitcoms.
Now I know this will come across as some vague, “good old days” nostalgia think-piece but this is all about culture, politics and representation. Besides, I don’t think it’s logically possible for someone in their twenties to look back this wistfully so soon.
These sitcoms are still ones I watch every now and again, such as Sister, Sister, Kenan & Kel, the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Moesha and Hangin’ with Mr Cooper. Watching an episode from these shows feels like staring at a reflection of myself or many other Asians I’ve known over the years. It’s because every quirky setup and oddball character is an extension of what I’ve experienced in my own life, which is people of colour laughing, working and crying together. This is a reverse of the usual portrayal of non-white people most of the time on TV, especially on the news.
Singling out US shows with African-American casts sounds strange, but British TV drama and comedy has been travelling backwards when it comes to representation recently. Industry veterans such as David Harewood and Lenny Henry have been creating a stink about diversity in TV and media, and the numbers say it all. We don’t know yet whether this is being exacerbated by the current multitude of streaming options, allowing today’s viewers (particularly kids) to watch whatever they wish rather than the restrictions of yesteryear’s free-to-air channels.
It’s important to compare real change with artificial, box-ticking forms of diversity. Shows like Glee, with an East Asian, a black and a disabled character in the original cast feel entirely superficial. The same could be said of Modern Family, which would immediately become a drama series if it included a single black character in its main cast. Other shows are able to mix various skin tones to great success, such as HBO’s the Night Of.
Overcoming huge societal odds to live ordinary lives like the characters of Moesha, or even abnormal family arrangements like that in Sister, Sister, were the most #relatable thing about seeing so many black characters on TV.
It might seem odd now knowing how different African-American history is next to British Indian history, but it didn’t at the time I was playing my yellow Game Boy. In fact, watching these sitcoms created an outlet to learn more about black history and the disaster of the British empire. I can still recall talking to my brother about this in our early teens, saying how thankful all people of colour should be for the likes of Martin Luther King Jr. I never forget this now, having attended the only British university that awarded him an honorary degree.
I know it looks absurd to mention serious political topics in a blog post about enjoying Kenan & Kel but no culture exists in a vacuum. Why else do so many white people, both in the US and UK, feel so disenfranchised despite minorities still being the ones left behind when it comes to employment, equal pay or political representation?
Seeing people that look similar to you achieve so much in culture and society is the basis of aspiration. This push back will only get worse as TV becomes more diverse, with shows like Chewing Gum, Insecure and Atlanta. It’s up to those of us who are curious and empathetic to ask for more colour TV.