The art of xenophobia is that it comes in subtle forms that you can sometimes miss completely. And subtle enough that sometimes you are left questioning whether or not you were a victim of it at all. Our industry is not immune to xenophobia. Our entertainment industry, in the art it creates, is supposed to represent humanity but it is too often peopled and policed by practitioners who themselves fall into selling narrow, often stereotypical images of racial otherness and whose behaviour therefore smacks of xenophobia. And in so doing, selling the human beings short that wish to contribute to the rich cultural heritage of the U.K.
Finally, last year, the actor’s union, Equity UK, endorsed the formation of a new group within its structure called N.U.K.B.A. – Non U.K. Born Actors. They have started tweeting under the hashtag: WeAreBritainToo. I have closely followed their emergence since last year October and this year 2021, they will start campaigning for better visability, better casting choices, better acceptance of actors from foreign countries into major film and tv productions.
The fact that NUKBA even exists is a testament to the industry having a problem with subtle but impactful forms of xenophobia. In the inaugural meeting of NUKBA an actor told the story of a time when a casting director told them to just “go back home”. Apparently there were gasps from the assembled group of actors but also many nodding their heads. This was behaviour normalised across audition and work spaces in the British film, tv and theatre industry. Apparently this off-hand xenophobia has been experienced by many in the NUKBA group. Story after story told the sad tale of artistic marginalisation of actors born outside the UK for a variety of reasons but all coming down to a single factor – they were not born here and therefore what they have to offer is not British enough and therefore has no place in the arts created in this society.
This story above resonated with me. Many years ago when I was first studying drama and full of all the ambition and hope of youth, I was able to meet a British actor that I looked up to. I knew that I had a British passport as my grandparents and father were from the UK. I knew that I wanted to study in the UK at some point but when I met this actor I asked if they had any advice for someone like me, starting out in the industry. I remember the reply clearly, “STAY WHERE YOU ARE.” Their answer took me by surprise. I wondered then and now if it was his way of warning me off coming into an over subscribed industry or if it was blatant xenophobia.
Another thing happened that really baffled me once. I have excellent skills in received pronunciation as I have used it every time that I have done a classic play and I have performed in MANY classical plays. I was contacted by my agent one day informing me of a possible audition but the casting director was wondering if I could do an RP accent. Because the origin of my birth is not the U.K. they were concerned to put me in front of a major streaming service producing a period piece set in England. I sent off my voice tape with my RP accent on it. My agent got in touch to compliment me on my excellent RP accent. And then…nothing. I didn’t even get an audition. The only factor that I could overtly point to was the country of my birth on my Spotlight CV. And here is a classic example of the subtleness of it. I can think it’s xenophobia. But I am acutely aware that it may have had nothing to do with my birth country at all. There may have been other factors involved. But you start to doubt yourself. And there is often nothing that you can put your finger on and say, “Yes! That! That was xenophobia!”
But then you realise that you are not alone. You start to hear stories from the NUKBA group, you start talking to foreign national friends and acquaintances and you start to see that it’s not just something you are making up in your head. Many foreigners residing in this country deal with an ever increasing insular Britain. You only need to look to the success of the Leave campaigns to find a thinly veiled xenophobia and racism lurking under the surface of society in the UK. Speaking to many foreign nationals they do not paint a forgiving picture of Britain as it is today. I had to look no further than a British family member telling me she voted for Brexit because she wanted stricter immigration controls. To me. An immigrant, standing in front of her.
We all have different stories about how and why the United Kingdom has become our home and yet we still don’t see many foreigners being portrayed in our media. Foreigners make up a small but significant percentange of U.K. society but we are not represented to that degree in any form of media in this country. Many of the NUKBA members reported a staggering amount of typecasting based on their accents and looks. Once again the narrow margins of casting creates an industry where an actor with an accent or a slightly darker skin is going to be sidelined as the ‘terrorist threat’ his entire career even if he originally comes from Italy or Spain. This is demeaning and offensive but it doesn’t surprise me as this is part of the denial of many actor’s artistic worth. That the gatekeepers continually play into these xenophobic and racist tropes does not surprise me either – but what does disturb me is that we are often the hypocrites by claiming we represent humanity in our art. No we dont. Not until there is some equalising and understanding of the worth of all artists who choose to call the U.K. their home.
Perhaps this is why we need something like NUKBA. And it will be interesting to see what the group achieves by starting to address and shake up the perceived notion that anyone born outside this country has nothing of any artistic worth to give to this country.
Of this industry, I ask: When are we going to start moving away from these tropes that seem to entrench xenophobic mindsets? When are we going to start addressing proper, rounded representation of the depth of U.K. society? When are we going to stop excluding actors from parts and meaningful roles and therefore productive creatives lives just because they weren’t born here?