Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Eastenders- another East London Whitewash

Whitney Dean has a new job. This may not mean much to you, but for me and 8 million others in the UK it’s great news. Whitney has suffered a lot- sexual abuse as a child, life in care, imposed prostitution, poverty, responsibility for her adoptive brothers and sister, dealing with the incarceration of her adoptive mother. Now she’s going to be able to earn the money she needs for a flat and a fairy-tale marriage with her partner Tyler Moon, and develop the career she wants in childcare. Unless something goes wrong, because we’re talking about Eastenders here, and happy-ever-after endings only really happen when someone wants to leave the show. (And then rarely- there’s been at least 16 murders in 30-odd years).

So why do these screen grabs of Whitney settling in to her after-school assistant post seem so wrong? Where is this school, anyway? It could be Essex (93% White British), or Gloucestershire (95%), or Swansea (92%) at a pinch. What it doesn’t look like is 21st century East London. 

Whitney Dean's new job: Screen grab from Eastenders Omnibus 27.02.2013 (5 minutes, 50 seconds)
I attended school for 14 years in Newham and Redbridge, the two boroughs with the highest concentration of Muslims in London. I volunteered for two years in Hackney primary schools and worked as an after-school assistant (the same job as Whitney) for two years in Tower Hamlets and Newham’s public libraries. I’ve always lived in Newham, Waltham Forest or Hackney. And in none of these boroughs do a random group of children look like this. In fact, in after-school sessions just like Whitney's, they look like this:   
Taken from the Newham Mag, February 2013, p. 12
In a way, this post is another preliminary review of a wider issue- I’ll be waiting to hear back from the BBC before I go into the problem of presenting a realistic ethnic mix on a mainstream soap. Perhaps the BBC is right in its implied assumption that Britons are still too racist to want to watch a soap where more than one of the main families are black or Asian? But for the real Eastenders like myself and my schoolmates, this is really too much. The Fereiras, the Masoods, Patrick and Denise? Between the Fereiras and the Masoods, the writers seemed to have grown up slightly, and so while the cab-driving, Portuguese named Muslims of the 1990s always took a backseat role, the adventures of Zeinab and her chaotic family began to rival the Mitchells and the Butchers in drama and suspense. Meanwhile, while sometimes justifiably criticised, the importance of their religion and their ethnic background did begin to emerge in an interesting light. (Although when a Butcher wants to take a break from acting they go to prison- a Masood just goes to Pakistan).We’re all just waiting to see more of these mad, over-the-top storylines featuring people of every colour and background.

But when I see this picture of East London schools, I can’t wait any longer. They didn’t look like this when I began reception class in 1988, and they don’t look like this now. Arguably, since Eastenders began in 1985, it has never shown the diversity that really exists in our boroughs. And this diversity, due to the tendency of immigrant populations in East London to be fairly young, is never more remarkable than within the school system.

Whitney- surprised?
Why is this important? Eastenders is regularly the most-watched soap on British television, and often the most watched drama. It’s what everybody tunes into on Christmas day. Its ‘average viewing figures for January 2010 were 10.8 million viewers (40.4%) compared to Coronation Street's (38.2%)’[4] So it’s a crucial part of soap culture, which in Britain usually prides itself on holding up a somewhat melodramatic mirror to our actual day-to-day lives. British people, whatever their personal views may be, deserve to see the real East End on their television sets.

It would be interesting to find out where Eastenders is so popular. Growing up in Newham state schools, from as far back as I can remember I was the only child in my class (a class at least as diverse as any in East London today) who wasn’t allowed to watch the show. This led to schemes as pathetic as looking up the plot in the Guardian TV guide (a ludicrously bad source of the information I craved) and pretending I knew exactly who Bianca and Tiffany were. I even joined in when my friends mocked Bianca’s screechy cockney- ‘Rickaaaaay’. So although perhaps the BBC holds back from featuring more diverse characters due to concern for the lingering prejudice of the home counties and further afield, it’s clear that real East Londoners love Eastenders, and have been among its most loyal audiences.  And in East London, we’re getting to grips with our ethnic prejudice, slowly but surely. [I’m writing to the BBC to try to get viewer figures by location, on I-Player and on TV, which will hopefully lead to a broader, more quantitative analysis.]

My mother has been a primary school teacher in Newham and Tower Hamlets for the last 20 years, in schools where almost all children come from ethnic minority backgrounds. She spoke to me of her feelings of sadness as little six-year-old Abdul Rahmans and Faisals wrote stories and drew pictures of white children named Sarah and Peter (are any children, anywhere, still called Peter?) When she read then a story with a character named Faridah in it, they couldn’t get over their surprise. But if the one show which claims to reflect East London society is constantly undermining these children’s everyday reality, how will they know that they too have a right to be portrayed in culture, with the respect, dignity and verisimilitude they deserve?

Afterword- The reality:
It’s commonly accepted that ‘Walford’ is a combination of the names Walthamstow and Stratford, placing Eastenders somewhere between Newham and Waltham Forest. Inner City East London is usually considered to consist of four boroughs- Newham, Tower Hamlets, Hackney and Waltham Forest. Let’s take a look at ethnicity in schools in these boroughs:

Waltham Forest
I couldn’t find school figures for Waltham Forest, but in general just over half the population is of White British origin.
White British
White Irish
White other
White & Black Caribbean
White & Black African
White & Asian
Mixed other
Asian or Asian British
Other Asian
Black or Black British
Black other
Chinese or other
Other ethnic group

Tower Hamlets
According to Office for National Statistics (ONS) 2006 population estimates:
56% of the population in Tower Hamlets belonged to an ethnic group other than white British
30% are Bangladeshi
8% are from other white backgrounds
Just under 30% of Tower Hamlets is Bangladeshi- of this 35% are children, meaning that the Bangladeshi community has a much younger population than other ethnic groups.

In 2009 Newham had the highest proportion of non-white primary pupils in London (82%).
An analysis of children actually on roll in all Newham schools in 2009 shows that only 10% children
were of White British origin, with Asian (43%) and Black (26%) making up more than two thirds of the school population.

Newham School Census January 2009
Asian 43%
Black 26%
White British 10%
Other (including unknown) 8%
White Other 7%
Mixed 6%

Newham Schools’ Survey data shows that in 2008, whilst English was the most common first language spoken by children in Newham schools, this was the case for only 35% of pupils in the borough. Bengali (15%), Urdu (9%), Gujurati (5%) and Panjabi (4%) were the most common foreign languages.
listed as the first language for Newham pupils.7 The top 15 languages other than English were: Arabic, Lithuanian, Malayalam, Tagalog, Filipino, Tamil, Panjabi, Gujarati, Urdu, Bengali, Portuguese, French, Yoruba, Somali, Akan. 1[6]

Hackney’s children and young people
Young People
Total Hackney Population
Black African
Black Caribbean
Black Other
Other Asian

Further Reading-
About the difficulty of creating realistic Muslim characters on Eastenders-
About racial and ethnic stereotyping on Eastenders-

[1] Whitney Dean starts her new job. Screen Grab from Eastenders Omnibus 27.02.2013
[3] Whitney Dean starts her new job. Screen Grab from Eastenders Omnibus 27.02.2013
[4] Pauley, Nigel (6 February 2010). "Archie's murder puts EastEnders on top". Daily Star. Retrieved 7 February 2010. via Wikipedia (source checked by me, although does come from Daily Star...
[6] Newham Information comes from the Aston Mansfield Newham- Key Statistics document
[7] Hackney Information is from

1 comment:

Frances Grahl said...