I’ve battled racism and misogyny in British broadcasting for years. As a Black woman, it’s exhausting | Gemma Cairney

Sometimes a conversation on a vital topic can be the hardest one to have. The publication of the Misogyny in Music report by the women and equalities committee has opened such an important conversation. Based on evidence from women across the industry – including academics, festival representatives, record-label executives and artists – it concluded that the music industry is a “boys’ club” in which women, especially Black women, face endemic discrimination, bullying and sexual harassment. For me, its findings hit home.

The report was published within days of the closure of two independent production companies that were owned and run by Black women: Boom Shakalaka, which I founded in 2015, and Broccoli Productions, founded by Renay Richardson. Do these closures, as some have suggested, signify deep problems within the creative industries, stemming from misogyny and misogynoir (prejudice against Black women), and a wider lack of fairness?

Postcolonial fallout is written into the DNA of so much of the way the UK works: this is especially evident in sectors producing popular culture. From the moment you walk into the buildings where some of the biggest creative ideas are incubated, you notice the lesser-paid and manual labour jobs, from reception to cleaning staff, being done by people of colour. Meanwhile, the top-tier bosses – those who get the final say on how to distribute the funds that make content happen – are so often white and male.

At Boom Shakalaka we found the hoop-jumping and box-ticking of commissioning processes, funding and awards exhausting. We grew frustrated by the unwillingness to invest the money it takes to make a truly diverse industry. So much of our time was spent working out complex systems or the random protocol of putting ideas forward to different networks and platforms, navigating a matrix of gatekeepers and relentlessly adapting pitches to suit them. Feedback sometimes felt patronising, then would come the chasing and nudging on emails, sometimes not to hear anything back at all.

We worked hard to adapt our approach, recruiting diverse talent that reflected the broader lived experience in the stories we told, we worked with production teams of all socioeconomic backgrounds, but it still felt like we were smiling in the face of a rigid patriarchy.

‘We are four years on from the galvanising emergence of Black Lives Matter.’ A BLM protest in Manchester on 7 June 2020. Photograph: Jon Super/Alamy

I have to admit, I’m tired. Tired and hot with rage that policies for higher standards of safety and inclusion in these industries are only being talked about now, when the problems have been well known for decades. Anyone remember when Black women were represented on mainstream TV by the caricatures on Bo’ Selecta (2002-2009) and Come Fly With Me (2010)? How did that get signed off? By having the same people still in charge of the industry.

It is the mould that needs to be broken rather than “slotted into” with tokenistic title appointments, it is in the mould that we so often find dated and constrictive working culture. The fragments of progress by more women being employed in the creative industries, are glimmers of hope, yes. But if they are the same jobs as before, how much of the practice can they change for the better?

Accessible processes for pitching and recruitment that allow for ideas that are expressed differently by people from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds need to be introduced.

Narratives and genre categories should also be completely reworked. Why are so many Black female presenters on BBC Radio networks on 1Xtra, for example?

When I covered the Arts Show on Radio 2 for a month. I was told in an albeit very convoluted way that I was a bit too 6Music. Meanwhile at 6Music, where I regularly cover, I’m told that I’m still very much in the family, and I’m even mentioned on its Wikipedia page as a stand-in presenter, but I don’t have a contract, no shows booked in, no communication with the leadership and I hear about slots being given to other people just like everyone else – by listening to the radio.

It is due to these lack of opportunities in broadcast and production that I have pivoted my career more into arts, culture and writing. But just last year I was invited into the office of an arts venue owner only to have cigarette smoke blown in my face and to be shown bizarre visual works of his that included disturbing pornographic imagery of Black women. Although these days I have a thick skin, and have done so much to work through the medley of effects of trauma of this ilk, it still had me in tears for days.

We are four years on from the galvanising emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement and still corporations, networks and organisations have not addressed the conditioned, oppressive narrative entrenched within them. Many of them will pay lip service to equality, diversity and inclusion, with initiatives that at best just temporarily cover their backs and at worst lead to segregation. Instead they should be addressing the pervasive sexism and racism in the system with a long-term strategy.

I can speak for myself when I say the humiliating feeling of having to prove yourself feels everlasting. From being told by a boss at a radio station that I need to further prove an expertise in specialist music in order to be given a permanent show, despite having been on a specialist music station for years, to the times I’ve been told that I’m only suited to “roving reporter” roles rather than main host. I’ve been striving to achieve in these industries since I was a teenager – landing my first presenting job as the co-host of the breakfast show on BBC1Xtra when I was 23. I’ve presented live TV and radio programmes, made documentaries (winning awards for more than one) and written abook that led me to go on a nationwide schools tour. So I can’t say I don’t take it personally when I see new opportunities offered to white men – nor when I listen daily to a range of radio stations transmitting voices that don’t reflect their audience in terms of gender balance, queer representation or ethnic diversity.

I believe how we treat women, the trans community and BPOC (Black people, and people of colour) and migrant talent in the public eye, and how we get to tell our stories in the media, affect how we all treat each other in our everyday society. So it’s time the creative industries stopped being a “boys’ club” and started to represent all their employees and audiences fairly. It’s a conversation that is overdue, painful and essential so that we don’t miss out on the UK’s creative potential – and it should start right here.

  • Gemma Cairney is an author and broadcaster who has presented on BBC Radio 2 and 6 Music

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