Black Square, White Square

By Jacquetta May

Jacquetta May, an occasional performer in EastEnders, asks if the nation’s favourite soap washes a little too white...

“We have got a couple of very nice Bengali characters whom I think everyone will like, and I hope that people won’t even realise they’re Bengalis” – Julia Smith, co-creator of EastEnders

Julia Smith's rather unfortunate remark made during the early days of EastEnders encapsulates the polite institutional racism that to some extent still operates in the making of the programme today. It seems to say that these Bengali characters are so nice they are almost white; they fit into the welcoming community of Albert Square so well that colour difference can be conveniently forgotten and any social inequality can be ignored.

And yet, this is from a programme that, amongst the regular menu of TV drama, has an almost exemplary record of multi-racial representation. Since its inception EastEnders has made a consistent effort to include Black and Asian regulars. The programme opened in 1985 with a black family in situ. When I was in the 1990/1992 series the Tavernier family lived on The Square and at present there are six black regulars, one mixed race and an Asian couple. For a programme that sells itself on showing "a realistic portrayal of everyday life in the East End of London", this may seem no great achievement - the actuality of East End demography demands that it reflect the multi-racial make-up if the programme is to maintain its claim to realism. But all British urban soaps make such claims and yet despite the fact that Manchester and Liverpool also have multicultural populations, Coronation Street has an appalling history of representing Black characters, and Brookside doesn't do all that much better. It is not enough that there are visiting characters - most TV drama has these. To have any authority in Soap terms they must be regulars. Soaps' strength and addictive power lies in encouraging long-term identification and generating acceptance and understanding in its audience. A character must therefore stay awhile and become known and liked by us as viewers and by the fictional community in which they live.

And the sheer amount of regulars is very important – a black or Asian character on their own in The Square becomes 'different' from the white norm. The difference will inevitably be used as story material and although a liberal viewpoint will be espoused in the treatment of the story, the Black character is nearly always forced to represent the race issue and becomes a cipher, rather than a rounded personality who takes an active part in major storylines.

Because of its range and number of regulars EastEnders can fairly claim to avoid the above pitfall. Indeed, as Julia Smith's comment illustrates, an opposite tendency may be more comfortable. Rather than highlighting race issues you simply don't mention them at all. In an attempt at liberal inclusivity the character's Blackness is totally ignored. A case in point is Alan Jackson, husband to Carol (white). In the creation of this mixed-race relationship the thinking was – here's a woman who's had kids by a variety of partners and now she's with a black guy. Full stop. Lack of further examination serves the liberal agenda of the programme very well. It says: A. that personality is more important than colour and B: very importantly, that Albert Square's residents are colour-blind, that this working class community is fundamentally liberal, unbigoted and untainted with racism. It doesn't mean that racism isn't portrayed at all. "Bad" characters and traditional old gossips can occasionally show prejudice, but if they do, they will be corrected by a more authoritative member of the community or they will get their comeuppance. And short-term visiting characters can be violently racist – but that's fine – soon they will be gone and they have merely served to show how exemplary and right-minded the permanent community is. In effect, racists are outside the community, not within it. Consequently the experience of endemic, day-to-day racism simply cannot be shown. As Professor Patricia Williams said in her 1997 Reith Lecture, colour-blindness " a white way of telling blacks - 'I don't think about colour therefore your problems don’t exist'."

Because EastEnders puts the value of 'community' above all else this may always be a problem. The programme necessarily concentrates on shared experience and the idea that we are all the same under the skin because to regularly point out difference and inequality would call into question the very notion of community. Such a notion is not only the moral backbone of the programme, it is also a dramatic imperative. Without the intimate, almost incestuous, connections between characters, without the neighbourly knowledge and concern there would be no drama at all. If the real-life social separations and divisions were reflected on screen who the hell would you talk to in the Queen Vic!

The commitment to representation and to a near as possible 'realistic' portrayal of Black and Asian experience will, of course, in the end depend upon Black employment among the programme's decision-makers, story-liners and writers. It will come as no surprise that there is only one Black writer on the programme at present. Without proper representation amongst the story-makers themselves, Black and Asian issues are in the hands of white liberals whose commitment varies according to each regime. Perhaps the programme makers are waiting for Black and Asian writers who are so nice and fit in so well that they won't even realise that they’re Black.