The Ethnicity Online panel took place on Sunday at Summer in the City 2017 in Panel Room A. It featured Jana Damanhouri, Jemel Akeem, Eman Kellam, and Nadir Nahdi, and was chaired by Taha Khan.
The panel quickly introduced themselves and their channels: Jemel interviews “drunk people on the weekend”, Jana uploads videos in English and Arabic, Taha “uploads rarely”, Eman (who had lost most of his voice by this point in the weekend) talks about London culture, and Nadir creates videos about experiencing a cultural identity crisis.
Taha kicked off the discussion by asking, “Why is it important to have diversity?” Jana felt that it was important to have diverse representation because she “just had white role models growing up, and it’s hard to relate to people. Young people need that representation and to see themselves in the media.” Nadir agreed: “As a young minority person growing up, you just don’t see yourself online. You can’t imagine yourself in their roles.”
He went on to celebrate how YouTube caters to such a diverse range of people, saying, “It’s amazing to see people from a range of backgrounds”. Jana then followed up by discussing the importance of having diversity for body positivity: “When I was 12, I was like, ‘Oh my god, Britney is the image of a perfect female’. It’s harder to accept yourself when you don’t have the same hair type and features – [you think] you don’t look beautiful because you don’t look like that.”
Taha then dropped a big question: “Why is YouTube so white?” Jemel shared that he was browsing YouTube and by clicking through a beauty channel’s subscriptions, saw a huge range of creators of different ethnicities, but “there’s no way of finding them unless I spend hours browsing through channels. Lots of people out there who have amazing stuff don’t get the light of day on mainstream [platforms].” Jana then emphasised the importance of putting more effort into restoring balance as “we live in a society where it’s mostly white people in senior positions”.
Eman feels that “YouTube isn’t very white, it’s the white creators that are being the platform”, and that in America, there are more initiatives to push for diversity, such as the YouTube Black initiative, which the UK lacks. Nadir felt that the lack of diversity was tied into class, because those from ethnic minorities tend to be from working-class backgrounds: “The priority isn’t to push them into creative fields but into industries with a lot of money. The priority isn’t subs, but putting food on the table.” Jana agreed, as her mother felt that she still needed to go to uni and get a job: “With the culture of white British people, it’s more respectable to do things like YouTube.” Nadir felt that over time, parents will understand, grow, and adapt.
Taha shared his story of how he explained to his parents that he was going into YouTube: “I told them I was going on a venture where I go into a new media space to create new opportunities for myself, and it sounded academic so they were okay with it.”
Nadir felt that privilege is being able to talk about any subject and receive a lot of views while “for me, I have to talk about diversity and what it’s like to be a minority”. The panel agreed, feeling that they were “held to a different standard”. Nadir and Taha said “privilege is the ability to stuff marshmallows in your mouth and get three million views. There are no brown people stuffing marshmallows in their mouths.”
Eman stressed the importance of stopping the “‘us and them’ mentality. There shouldn’t be a certain class of creators – if they have an audience who want to see them, get them in.” However, he said there shouldn’t be diversity for diversity’s sake: “Get them here because they’re good and deserve to be here.” Jana emphasised that there was a responsibility to make the conscious decision to invite creators from diverse backgrounds.
Taha raised the issue of class and diversity: “You can’t have a diverse panel if everyone on it is brown and black and they’re all middle-class.” Nadir stated that “what’s beautiful about YouTube is this ecosystem where everyone can talk about whatever they want” but warned against “talking to a mirror. It would be amazing to talk to people who need to hear it, crossing classes, culture, and race.”
Taha then asked the panel, “How do you engage with the whites?”, pointing out that the audience at the panel were primarily from ethnic minority backgrounds: “How are we tackling the issue of diversity with white creators who have the platform?” Jana felt that “diversity isn’t a sexy topic”, pointing out that the YouTube Honesty Hour panel was being held at the same time as this panel, and that this was her sixth Diversity panel and “there’s never been a great turnout”. She stressed that it’s “not our job to go up to white people and say, ‘Hey, we’re just like you’.” Nadir felt that “they should come to us, rather than us to them”.
Eman shared his story: “You can make a lot of effort, but with class, I’ve had people look at me and have a stereotype. In previous years, people clutched their handbags in the green room when I walked in.” He joked that if he wanted their bags, clutching them wouldn’t help them. He shared his exasperation with how “you want to talk to people, but people can be stuck up because of their ego, their subscriber numbers, and all that crap.” Nadir said that “creatively, I don’t want to think about them – I want to be the best I can be and get success in my own right”, also feeling that they should come to him.
Jemel shared a story that recently, a group of white boys ran up to him wanting his photo, and was surprised but happy that they see him as Jemel and “not a black guy. It gives me faith in what I’m doing.”
Taha then asked how companies and corporations could do more to promote minorities. Jana replied that they need to put a spotlight on YouTubers and “they’ve got to put in an extra amount of effort to ensure they’re included and noticed”. Nadir emphasised that “there’s no point having an equal end goal if the starting point is unequal”, and said it was important to acknowledge and appreciate those in the mainstream, and the white people who build others up.
Eman and Jana also pointed out that you have to know when people are fake. Jana said diversity is “cool now – the new word is ‘woke’. Everyone thinks you’re really cool because you have diverse friends and you’re cool with having diverse people. You’ll always get people who jump on these trends.”
Taha asked the panel if they ever feel that they’re invited to events for their content, or just because the event needed people from an ethnic background. Jana confirmed that she feels the latter, especially at the most recent VidCon: “A lot of my white friends weren’t invited even though they had more subscribers than me.” However, ultimately she felt they were all at SitC because “we make content that people want to watch”. Eman stressed that he doesn’t want to be seen as “the token black guy” and that he tries to bring up smaller creators who come from the same background as him. Nadir pointed out that that “inter-minority relationships need to be protected”, and Eman agreed: “Colourism is a big thing in black communities.”
Taking questions from the audience, someone asked where the disconnect was – why were ethnic minority YouTubers underrepresented and what can YouTubers do? Jana said it was important to look at how events started, pointing out that for Summer in the City, it was big white YouTubers who started the event and “their audiences are predominantly white, and the majority have been here for all these years”. Nadir stressed the need for cultural mobility and that organisers need more “sensitivity and awareness”.
Another audience member asked whether, if a global event affects their respective minority groups, the creators feel pressure to speak about it because their audience looks to them. Jemel explained that he is more vocal on Twitter because he feels the conversation there is more mature. He doesn’t always make videos on topics because “I don’t feel it would be as effective as discussions on Twitter”. Jana agreed: “To be a spokesperson is dangerous. You wouldn’t expect white people to do it. It’s ridiculous to expect anyone from a minority to be a spokesperson. You can if you’re educated but you shouldn’t have to.” Jamel added: “I’m not the face of black people and my voice isn’t the voice of others.” Nadir pointed out that “white people aren’t worried about how white creators represent their community”. Taha muttered “Jake Paul”, and pointed out that “if he was a minority, you would be compared to him all the time”.
The final question from the audience was: “White YouTube has covered everything from fidget spinners to marshmallows. What do you think ethnic YouTube needs more of?” Eman explained that he dislikes the term “ethnic YouTube”, stating that “we should be just seen as ‘YouTube’. It’s not us and them. I feel like we should just continue to make the content we’re making and engage with people who want to.”
Jana acknowledged that “we can offer more because we have different experiences, and that’s something white YouTubers can’t speak about. We can voice that and express that… I think it’s worth acknowledging that we are different and the perspective we can share.”
Jamel felt that YouTube was becoming fragmented, comparing it to The Hunger Games with “the white people in the Capitol”. He suggested that the problem lies within people in YouTube – “We are a community, but people are cliquey and territorial. We can share an audience. They’re not losing something by working with you. You’re going to gain a new audience. There’s enough space at the table, we can all eat” – gaining a round of applause from the room.
Eman agreed, feeling there was a sense of competition especially amongst minorities: “Because there’s only a few of us getting pushed out there, people feel a need to take them down. People need to eliminate the sense of ego.” Nadir pointed out that at the beginning, Zoella, Alfie, and Joe were all friends from Surrey who supported each other, and that it makes no sense to not work together: “Why are the people who are struggling the most hating on each other the most?”
Photos by George Yonge.
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