Sherif's exit from Love Island suggests ITV only cares about the wellbeing of white contestants

Jason Okundaye

After what many felt was a slow start, the fifth season of Love Island is finally heating up – with beautiful bombshells threatening the romantic security of existing couplings, and unforeseen plot twists ensuring that the love game’s dynamics remain fluid, unexpected, and gripping.

But for many viewers, the uncomfortable racial themes which play out in the show undermine our ability to enjoy the series, forcing us to cringe and watch through our fingers as the villa’s desirability hierarchy consistently places the darkest skinned men and women at the bottom.

But Love Island’s race problem isn’t one that has been visually triggering or played out on screen. Quite the opposite of this in fact, it concerns the disappearance of former contestant Sherif Lanre and the subsequent mystery concerning his removal. Speaking to The Sun in an article published on 15 June, Lanre argued that the show’s producers treated him “like a criminal” when they removed him, not allowing him to say goodbye to the other contestants or even pack his bags.

Social media quickly circulated rumours about Lanre’s disappearance soon after the news about his departure broke. Many were quite patently racially coded, with a reliance on an ensemble of tropes – unbridled sexuality, substance abuse, physical aggression – frequently used against black men to construct an image of Lanre as a deviant worthy of his eviction.

There was first the suggestion that the 20-year-old black male was removed for his uncontrolled sexuality, after being caught pleasuring himself in the bathtub. Then there were rumours that Lanre had met with drug dealers in Majorca and purchased weed or cocaine.

Most convincingly, and seemingly confirmed by doctored Instagram direct message screenshots, many believed that Lanre had been axed from the villa for breaking Anton Danyluk’s wrist after he taunted him with racial slurs and made a move on Lanre’s former partner, Anna Vakili. Intense squints at the television or laptop screen, however, confirmed there was no brace or bandages on Anton’s wrist.

So after the imaginative brainstorming from Love Island’s audience, when Lanre finally broke his silence in The Sun’s article, I found myself thinking, “is that it?”. According to the former contestant, he had been booted off the show following an accidental kick to fellow contestant Molly-Mae Hague’s groin during a playfight and jokingly referring to the incident as a “c**t punt” to contestant Tommy Fury.

Even though the severity of the term “c**t” varies by region and culture, I accept and acknowledge that the term as a reference to female genitalia has a deeply misogynistic history and is one which women, in particular, may be sensitive to. And despite Lanre’s assertions that Molly-Mae took no offence, I recognise that individual people not being offended by certain terms doesn’t lessen the potential impact they have on those they’re directed towards.

But there appears to be a racial double standard when it comes to Love Island contestants and swearing. Many were quick to point out that Series 4 contestant Ellie Brown used the word against Georgia Steel, with Lanre himself stating on Victoria Derbyshire this morning that this was directed “with malicious intent” rather than jokingly. No form of punishment or warning was issued to Brown, so it appears that the punitive machinery of the Love Island villa is selective over who is and isn’t punished for similar transgressions.

This is not even to say that Brown should have been kicked off for referring to Steel as an “ugly c**t”. Ofcom’s 9pm watershed in its broadcasting code means that reality television shows like Love Island show after this time – we expect there to be swearing, we expect there to be conduct which is perhaps more vulgar or provocative. Never have I heard of a contestant being booted off a reality television show for swearing, and while Ofcom has “c**t” in the highest tier of offence for non-discriminatory swearing, it is still labelled as “generally acceptable post-watershed".

Many of us recall ex-Big Brother presenter Davina McCall saying to housemates “Big Brother, this is Davina. You are now live on Channel 4, please do not swear” before announcing an eviction. There are boundaries to not be crossed and parameters of offence but swearing has always been an accepted part of adult reality television – so why has Lanre been punished for doing what contestants have been doing since reality television’s inception?

This issue goes beyond this singular c-word gaffe. Lanrea also said that the racial double standard of Love Island’s production politics is even more explicit than what we can see, as he claimed a white, male contestant in the villa had used the n-word when rapping song lyrics.

Speaking to The Sun, he claimed: “There was one guy, who I will not name, who repeatedly used the n-word as he rapped in front of me. He said it two or three times and he was not pulled aside even though the code forbids racist language. The same rules did not seem to apply to the other contestants.” Some have speculated if the contestant is Joe Garratt, whose fun fact during a challenge was that he could rap all the words to Biggie Smalls’ Juicy which contains 6 references to the anti-black slur. While ITV claimed that they found no reference to the n-word in their footage, on Victoria Derbyshire, Lanre claimed that there are “witnesses” to the repeated incidents who can confirm his story.

The Love Island producers have emphasised their duty to care and after-care for the wellbeing of their contestants, particularly since the show came under fire following the death by suicide of Series 3 contestant Mike Thalassitis.

But it seems that this duty of care does not truly extend to black contestants. Having to hear the n-word repeatedly with no intervention would have a damaging impact on the black contestant’s mental health and comfort within the villa, as many studies document how the psychological impacts of racism contribute to disproportionate rates of mental illness and psychiatric detention within black communities.

In the broadcast interview, his first since leaving the villa, Lanre also noted a sexual double standard at work wherein female contestants would repeatedly slap his bum. Even though Lanre brushed this off as not bothering him, his recognition that had roles been reversed he would’ve been punished for the same behaviour is resonant for many of us as black men.

Racism presents black men as sexual aggressors, particularly when it comes to compromising the safety of white women, just by existing. So the fact Lanre’s bum was slapped and consent boundaries were crossed with no warning or intervention amplifies the fact that black men’s bodies are viewed as being up for grabs under the terms and conditions of white spectators.

Lanre also shed light on how producers control the experience of black contestants, failing to take their wellbeing into account when they repeatedly fail to cast Islanders who will have a sexual and romantic attraction to black people. As many will remember all too painfully, contestant Samira Wiley’s experience of the villa slapped us with the crude reality of Britian’s desirability politics which consistently places black people at the bottom. Following Series 5’s first episode, Series 3 contestant Marcel Somerville tweeted that the episode gave him “flash backs” of being chosen last as black and mixed-race contestants Lanre, Yewande Biala, and Michael Griffiths once again ranked bottom. How can we trust that the producers are extending their duty of care to all contestants when year on year black contestants are made to feel ugliest, and black audiences have to once again endure distressing visuals and exhausting arguments about racial preference?

It is difficult to watch Love Island as a black viewer, and this year seems to provide no relief from that. The lack of screen time for black contestants, implicit misogynoir (sexism shaped by racist ideas about black women) and seemingly uncaring conduct from producers could be enough to call for a cultural boycott of the show.

This isn’t to say that people should stop watching – reality television is the ultimate collective guilty pleasure, and we continue to watch accepting that we won’t always like what we see. There are also moments of joy for black audiences, as writer Bolu Babalola has comically termed the Michael-Amber, Yewande-Danny couplings as the Island’s “ACS” (Afro-Caribbean Society).

But still, something’s got to give. How long can the show continue to ignore what black audiences are saying about the treatment of black contestants? And, now that we have seen how easily the show can disappear black people from their screens, how can black audiences trust the producers to create a truly racially inclusive environment?