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Growing up in the West as a minority, who were your childhood TV ‘super’ heroes?

Eve Dugdale

Published: Updated:

Who were your heroes when you were growing up?

I’m not talking about your big sister or that muscly uncle who lifted weights and always had the best trainers.

I mean those on the TV. Do you remember the people you looked up to as a child? Those who you dreamed of growing up to be just like.

Did they look like you or share any similarities to you at all?It’s likely if you were an Asian or Arab child growing up in the western world they didn’t. And it’s a point British actor Riz Ahmed made in a recent speech in Parliament.

The ‘Four Lions’ and ‘Star Wars Rogue One’ star had been invited to deliver Channel 4’s annual diversity lecture and warned that the continuing failure to champion diversity on TV is alienating young people.

The actor stressed that the lack of diverse voices and stories onscreen led people from minority backgrounds to ‘switch off and retreat to fringe narratives, to bubbles online and sometimes even off to Syria.’

As a white girl who used to switch on the TV and see tonnes of people who looked just like me, it’s something I had sadly never even considered. But it’s certainly something people of other ethnic minorities noticed growing up.

Naveed Butt is British Pakistani and says he never saw anyone like him on TV when he was younger. He identified more with the black celebrities he saw on TV rather than the white ones.

He says: “There weren’t many Muslims or as Asians on TV so my role models were people like Michael Jackson and Muhammad Ali. When there was a Muslim or Asian family on a TV soap opera it was a big thing but they weren’t like any Muslim family I’d ever seen. There were Bollywood films but they didn’t represent me. I don’t run around in parks singing love songs!

“That’s why, when I was growing up, Asian kids identified more with black people. We dressed like black people, tried to talk like black people, we didn’t have anything else. When we started watching black films we could empathise because they were oppressed, had struggles and were misunderstood. We couldn’t empathise with The Brady Bunch because we’d never seen anything like that! The problem was, behaving like this made me disassociate from my own culture and forget who I was really.”

It wasn’t until Naveed turned 20 years old that he remembers seeing something that ‘bridged the gap’ and finally made him realise his culture mattered and was represented in the mainstream media.

He adds: “The first film I could ever relate to was ‘East is East’. It was revolutionary to feel that white people were interested in what it was like for us when we were kids even though we were taking the mickey out of ourselves. It felt like the gap was bridged.”

Fellow British Pakistani, Abdul Iqbal also remembers the black TV stars he noticed growing up – in particular a former footballer for the English national team who now works as a sports commentator on ESPN.

“John "Digger" Barnes was my hero growing up,” He explains. “He was an awesome footballer. He used to make it look so easy. It wasn't cultural as I think, as a child, you don’t appreciate nuances like that - he just looked more like me than anyone else and he excelled.”

While stressing that having no heroes who he could truly identify with as a child wasn’t a big deal for him as a child, Abdul says he feels it is more of an issue for young people nowadays.

He explains: “We weren't being bombarded with negativity about Muslims as young people are nowadays. We lived at a time that a bomb could have gone off in the US and we didn’t hear about it. We had the IRA to worry about – that’s who scared us. With todays’ transmedia you know what’s happing everywhere and it’s a real overload of negativity.

“What you have are two fundamental issues - under education and ghetto mentality. That didn’t really exist to the level it does now when I was growing up, apart from inner cities so when you see no future, on the macro you may need hope and positivity on TV.”

And British born Abu Laith Bouhtouri says he had to look to America to find some kind of connection.

He says: “My love for Muhammad Ali stemmed primarily from the fact that he was called Muhammad so he felt like he was one of ‘us’ and he was so cool and loved. There didn’t seem to be any others.”