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David Olusoga On structural racism, the TV industry and white allyship

In a year that has highlighted vast structural inequalities, Annalisa Toccara speaks to David Olusoga about his MacTaggart Lecture, what white allyship means, and how society can address racial disparities, ahead of David’s appearance at Off The Shelf Festival of Words.

David Olusoga on the Barb 009

Sitting in my bedroom on 25 August 2020, I had tears streaming down my face. I was watching the brilliant Nigerian-British historian and BAFTA Award-winning presenter and filmmaker David Olusoga OBE give the MacTaggart Lecture for the Edinburgh TV Festival.

This year the world has witnessed brutal, unjust murders by US police while living through a viral pandemic that has highlighted vast structural inequalities in our societies. The collective racial trauma, a form of stress-based PTSD caused by systemic racism, is high for Black people.

In his talk, Olusoga described the pain and loneliness of being black in the TV industry and the institutional racism he has experienced. What struck me was his honesty. Having just completed a MA dissertation on Black women's experiences in British journalism, the experiences that Olusoga shed light on were very similar, if not identical, to my research findings.

When I got the chance to interview David, I was ecstatic because although I have heard him speak many times before, including hosting him for an event in October 2017 at Sheffield Hallam University as part of Sheffield Melanin Fest, his MacTaggart lecture was a moment of great significance for me.

We chatted ahead of David’s upcoming virtual appearance at Sheffield’s Off The Shelf Festival of Words, on the theme of ‘Black History in the Age of Black Lives Matter’.

What prompted you to share such raw and open honesty for your MacTaggart lecture?

I think the thing I realised that was most frightening very quickly was that being honest meant being personal. Because even if I had been honest about the industry, it would have been dishonest for me to discuss those issues in the abstract as if they were issues that never affected me in my career. So once I decided to do it, the corollary was that I had to be honest. Being honest meant being personal - and that meant it was quite a frightening thing to do.

Do you believe that this is a moment of real change for our society?

I think it could be. I have to say that I've been in the industry 20 years - in television, a little longer than that. Not only have I seen schemes and initiatives come and go, but I'm also a veteran of some of the schemes, and they were meaningless. They achieved very little.

Now there have been some, in more recent years, some pretty successful schemes. I think the commissioner training schemes in television, which I think target where the power is… I think getting diversity into that segment of the industry is critically important.

But the schemes before that, a great number of them were meaningless because there was no investment by people who actually have power in the industry. I did schemes. They made absolutely no change to my career. No matter how many psychological assessments I did, how many exercises I did that showed my capacity, it was meaningless because no one in power read them.

In more recent years, as I say, we've had some schemes that have been more effective and the initiatives of 2020, in many ways, are of a different order to many of the initiatives that we've seen in the past. And also, I think we have to be careful not to judge the people in positions of power in television today from the failures of the past.

Television has a long habit of marking its own homework. Ofcom is not playing a role and I feel that it should be playing a role in monitoring the success of these schemes. We still haven't got very good figures for diversity in television. Some of the figures I quoted in my talk are from 2016. Not because I like quoting figures that are four years old, but because we haven't got any others.

I think we have to be cautious, but we have to be cautious without being cynical.

Do you think that the TV industry could become more diverse and representative?

As I noted, in my lecture, 12 years ago there was a session at the Edinburgh TV festival, almost identical to the one that was held this year, asking: why has there not been a Black channel controller? Well, I think one of the answers is that the people who could be in those jobs, the people who now should be 20, 30 years into their career and ready to do those jobs, that they've left the industry. They got sick of it. They dropped out.

The example I gave in the lecture was Marvin Reese, who is the mayor of Bristol, whose dealing with this city in this incredibly tumultuous time. He got nowhere in the BBC when I worked alongside him in the BBC. This is someone who can run a city and he wasn't even deemed able to run a TV production.

When I was a producer, I would write books. I was patronised by television in a way that I was never patronised by the publishing industry, the way I have never been patronised by the newspaper industry. Now I'm not saying the newspaper industry and the publishing industry do not have problems, because they both have a series of problems, but there's a level of infantilisation in my life that I've only known in television.

There's one thing which has happened since I gave the lecture that's given me new hope, which is I'm enormously impressed by the way ITV have behaved around the complaints and, let's be honest, the campaign of complaints against Diversity.

This was young Black British people using dance to express their feelings about a historic period that they're going through, and their experiences of racism in modern Britain, and a campaign of complaints against them. ITV could easily - and maybe another year they would have been very tempted to do this - could easily have apologised and found a strategic way of avoiding, sidestepping the storm, or ushered Diversity and Ashley Banjo out of the door quietly at a future date, and they didn't. They did something remarkable.

I think it's remarkable not only that they stood by Diversity. It's remarkable not only that they took out advertisements. I think it's remarkable, most of all, perhaps, what those advertisements said: that picture of Ashley and his dancers, and the phrase, “We are changed by what we see, just as we are changed when we are seen.”

I think that to me is a big commercial broadcaster in this country getting it, understanding what Black Lives Matter is about, understanding or trying to understand what it is to be young and Black in this country. I think the word for that is allyship. It's an incredibly positive step.


David Olusoga's Black and British: A Short, Essential History is aimed at readers aged 12+.

Speaking of allyship, what do you think is the defining quantifier for wanting to be a white ally?

It's a new word for an old phenomenon. If you look at the interactions from what we can tell from the documents between poor white people and poor Black people in 18th century Britain, you see people forming communities together.

I think what it means in the modern context, above all, I think it's trying to understand how racism works. There are some people who regard the idea of structural racism as an insult to them in their society. What structural racism is saying, essentially, is racism is deeper than many of us wanted to believe.

We know from attitudinal study after attitudinal study that, in many respects, this country is becoming radically less racist than it ever has been, especially amongst young people. And yet we also know from other studies, that are just as thorough and just as evidence-based, that the lives of non-white people are affected by racial discrimination in all sorts of ways in all sorts of arenas of life.

That is because racism is more complicated, it's deeper set, and it is more structural than we said. When you say ‘structural racism’, people think what you're saying is that the society is irredeemably racist. It's not. It's saying racism is more embedded than we thought, and that just being personally non-racist is not working. It's not just that it's not enough; it hasn't worked.

Do you feel that there's a difference with the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests to that of 2016?

As I mentioned in the MacTaggart lecture, in June [and] July this year there were weeks in which half of the bestselling books in the Sunday Times bestseller list were books about black history or about race. Now that is phenomenal. Reni Eddo-Lodge this year became the first black British woman to top the bestseller list, and Afua Hirsch's book, Akala's books that have all been in the top 10. There was a period when we had to print new additions. We had to sort of rush to get thousands of more copies in the shops because they were selling so fast. What that represents is hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of mainly white people engaging with these ideas. And we have to take that as a kind of wonderful sign.

I think what happened is these issues came to the fore in a way that we'd never seen before. People understood it. I think anybody who watched the film of George Floyd - I have not been able to watch all of it - I think anybody who watched that who has an ounce of humanity felt a shock and a revulsion that spurred them to action.

But I think we also had other factors. People were at home [due to coronavirus lockdown]. I think a lot of people who may have wanted to know more and understand the issues around race suddenly had the time to read books, and they had some clear space in their lives because of this great disruption that we are all living through.

What are your thoughts on the Edward Colston statue being pulled down by protesters and thrown into the harbor?

It should never have happened because the statue should have been removed years ago.

I met somebody who was campaigning as a student for the statue to be removed 35 years ago. When that statue was toppled, I ended up going on news programmes and talking to journalists from newspapers all over the world. When I was talking to journalists abroad, what shocked them was not that that statue was toppled; what shocked them was that in the 21st century, a British city had a statue to a slave trader up on a pedestal in the city centre.

What happened was organisations in Bristol that have enormous power in the city - who have, rather like Colston, used their statuses as charities to defend the indefensible for centuries - asked people to look at Colston's undoubted philanthropy and ignore his slave trading. What happened in recent decades is more and more people understood what the slave trade and slavery was about. More and more books were written, more and more research was doing, and in that period, Britain also became a society that's 14% not white, and it spawned a young generation that is profoundly anti-racist.

This determination amongst a group of white, wealthy people in Bristol to defend the reputation of a man who killed or has been involved in the killing of thousands of people and the enslavement of tens of thousands of people... that just became no longer viable.

It belongs in a museum because statues on display in cities - on pedestals, towering above people - are not history; they are validation and they are heroisation. This is a man whose actions are unheroic and unhuman, and we should not be celebrating him.

Colston thrown into harbour

Statue of Edward Colston thrown into Bristol harbour, 7 June 2020.

One of the many lies in the story of Colston is the casting in bronze on the pedestal of that statue. It says that the statue was put up by public subscription. No, it wasn't. It was paid for by the merchant elite who ran Bristol, and one man in particular. It wasn't put up because the people of Bristol, almost two centuries after Colston's death, suddenly felt the insatiable urge to memorialise him.

It's not that [the merchant elite] wanted to celebrate the slave trading. They just didn't care about it because they didn't care about the lives of the people consumed by the slave trade, or the people in the 1890s in Jamaica and the other islands, who were still struggling to survive with the aftermath of living on islands where they were free, but living in poverty.

What are your thoughts on the white artist who created the sculpture of Jen Reid in replacement of Edward Colston?

I think it was somebody from London intervening in a situation in a city they know nothing about. They inflamed the situation that they are not at risk of. They're not Black in Bristol. They don't understand the tension.

They came to Bristol. They put up a statue that some Bristonlians - I think wrongly, but that is their view - found provocative, and they left, and they left in a city in which this summer we had an attempted lynching of a young Black boy, who attempted to kill him using a car as a vehicle. Somebody almost died.

He came here and put up a statue in a situation he didn't understand in which he is not personally at risk. I think it was a self-indulgent and arrogant gesture by somebody trying to grandstand.

I think if he really wanted to help, he should have helped. He should have come to Bristol and spent some time here. I think it should have empowered Black artists to do something. And I think he should have listened to people in Bristol, who warned him of the potential for violence and disruption in this city.

What do you think society needs to do to really address racial inequality?

We need to keep having the conversation that we're having. We need to accept that racism is not going to go away just by people being personally anti-racist. We need to have proper monitoring of how people move through the world. There's still lots of information we don't properly know, and we need to know.

We need to listen to this generation, who've led Black Lives Matter, who have a profoundly different attitude towards race to their parents, and even more profoundly than their grandparents. We need to accept that their views inevitably are going to be those that are going to dominate our society, and we need to work out whether we're going pointlessly against the tide when this is a generation who does not want to live in a society shaped by racism and racial prejudice. We need to let them lead.

Why do you use Twitter to address racism directly?

One of the reasons that I do what I do on Twitter is because I'm constantly being told that racism is all in the mind of Black people, and if we just stopped talking about it, it would disappear. I like to show people that that's not the case.

If you don't even believe that we live in a society that is scarred by misogyny, look at Mary Beard's feed. If you're convinced that there's no racism in Britain - that it's a lovely sweet country, as we were told by Lawrence Fox - look at my feed, look at Afuah Hirsch's feed.

But people don't, so I like to show people the sorts of messages that are sent to Black people in the public eye because I'm sick of the denial about the existence of racism.

One of the refrains of this year on social media, and from the right and from right-wing newspapers, is that racism has gone away, it's been capitalized [on] by cynical black people and it would just go away if we didn't talk about it. Well, that is just another mechanism for trying to silence Black people. But it really is just saying, ‘Stop talking, we don't want to hear from you,’ and I refuse to accept this. I refuse to be silenced.

When I was a child and I was attacked in the playground, I was told, ‘Don't rise to the bait, just ignore it.’ Now I'm still told as an adult. I'm still told I ignore racism. No, I won't ignore racism.

Learn more

David Olusoga will be in conversation with Colin Grant on 29 October, discussing Black History in the Age of Black Lives Matter for Off The Shelf Festival of Words 2020.

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