Representation Matters…Actions Matter More!

On Sunday 28th April at around 4pm approximately 60-80 people gathered on the streets of Peckham. Nobody was stabbed, nobody was killed, no rioting took place, no drugs were sold and no police were called to attend! A number of people involved in the #56BlackMen campaign showed up with family and friends in tow, to collectively celebrate the fact that the images of the now 57 black men were being displayed nationwide, in recognition of the fact that there are black men making a positive contribution to society (contrary to the mainstream media’s prevailing narrative).

The 56 Black Men campaign has captured the imagination of a significant proportion of the community, which has been further enhanced by a partnership between the 56 Black Men founder Cephas Williams and advertising giant Clear Channel – which has seen the campaign posters plastered across billboards up and down the country.

The Problem 

For every image of a delinquent Black man, there is an absence in the representation of a Black man as a positive contributor to society. Narratives around serious youth violence, delinquency and criminal activity are typically and disproportionately attributed to Black men. This is not to say that there aren’t Black men positively contributing to society – rather that the media chooses to portray Black men in a largely negative light. This is the reason that representation matters – society needs to see positive images of Black men.

Some may argue that the negative depiction of Black men is unintentional and ‘unconscious’ and to be honest, as a young man I would have been sympathetic to this claim of unconsciousness. However, over the years many people have sought to articulate the implications of the media’s negative portrayal of Black men, from Raheem Sterling to Akala to John Barnes.

In addition to this, many companies ensure that their staff undertake frequent ‘unconscious bias’ training. So the question must be asked – if celebrities increase awareness of the impacts of ‘unconscious bias’ and people have undertaken ‘unconscious bias’ training – at what point does this bias become ‘conscious’?

With this in mind, what can be done to push the narrative beyond representation towards sustainable change?

Conversation Starter 

The 56 Black Men campaign acts as a conversation starter. The media attention that the campaign has received has been unprecedented and now with the help of Clear Channel, few people can say that they’ve not seen the campaign in some shape or form. Hopefully people have seen this and taken steps to understand what sits at the heart of the campaign and the message that it is trying to communicate. Conversations are an important starting point, because nothing will change unless we are willing to engage in these sometimes difficult conversations.

Balanced Representation as a Catalyst 

When looking at the issue from a corporate perspective, one of the key starting points for facilitating sustainable change is having a more diverse and representative workforce. Diversity allows for conversations to be had in a progressive manner, whilst ensuring that assumptions aren’t being made about demographics that are not represented. Inclusion is similarly important to ensuring that the right outcomes are taken forward. Diversity without inclusion is dangerous, as there is a risk that individuals from a diverse background will assimilate and reinforce the status quo for fear of being alienated or outcast. Developing an inclusive culture whereby diversity of thought and challenge is welcomed is key to changing this narrative.

Change is Active, Not Passive 

Many will hide behind statements such as “I don’t see colour” or “I’m not a racist” – these are common retorts, but they are very passive stances – they don’t require any subsequent actions. The #MeToo campaign should have taught us that it’s not enough to simply ‘not be a sexual predator’ – we must all actively participate in scrutinising and tearing down the systems and structures that facilitate an environment whereby those with power can abuse those without power. Whether that be in relation to gender, ethnicity or any other protected characteristic. Those of us that fall into the ‘I’m not a racist’ bracket, must be active in challenging agendas and actions that seem to be tainted by bias in all avenues – from the boardroom to the football terraces. If we continue to turn a (colour) blind eye to the issue, those with (un)conscious biases will continue to do harm.

So where do we go from here:

1 )  Put your money where your mouth is – The 56 Black Men campaign seeks to change the narrative for life; not just for a point in time, but to truly uproot the damaging representation of Black men and send a message that one track messaging is no longer acceptable, but to do this effectively, financial resource is needed. The organisational goals are articulated in the GoFundMe campaign – so check it out, donate and share it with your network!

2 )  Call out the day to day issues that you see – we typically all come across varying levels of injustice, but what do we do about it? Practise makes perfect and the more we speak out against injustice, the better we get at it and consequently, the easier it gets.

3 )  Just be a good person – we all have the ability to affect change in our own way, within our own networks, the question is whether we choose to do so or not. Let’s consciously and actively be good people.

The saying goes “many hands make light work” – so rather than leaving the active work to people such as Cephas and others who have been marginalised – we should all seek to address these societal issues. The more of us that actively work to tackle injustice in society, the quicker we will see true, sustainable change.


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