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Why it is suddenly cool to be Black in Britain

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Last night, the equivalent of the Berlin Wall came crashing down in Britain on our television screens. Alexandra Burke, one of the most talented singers I have ever seen on TV, sang her heart out to become the undisputed queen of Britain's X-Factor (the sister of American Idol, but a much better, more inclusive version). Barely two weeks ago, moved by one of her renditions, Simon Cowell had said to her: "You make me proud to be British!" Last night he was clearly speechless as her performance soared to a fantastic level. Her duet with superstar Beyonce will be unforgettable!
 
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As a Black woman in Britain, watching two deserving Black acts in the finale (the stunning JLS group and Alexandra) I too felt extremely proud to be British. I have always been proud, as I adore this country, but being an older Black person having lived through the prejudices, discrimination and sheer invisibility of being Black, last night had tremendous significance beyond the obvious for anyone of African origin in this country. It was really cool to be Black, and proud, and talented on TV screens that have been starved of Black faces, starved of Black input and starved, in particular, of Black presenters, panellists and judges! (Thank you, Simon Cowell - and Barack Obama!)

To understand the magnitude of what happened on ITV last night, one has to be both Black and British. It doesn't matter what the programme is ever about, especially reality ones, the foregone conclusion (until Leona Lewis in 2007) is that only a White winner will suit the expectations, the marketability and the 'image' required--and only White winners have been voted for by the public to match that racist perception. Even when a Black person reaches the final, one knows the coveted prize will be elusive to them because they are normally fighting the odds of what is mind-numblingly patronising, traditional and routine: that anything not White is inferior. It was not so long ago in 2002, for example, on the BBC's Fame Academy, most Black people felt that the runner-up, Lemar, was robbed of victory because the public weren't ready to vote for anyone Black in such a new series. But there was a kind of poetic justice when the winner, David Sneddon opted out, disillusioned and unable to cope with the pressure, and Lemar went on to become one of Britain's best known recording artistes, doing justice to his amazing voice and talents.

On any day of the week, there is very little on our screens, especially at peak times when the big audiences are engaged, to indicate a truly multicultural society where one has real choice in programming, or a different fare to enjoy. You will be hard pressed to find any Black voices on anything, especially Black experts or key players. There is a lot of window dressing, tokenism and peripheral activity by minorities within our media but they are still very firmly in the background, kept well away from the lottery-sized salaries and influential positions. This in turn helps to keep minority communities invisible, out of the competition, robbed of key opportunities and chronically underexposed.

A Change in Public Perception

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If one trawls back through every programme with a major prize attached to it, one would be hard pressed to see any Black names involved. Consigned to the perennial label of 'also rans', Black people knew that there was no way one of them would win, but at least taking part gave them some exposure, even if they were doomed by their colour to be eternally second-best, and many grabbed the opportunity to be at least involved. While including minorities as obvious fodder, this illusion of 'fairness', was so predictable as to be terribly demoralising and sad, especially for Black people nationwide looking for inspiration and some assurance that they were actually visible. Last night, the incredible happened in public perception: for the first time it really didn't matter about their colour! Two Black finalists, looking good, full of talent and looking cool, destroyed the usual tokenism associated with such coveted events. Let me repeat that for the unbelieving: There were TWO Black finalists of three, not just one, and they both came first and second, destroying the myth (hopefully for good) that only a White person can ever be a winner in the media in such events, especially when cute and astonishingly talented little Eoghan Quigg, could have stolen the moment. (Thank you, Simon Cowell - and Barack Obama!)

They were good for the viewing figures too. Normally averaging between 8 and 10 millions, the X-Factor has turned into one of Britain's biggest shows. But last night it hit the jackpot with a staggering 15 millions who switched on to watch (a quarter of the UK's population) when the average for a good programme is around 7 million these days). It is no coincidence at all that an unknown Black guy with a strange name becoming American president is changing perceptions everywhere, quietly and relentlessly, about the value of being Black. Suddenly it feels wonderful to be 'normal', not extraordinary or tokenistic, but normal. My only disappointment is that this did not happen on the BBC, the country's leading channel, which should be ahead of the field in reflecting our multiculturalism, through representation and inclusion, especially when the licence fee has to be paid for by all. Instead it happened on the commercial channel which has the bottom line as its top concern.

Ah well, with Barack Obama on the verge of occupying the White House, an incredible feat of achievement by any standards, and relentlessly changing world opinions, the British public has also had a sea change in perception with the outcome of the X-Factor. At this rate, programme-makers might even begin to get bolder and less traditional, less biased and more inclusive in their output. Who knows, I might yet see, in my lifetime, the two established no-go areas for Blacks on British television fall as well: period dramas having Black stars in the leading casts and Newsnight having a Black presenter - though I can't afford to hold my breath!

For today, I am deliriously happy, I am awestruck and amazed. Yes, our own Berlin Wall of perception came tumbling down last night with a huge and reverberating bang. The future looks very promising for our society but, above all, it really feels good, chic and cool to be Black and truly British. It has taken 40 years of my lifetime to reach this point, but how exciting the next 40 years could be! (Thank you so much, Simon Cowell - and Barack Obama!)

(My Journey with Barack Obama - http://www.barackobama-andme.com 

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www.elainesden.org
Ms CYPRAH is a top British Internet writer for Helium and NewsVine. A former magazine editor and diversity consultant, she is the prolific author of over 800 articles on emotional health, self-empowerment and diversity management. She is also an (more...)
 

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