It’s an open secret that the UK’s creative industries have had problems diversifying their workforces for decades.
A number of studies have concluded that the most racially diverse companies are more likely to be financially successful, with McKinsey research in 2018 showing less diverse companies are 29 percent more likely to underperform in terms of profitability. Then there’s the ethical perspective – shouldn’t whatever’s plastered on our billboards and aired during TV ad breaks represent the different backgrounds of our population, made by teams who have the authentic insight to do so?
You’d think so. But white men continue to dominate the creative world by a considerable amount while minority groups make up only 13 percent of it, and less than a tenth of the exec positions within it.
The stats are all the more intriguing when you think about the environmental shift they’ve survived. The dot com boom of the 90s birthed companies that were meant to reflect the flat, democratic structure of the internet in their values. Now known to us as start-ups, the progressiveness and inclusivity they’re known to encourage – at least commercially – frames them as the antithesis of traditionalist corporate giants.
Start-up culture within the working world has picked up significantly in recent years, with around 670,000 being founded in the UK last year. Its rise coincided with Gen Z’s creatives of colour joining the workforce, who’d seen inclusivity campaign aplenty to convince themselves change was coming.
“The way they sold it, I was being led by people who backed equal opportunities like it was the only way forward,” says Dwayne Thompson, an up-and-coming filmmaker who has previously worked at various early-stage creative agencies.
“Then I slowly realised the start-ups I’d bought into were no different to the corporates they were ‘opposing’ – maybe worse because of how much they pretended to care.”
So then, despite the promise of start-up culture in being a pathway to diversification, why aren’t the latest cohort of minority creatives benefiting from its rise?
Bambi, 22, goes by @sketchy_bambi on TikTok and has amassed a following of over 100,000 on the app. She became disillusioned a while ago when she realised the start-up was actively setting her and other minority creators on its platform up for failure.
“Companies like TikTok convince the world they want everyone to have a chance at success, but it’s a well known fact amongst their minority creators that you’re almost guaranteed to disappear unless your videos succumb to their agenda.”
“I’ve been shadow-banned often, so my content reaches less people or none at all, especially when discussing matters important to the South Asian community. I’ve had followers deleted regularly. Use certain words or include certain subjects in your TikToks, and you’re punished. We’re literally at the mercy of TikTok’s moderators.”
A TikTok spokesperson told VICE: “Our top priority is to provide a safe and positive experience so that our community can feel free to express their creativity on TikTok, no matter who they are. Nothing in our community guidelines or in how our For You feed works seeks to discriminate against any creator or diminish diversity on our platform.”
But this isn’t the first time the social media start-up, that’s ironically known for its power to “democratise creativity”, has been accused of policing content in order to silence racial narratives.
During the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020, they came under fire for allegedly censoring the #GeorgeFloyd and #BlackLivesMatter hashtags. TikTok later released a statement saying they “acknowledge and apologize to our Black creators and community who have felt unsafe, unsupported, or suppressed”, blaming a temporary, widespread glitch.
These conversations coincide with the aftermath of the Sewell Report in March, which categorically denied the existence of institutional racism in Britain. Its insights were perhaps collated without understanding that with a changing society and a changing work environment comes a changed way of expressing the discrimination that’s always been prevalent towards minority communities – start-up culture, or not.
“Racism is shape-shifting,” explains Nana Bempah, co-founder of minority creative community Pocc, “it blindsides because while we are focussing on tearing down one particular form of it, it evolves into something else.”
Where racial slurs and overt remarks have lessened, microaggressions – the hidden slights, indignities, and put downs that people of colour experience in day-to-day interactions – have thrived. Gen Z’s creatives of colour have noticed microaggressions particularly at large at start-ups, where their ability to slip under the radar and deny their victims validation becomes an issue.
“I was paid £10k less than my colleagues despite being significantly more senior,” Dwayne reveals. “I interviewed prime ministers of countries and CEOs of global brands, but had to prove I deserved to be in the room the minute I walked into shoots. There’s only so much you can explain away until you realise it’s because of the way you look, a judgment you once foolishly thought you’d be exempt from.”
On top of the lack of HR, it’s assumed by new businesses that their membership into the start-up fold grants them the automatic status of an inclusive, progressive place of work. This allows for laziness, and ill treatment that’s tolerated by young minority creators because of the lack of opportunities available in the first place.
But there’s always a breaking point. And when it’s reached, as T A P E Collective’s Isra Al Kassi explains, new agencies risk losing Gen Z’s creative output and loyalty on a permanent basis.
“Minority creatives are breaking away from agencies as they are confronted with discriminatory behaviour. What we’re seeing is a refusal to be tied to the companies that fail them, with them choosing the freelancing route as a method of self-preservation while engaging in their passions.”
Isra is testament to this trend: the film programmer broke away to focus on growing T A P E’s minority art community and diversity consultancy after she was exhausted by former workplaces’ insistence of undermining lived experiences.
And after experiences that mirror many a minority creative start-up veteran’s – one of which had me manipulated into signing a new contract granting me no security, leaving me jobless and depressed a week later – I too am disheartened about what finding a permanent position in the industry might mean.
“These are real people,” says Isra. “This is real trauma. Why wouldn’t they want to protect their mental health?”
Britain’s creative industries, much like its other institutions, have a silent race problem. Just like their seniors, the UK’s youngest minority artists will have to confront their own trauma. How can the newest companies on the creative block to begin putting things right?
“To say a start-up is less discriminative is obviously disingenuous,” Nana clarifies, “but whereas corporates are unwieldy and stuck in their ways, start-ups do have the potential to create change. Whether this change happens or not is up to the individual founders.”
What would she prescribe? “Listen to us. Invest, work, do the reading, and actively understand how to be anti-racist.”
Making a rushed hire to tick boxes or attending a creative diversity and inclusion workshop in order to paint over the cracks, she explains, just isn’t going to cut it. “If they don’t put in the work, however hard to navigate it may be, they may as well be the same as the dinosaur companies they’re trying to differentiate themselves from.”