Soaps like Coronation Street and Emmerdale are finally tackling systemic racism

Lynda Cowell
·5-min read
Photo credit: ITV/Digital Spy - BBC
Photo credit: ITV/Digital Spy - BBC

From Digital Spy

It's always the way. You wait a billion years for a soap story about systemic racism, then all of a sudden, there they all are. Gagging to reflect the true-life experiences of Black Brits that are often dismissed as urban myths.

EastEnders was first. Last March, police arrested and physically abused Keegan, a young Black man, for a crime he didn't commit.

Now, both Emmerdale and Coronation Street are tackling the topic. Recent episodes of Emmerdale showed Ethan, a young Black man, being arrested for drug dealing despite the lack of evidence.

This week, it's been Coronation Street's turn. When Weatherfield police turned up to check out a burglary in the area, Michael – a young Black man – was the first suspect on the list.

Photo credit: ITV
Photo credit: ITV

After the shocking events of 2020, something like this was always on the cards. The heated mix of George Floyd's death, Black Lives Matter and a mega dose of global soul-searching all put Black issues on the map. For the first time in the history of never, Black became the new black and that's been reflected in everything from sympathy squares on social media to soap storylines.

Just like that, things changed. Systemic racism in the guise of stop and search, and racial profiling, has being going on for years but only now has the conversation gone beyond the Black community. It felt like not a day went by last year without a newspaper reporting the fact that Black people are nine times more likely to face stop-and-search than white people.

For some, its inclusion in the lives of Albert Square, Coronation Street and Woolpack regulars has been cause for celebration. MP Dawn Butler praised Emmerdale's Ethan storyline on Twitter but it has also made people think.

"I actually love this Keegan story. I genuinely feel so frustrated," said one Twitter user. It just goes to show that no matter how batshit crazy life through a soapy lens can be, it still has the power to make a difference. Whether it's rape, addiction, cancer or abuse, an issue-driven storyline can raise awareness like nothing else can.

Others, mainly in the dark recesses of Twitter, have been less impressed. "First EastEnders, then Emmerdale bring the Race baiting vicar's son, now Coronation St…" said one user on Twitter.

And while their main problem seemed to be similar storylines, it soon turned out that it was the 'BLM-supporting producers and actors' they really didn't like.

For the critics, Michael's run-in with police wasn't an expose of systemic racism in 21st-century Britain, it was just another push towards a 'woke' agenda, a chance to play the "old racist card" (sic) and an opportunity to lecture people with a "tedious police racism" story.

Photo credit: ITV
Photo credit: ITV

Critics aside, however, Coronation Street's decision to do this is both essential and necessary – but then it would have been both those things at any point over the last 50 years. Keegan, Ethan and Michael's experience of systemic racism could have played out on Corrie, EastEnders or Emmerdale in the '60s, '70s, '80s and beyond, but it wasn't and now they've all come at once.

If we were the kind of people who spat after saying the word 'woke,' we'd probably think this rash of copycat plots was suspicious too. After all, racism didn't exist until now. First they came for the Christmas adverts, then the blackface comedy and now the soaps.

But better late than never and it's a start, although it'll be intriguing to see where this goes. By their very nature, soaps pick up zeitgeist stories as quickly as they drop them. People get bored, things get stale and the plots run out of steam. It's light entertainment, for God's sake – how else do you explain Phil Mitchell's three-week crack habit?

But racism doesn't work like that. In reality, men like Michael aren't just stopped once for "fitting a description", they're stopped a million times before their lives are through. So, for this to truly work, Michael should be stopped by police every couple of months until his contract runs out.

Photo credit: ITV
Photo credit: ITV

And the racism wouldn't just be the systemic kind. How about throwing in some low-level racism from people who aren't just extras or regulars conveniently leaving the show? Given that it's all around us, it would be refreshing to see Black characters living with racist characters who are going nowhere – their neighbours and colleagues.

Maybe Craig could be exposed as a racist policeman, or Dev could follow the Baileys round the shop on a daily basis. Perhaps a bit of light-hearted bantz in the factory could veer into dodgy territory, or Rita could clutch her purse every time Michael hoves into view. You know, like the real world.

Corrie's producer Iain MacLeod has said that the Michael storyline is something of a slow-burner that will run until July.

"Obviously we touched upon that subject area with verbal racism earlier in 2020," he said, "but we'll now be playing out a more long-form exploration of systemic racism, which is of the more insidious and almost subliminal form." The Twitter critics won't be pleased but hopefully, it'll be something they just have to get used to.

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