Michaels Coel’s ‘I May Destory you’ is one of the most exciting and ground-breaking black British television shows to grace our screens in recent years. Apart from being well scripted and superbly acted across the board, 'I May Destroy You' portrayed the lives of young black people outside the usual narrative of crime, violence, and road life. It is a refreshing representation of modern black British people that was long overdue.
A standout episode featured Arabella (the main character played Michael Coel) visiting her mother and younger brother on the former's birthday for a family dinner. Her father, who appears to have separated from her mother, visits the family. As the episode progresses, viewers are treated to tender scenes of Arabella coming to terms with her father's infidelity while loving him all the same. Although not the most present parent, Arabella's father still shows affection to his two children.
It was such a great moment to witness on British television. An African man living in Britain showing genuine love to his children – and he was not locked up or an ex-convict - just a Ghanaian father living an ordinary existence in the UK. I love to see it.
But then my mind started to wonder. Why don’t we see enough positive representations of black fathers on British television? What effect is this having on black British men, and how is this absence of mainstream visibility of positive black fathers endangering black masculinity in the UK?
Why are so many amazing black fathers in real life underrepresented on British television?
It would be remiss of me to completely pretend that the issue of single-parent households among the black community is non-existent. According to ONS (2020), 24.3% of black households were single-parent families, while 21.6% were married couples or civil partners. These might seem like low numbers, but if we compare them to other ethnic groups, we start to see a trend. In those same ONS figures, for white households, 32.9% of were made up of married couples or civil partners, and 10.2% were single families. For Asian homes, nearly 47.0% of Asian households were made up of married couples or civil partners.
By comparing the statistics of married couple and single-parent households across the white, black, and Asian ethnic groups, it's evident that single-parent families and unmarried couples are far more prevalent in the black British community. The reasons for this are complex and multi-faceted and not the focus of this piece.
However, if only 24.3% of black households are single parents then, logically speaking, it can be summarised that 75.7% of black households in Britain are not from single families. That's an overwhelming majority of black homes in Britain with a mum and dad both present.
But if you watch British television about black families, you wouldn't think it.
Over in America, shows like This Is Us, Black-ish and Black AF are great television shows which showcase black men as full-time, successful fathers diligently looking after their families (in a humorous way of course for entertainment). In the UK, if you think about it deeply, there is an absence of any British television series which focuses on or at least shows a prominent black male character as a positive father figure who is consistent in his children's lives.
Whenever black fathers appear on British television, they are usually written as someone who has abandoned their parental duties and strives to make amends. Richard Blackwood's highly publicised character in Eastenders, Vincent Hubbard, just ended up being a gangster who was unable to keep to one woman or provide for his daughter. Despite how much praised I heaped on I May Destroy You earlier, even Arabella's father's storyline shows him committing adultery while being an inconsistent figure in his children's lives.
Outside of television, I see so many examples of black fathers who are present in their children's lives and doing a fantastic job as fathers. Some of my closet black male friends are truly inspiring fathers. My father has been in my life since the day I was born and is still a massively influential figure in my life. Although I am co-parenting with my ex-partner, I am consistently in my daughter's life, financially and emotionally.
But why aren't these kinds of black fathers rarely portrayed on British television?
Honesty, in my opinion, the reason is that there is still a narrative in modern Britain to demonise black men, particularly young black men. Showing black fathers as responsible is not something that fits with the negative stereotype the white British elites, who control the major networks and media corporations, want to spin around black men. British mainstream media love to bang on about the lack of black fathers in black children's lives as a significant factor in knife crime as if there is some correlation. But these news reports always ignore that 75.7% of black households in Britain have two parents at home. Funny, how that is never headline news in the British media.
Is it British television's responsibility to showcase more positive representations of black fathers?
Some people might argue it's not British media's job to present positive black fathers on their shows, but I would beg to differ. I feel that British networks have a huge responsibility to showcase all realities of black British communities rather than always focusing on the negative aspects to drive narratives about black people, especially black men.
One reason why we may be seeing a lack of positive black British fathers on our screens might be to do with the lack of black talent behind the camera. Ofcom’s annual figures on diversity in the UK-based TV industry show 13% of staff at five major organisations – the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5-owner ViacomCBS and Sky – come from BAME backgrounds. While this is roughly in line with the UK’s working population of 12%, it is far below the levels of the black population in London. Ofcom’s figures also illustrated that BAME representation at senior levels in Britain’s major TV organisations was only at a dismal 9%.
Perhaps, we need more black British screenwriters at senior levels to greenlight more British television shows which have story lines featuring black men as positive male fathers. Black British fathers who are great parents exist in real life. Surely then, they should be represented on British television. After all, the purpose of TV is not to only entertain us with escapism but tell stories based in reality, and not just specific realities but all realities.
Even when carnival is cancelled, it will still attract some controversy around it.
But this year, the controversy was not the usual. It wasn't around the numbers of people who got stabbed which, by the way, is always sensationalised by the media. Nor was it around all of the mess on the streets Notting Hill carnival leaves in its wake.
This year’s carnival (or non-carnival) attracted controversy because of Adele’s hair. Yep, to celebrate non-carnival, the pop star decided to tie her hair in Bantu knots, a hairstyle typically worn by black women to protect their afro hair.
And many voices within Britain's black community were in an uproar.
To some black observers, Adele had shown poor taste by ‘culturally appropriating’ a hairstyle that is traditionally worn by black women. Many of her critics pointed out that Adele would never wear that hairstyle on an album cover and has never worn that hairstyle in any other context outside of carnival. For many, this demonstrated that Adele is not really appreciating black culture but culturally appropriating a black hairstyle only when it is safe to do so.
Would Adele wear Bantu knots on her album cover? Probably not. Does that mean she is culturally appropriating black culture? Probably, but how harmful is it really and does it warrant this much aggravation from the black community?
Cultural appropriation is not the same as cultural discrimination
I would never make an argument that cultural appropriation of black culture does not exist and that, in specific contexts, it's not an insult and exploitation of black heritage. Films which cast white actors to play African people (e.g. all those Egyptian epics from the 50s). That is negative cultural appropriation. Britain plundering Africa of its cultural artefacts and displaying them at museums without any permission from those who created those artefacts. That is negative cultural appropriation. White people who wear blackface at parties as some kind of grotesque joke. That is negative cultural appropriation.
But Adele wearing her hair in Bantu knots? Yes, it is undeniably cultural appropriation but is it the type that is dangerous or harmful to black culture and black heritage? Of course, it isn't. You'll need to come up with a convincing argument that it is without looking very, very silly.
Scrolling through the internet and reading some of the criticism, something became apparent to me. Many of those who are deeply upset with Adele's choice of hairstyle (and it is understandably coming from black women) are looking at cultural appropriation and cultural discrimination as if they are the same. It is for this reason that the black community's anger is misplaced.
Yes, it is true that if a woman were to wear Bantu knots to her corporate job, she would be met with raised eyebrows and probably an email from HR. There is no denying the stigma against black hairstyles in the workplace and within other institutions in western society. But that is a matter of discrimination which should not be conflated with cultural appropriation.
Every one of us culturally appropriates other cultures, including black people. Whenever a black person goes to a Chinese restaurant and uses chopsticks to eat food, we are culturally appropriating Chinese culture. Black people who read a lot of manga and go to cosplays dressed as their favourite anime character are culturally appropriating Japanese culture. All of these examples are done in the spirit of celebrating that culture. How do we celebrate it? By consuming it and sometimes adopting its customs.
Justified but misdirected rage
Adele, who, don’t forget, grew up in Tottenham, which has a sizeable black community, was celebrating the spirit of carnival with her chosen hairstyle. To think otherwise means you are projecting your unjustified and misplaced rage onto her because of the stigma around black hairstyles perpetuated by the white elites in western society. The fact that she wouldn’t wear it on an album cover is because her record execs, who control her image, decide what is and what isn't an appropriate look for a pop star. If you want to have this rage, you should direct it at them, not at Adele.
Furthermore, why does the black community pick and choose which forms of cultural appropriation is deserving of their wrath? The Indian community have been profiting from black hair and black hair products for a long time, but black people are curiously silent about this. Yet we have our pitchforks raised when a white woman decides to adopt a black hairstyle. I can't help but think that Adele being a white British person is the reason she is getting this much heat. If she looked more tanned, would black people have cared? The cynic in me says no.
Lastly, black people have a lot more urgent and essential matters where we need to be channelling our energy and rage. The killing and imprisonment of our black men, lack of job opportunities for young black men and lack of economic prosperity among the global black diaspora – these are matters that need our urgent attention. Remember, only very recently, a black man was shot in the back and paralysed in front of his children by white police officers.
Black people’s fight is not with Adele’s hair. It’s with the elites and the establishment. Can we please redirect our rage back to the real battle?