Arabs in British Series: The UK media industry still suffers from a lack of diversity and representation. Arab-British, Nada Issa, describes her experience in an industry dominated by middle-class men and the challenges many ethnic women face.
Nada Issa, Anglo-Arab filmmaker and journalist, has worked in the media for over a decade. In this article, she shares her poignant experience navigating the British media industry as an Arab woman and the challenges she encountered along the way. Amid a colorful career behind her, Nada talks about the lack of representation and diversity in the male-dominated, middle-class industry, as well as the importance for those at the top to hear all voices. She shares her experience with The New Arabic:
I always wanted to be a journalist. But until the media industry is confronted with its lack of diversity, people like me will continue to be invisible or undermined.
I am an Anglo-Arab filmmaker and journalist. Over the past fourteen years, I have learned to navigate in a sometimes toxic or unfair environment. Yet even at this point in my career, I still wonder if there is a place for those like me in this industry – and if there is, if it is worth it.
“On the surface, we could claim to have more gender, social and ethnic diversity than ever before. But dig deeper and it all looks shallow.”
Diversity in the media has not always existed. In previous decades, the industry was dominated by educated, middle-class white men in Oxbridge.
There is no doubt that there has been progress since the 1980s / 90s, but we still belong to an industry that continues to harbor toxic and intimidating behavior. I have worked in media for over a decade now. During this time, I have met some incredibly talented and inspiring people from whom I have learned a lot. I love my job and have always had a real passion for journalism. But sometimes the very profession I live to work for has caused me, and many like me, a lot of grief and depression.
On the surface, we could claim to have more gender, social and ethnic diversity than ever before. But dig deeper and it all looks shallow. The IT and engineering departments of each network present their diversity but roam the creative and editorial rooms and it remains predominantly bourgeois, white and male. In fact, I have often been the only member of the ethnic team.
This isn’t due to a lack of BAME talent or self-driving – rather, it’s because if you’re an outsider you have to work ten times harder than anyone else to be seen. People hire those who are familiar to them. This creates a lack of opportunities for the âotherâ and an uneven playing field. Those of us who are different continue to struggle on a steep uphill path.
Over the years, I have reached out to many like me. And they shared similar stories. It is in our shared experiences that I have found comfort.
âIf you have a foreign sounding name, you are probably going to be labeled. And even then, when it comes to big-budget prime-time gigs, despite your experience, you’ll still be invisible, âa colleague warned. I didn’t believe her but with regret I came to appreciate her warning.
I started my career with an interest in reporting stories across Africa and Asia. I also wanted to write about Westminster politics, in which I have a masters degree. The first one, I managed to do it only for international networks, but I was overwhelmingly placed to cover topics on the Middle East – something that I was not too familiar with at the time. This is what leaves a bitter taste in your mouth. An âEmilyâ can easily browse all genres. A “Nada” is somewhat limited to the color of her skin and, even inside that locker, treated with suspicion.
âIt’s easy to believe you’re color blind if you’ve never been judged on your ethnicity or categorized. When you sit at the top of the food chain, you can’t see below you. You assume that your accomplishments are based on talent and not on opportunities not available to your BAME counterparts “
I was once invited to an interview for a show about British Muslims. The talent executive felt it appropriate to ask if I was confident that I could maintain fairness even before I declared my track record. A white colleague would not receive the same scrutiny. It is these double standards that dehumanize and discourage.
To add salt to the wound, my white colleagues with little Middle Eastern knowledge would always qualify above someone with roots in the region. Perhaps because an exotic university trip to Israel-Palestine made them experts in the region far beyond those who are part of the political and social fabric of this complicated and nuanced terrain.
Needless to say, my fellow journalists are not at fault – the problem is the deeply ingrained institutional racism within our society, of which we are in total denial.
We must also endure allegations of “use of the race card”. A white filmmaker, whom I had admired for many years, recently told me that “you are more likely to get hired these days if you are BAME”. Even among journalists, it seems, systemic racism goes unnoticed.
Let me arm you with a few examples.
What follows is a story far too many people have experienced. On my first day in a top UK network, excited, impatient and hungry, the director asked me, ‘where are you from? I replied “London”. It was indeed insufficient. “But where are you from, where?” my answer “West London”. It didn’t work. He asked, “Where did you grow up? I obeyed, “South West London – or more precisely Pimlico”. His skin now turning red, he finally turned to me and said “your name is not Anglo-Saxon – where does it come from?” “
Now I understood the question asked and its purpose from the start. To many this may be a perfectly curious and harmless question, but it felt like an attack on my chosen identity, implying that I can’t just be British from London, demanding to put myself in a box that helps me better. to understand. And yet, this same professional undoubtedly believes ânot to see the colorâ.
It’s easy to believe you’re color blind if you’ve never been judged on your ethnicity or labeled. When you sit at the top of the food chain, you don’t see below you. You assume that your accomplishments are based on talent and not on opportunities not available to your BAME counterparts.
“Over the years, I’ve learned that challenging the status quo often puts you in the crosshairs.”
Some might even consider it a joke when a member of her team tells a producer of Amazigh descent working on a popular British show and in view that “you are a long way from riding a camel in the desert here. You can surely use your navigation application to find the shooting location â.
Others question the testimony of an Anglo-black Sudanese editor-in-chief who learns that he is the lowest paid person on his team despite his experience and being responsible for training his colleagues. Unfortunately, despite his skills, he changed careers to preserve his sanity. I see it as a great loss for the industry.
Or an Arab-British filmmaker who has devoted her life to her career discovers that her integrity is often called into question: âHave you slept with the executive of the commission? Business, adventures and even friendships are common in the workplace. But it certainly seems like you’re more likely to be accused of “sleeping” to get to work if you’re a woman, and more so, a woman of color.
Unfortunately, such comments are often led by our privileged counterparts. Of course, sometimes patriarchy can pit us against each other, but it reduces the workplace to a toxic playground.
To avoid that, I found myself downgrading my wardrobe – hoping that the simpler, uglier you are, the less effort you put in, the less you will be accused of offering your brown or black body in exchange for concerts.
“Always speak up because the right to have your voice heard should not be based on your privileges, your ethnicity, your gender or your seniority”
Over the years, I’ve learned that challenging the status quo often puts you in the crosshairs. Early in my career, I found the courage to speak out about a lack of opportunity in a service meeting. What followed was a senior management figure berating me. I was told to “know my station”. Did I have a station because I was a junior? Or maybe it was my strange and unknown character? I believe it was because I am an outsider in a territorial workplace and my race and cultural identity made me even more different. Whatever the reason, the reaction has been brutal and unfair.
The media industry, like others, is to a large extent based on who you know, not what you know. What someone says about you can either improve your career or cause lasting damage. People in positions of power therefore bear a responsibility. Rather than fueling a toxic environment, they shouldn’t play favoritism and check their unconscious biases.
Today, I want to remind every researcher or junior producer that there are no âstationsâ. Always speak out because the right to have your voice heard should not be based on privileges, ethnicity, gender or seniority.
I believe our industry is big enough to embrace, celebrate and include all of us, and would benefit from that. But until we collectively recognize the disease that has plagued us for so long and are prepared to face it, nothing will change.
Nada Issa is a freelance filmmaker and senior journalist. She has covered stories across Africa, Asia, Europe and the Middle East, making films for various UK and international media including the BBC, Channel Four and Aljazeera English.
Follow her on Twitter: @ Nada-Mai-Issa
This article is part of a special series titled Arabs in the UK: An Exciting New Project which shines a light on the Arab population in the UK and aims to showcase their continued contributions to communities. Follow here to read more articles in this series: