Equity reports an ‘enormous’ increase in complaints of racism

Equity, the UK trade union for creative practitioners, has seen a massive upsurge in cases of racism reported across the stage and screen industries. Paul Fleming, the union’s incoming general secretary, said the complaints raised by members include “dignity issues” and racist language used in dressing rooms and auditions.

The union, which comprises 48,000 performers and creative professionals, saw a sudden rise of cases in the aftermath of the Black Lives Matter protests this summer. “The upsurge was enormous. In a period of time [during the lockdown] when nothing was happening, we were receiving dozens of complaints from groups and artists, and we’re still receiving them now,” said Fleming. “There has been a huge amount of dignity issues around hair and makeup through to reports of casual racism in dressing rooms and racist language in casting processes when people are at their most vulnerable.”

Many of the cases were historical and the spike follows a pattern similar to that seen in the direct aftermath of the #MeToo movement following Harvey Weinstein’s arrest, when there was a surge in historic cases of sexism.

Fleming believes that the anti-racist protests after the killing of George Floyd had become a catalyst for consciousness-raising and led actors and backstage staff to report incidents they had felt unable to speak about before now for fear of hampering their careers. “This moment has allowed members to consider reporting these incidents. The lockdown has also provided the space for them to articulate ‘that was wrong’ because society, at large, is acknowledging that this stuff is wrong.”

They have included cases from the commercial sector and the West End, which Fleming regarded as a significant change because conversations around race have usually involved members from subsidised theatre. “People from this part of the industry have never really been able to talk about systemic and structural racism in the way they have done now. Some are issues we have known about for a long time and tried to deal with, but we have never had the grassroots membership speak about it,” he said.

While the entertainment industry has spoken of its commitment to improving levels of diversity and inclusion in recent years, Fleming said he did not want members to return to conditions that existed before lockdown in March, as it had become evident that racist prejudice was rife.

He said even now there was a lack of acknowledgment of systemic racism or sexism by some. “A commercial theatre producer who spoke to me about sexual harassment told me that his company had robust reporting mechanisms and in 15 years not one issue had come up. To me that reporting mechanism is wrong, and it is this culture that we have to break, which assumes that zero reporting means zero cases.”

Equity is hoping to get the nation’s theatres to sign up to a pledge to guarantee a certain standard of inclusion and diversity. The pledge will address what the industry will look like on re-opening after the pandemic, and it will create a safety net for inclusion, including a dignity at work policy. “We’re hoping that individual theatres as well as umbrella bodies like UK Theatre and Society of London Theatre (SOLT), and the commercial sector, will sign up to this commitment.”

Earlier this summer, a group of 400 actors and theatre figures formed the Black Theatre Collective (BTC) and called on the industry to become less hostile to people of colour. Reforms to hair and makeup processes featured among its recommendations, as well as greater diversity in the hiring and retention of talent across all departments and more diversity in theatre criticism. Meanwhile, Equity’s president, Maureen Beattie, raised concern over “the rise of racist reviews” last year, while Equity launched a campaign in July to introduce ethical standards for critics and reviewers, led by actor Emmanuel Kojo, who the union said “has been subject to racist reviewing of his work”.

Fleming has pledged to make the union “actively anti-racist”, and said it was undergoing an internal review of equalities issues to drive out racism from within: “We can only tear down the structures which oppress black members and members of colour – whether within our workplaces or our society – if the union is fit for that fight. In the coming months I will work to change Equity’s structures to make us actively anti-racist … We will do this through open engagement with our members wherever they are.”

Fleming will begin his five-year tenure at the helm of Equity next month. At the age of 32, he is the youngest general secretary that Equity has ever had. He was voted in this summer after a campaign supported by Maxine Peake, Olivia Colman, Roger Allam and Indhu Rubasingham, among others, along with Daniel York Loh and Jassa Ahluwalia, both of whom were members of the union’s former minority ethnic members committee. All nine of its members resigned in March after Equity issued an apology to the actor Laurence Fox over tweets that the committee had posted in response to his comments on racism on BBC Question Time. This month, Fleming issued an apology to the union’s former race equality committee.

Born in Birmingham to working-class parents, Fleming was the first person in his family to go to university. Speaking of his vision for the future of Equity and its members, Fleming said he wanted to address the class barrier in theatre and television, which he felt intersected with race (“you are much more likely to be working class if you’re black”) as well as gender and sex discrimination, adding that cases of sexual assault against LGBTQ+ actors were woefully under-reported.

Reflecting on the effect of the pandemic on the theatre industry, he said that the precarious position that many theatres find themselves in now is not just due to the lockdown but a result of years of underfunding and government austerity: “If we had had a stable structure to begin with, we would not be in this crisis.”