There’s a point to ‘rainbow sprinkles’ for writing and ice cream.

Apparently the latest ‘jokey’ sneer about books with a range of racially, culturally, sexually diverse characters – when there’s no compelling plot reason for people having such differences – is to call this ‘adding rainbow sprinkles’. No, I haven’t bothered tracking this idiocy back to its source. Why waste my time? Anyone who thinks this snide soundbite is any kind of wisdom has clearly led a very sheltered, not to say blinkered and limited life. I doubt we’d have much in common.

For a start, they’ve never been in an ice cream parlour with small children. They really didn’t think this through, did they? Why do kids add rainbow sprinkles, caramel or strawberry sauce, chocolate flakes or chopped nuts to their dessert? All of them at once if they can get away with it. Because it makes things so much more interesting!

Plain vanilla is perfectly fine ice cream but it’s a one-note dish. And after you’ve eaten it the first time, you pretty much know what you’re going to get the next time. There’s only so much difference between premium brands using hand-picked authentic Madagascan vanilla and Sainsbury’s Own. So let’s see what happens if we add something else!

Why stop at putting something on top of plain vanilla? Take a look in the freezer section the next time you’re in a supermarket. Neapolitan. Tutti Frutti. Raspberry Ripple. And those are just the store brand flavours where a mix of different flavours is integral to the enjoyment. Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield have built a global corporation on expanding ice cream lovers’ taste horizons. Their ice creams have blueberries, cherries, brownies, peanuts, pecans, pumpkin – yes, really, I’ve been looking at their website.

Plain vanilla isn’t the whole or only story, any more than it’s the whole or only story walking down any High Street. We live in diverse and varied communities, whether or not those differences are instantly visible. Even I do, here in the depths of rural England, specifically the Cotswolds. In a district where school inspectors add notes to their official reports to highlight this is an area of very limited cultural diversity. Even here you’ll see black, brown and Asian faces when you’re out and about these days. Granted, not very many but their presence no longer turns astonished heads – which was absolutely the case when I first moved here thirty years ago. And there’s a Polish delicatessen now.

So why this ongoing insistence in books, TV and films that the white, male point of view is the only one there is and the only one that matters?

Cultural inertia. Everyday sexism. Institutional racism. Call it what you like, we all know it when we see it. And if things are going to change, we have to call it out and challenge it whenever we see it.

Intent is irrelevant. ‘We didn’t mean it like that,’ doesn’t matter. The small child in the ice cream parlour assuredly didn’t mean to knock their bowl of ice cream onto the floor when they weren’t paying attention. It still makes a mess that someone has to clean up. So we point out how the accident happened and encourage that kid to be more careful, so they don’t do it again. That’s how children learn. It’s not hard.

Maybe not for five year olds. Some older people seem to struggle. Let’s consider this week’s news about the new UK passport design with its ‘Creative United Kingdom’ theme, featuring William Shakespeare, John Constable, Anish Kapoor, Sir Antony Gormley, Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, Charles Babbage and John Harrison – along with Ada Lovelace and Elizabeth Scott. Seven men and two women. One person of diverse heritage. (Anish Kapoor’s background is fascinating.)

Institutional memory has evidently forgotten the bank notes row.

And how has Mark Thomson, director general of the Passport Office responded to criticism?

‘It wasn’t something where we said ‘let’s set out to only have two women’,” he said.

“In trying to celebrate the UK’s creativity we tried to get a range of locations and things around the country to celebrate our triumphs over the years, so there we are.”

Asked about the omission of female icons such as Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters, he said: “Whenever we do these things there is always someone who wants their favourite rock band or icon in the book.

“We’ve got 16 pages, a very finite space. We like to feel we’ve got a good representative view celebrating some real icons of the UK – Shakespeare, Constable and of course Elisabeth Scott herself.”

The decision to include two women and seven men was signed off by ministers, and the figures included were a “good representation” of artists and designers, he added.

(via the BBC)

Which shows just how those people, primarily privileged white men, who are making key decisions which shape the cultural landscape around us, can miss so many vital points by such an astounding margin. Anyone with the relevant Bingo card can pretty much score a Full House before the end of that article.

Absolutely no one is saying this was done deliberately. But it still reinforces the thoroughly Victorian idea that history, culture etc are only about the great deeds of great white men. With women and visible ethnic minorities very much the exception. And apparently the Welsh who seem to be completely unrepresented in any of the images chosen for this new passport.

Which completely misses the point that these great white men were also the exception. Almost everyone lived and lives thoroughly unexceptional lives. What made the difference to people’s achievements historically was not gender or race itself but access or not to the opportunities which were inextricably tied to race and gender. Even so, women and those from minority communities still managed to do remarkable things. Feel free to flag up your favourite examples in comments.

Moreover, that was then and this is now. If we are serious about commitment to equality of opportunity in real life, we need to show equality and diversity in our cultural background noise. So that what was once considered so astonishing that people genuinely stopped in their tracks to stare, like seeing a black person walking down a Cotswold High Street, becomes no longer worthy of comment. It becomes just the way things are. So no one gets the subliminal message that access to and participation in any area of life is somehow simply not for them.

And to go back to ice cream, those who don’t like different flavours don’t get to sneer at the rest of us who enjoy them. I can’t actually eat anything from Ben & Jerry’s since I have a cow’s milk protein intolerance. That doesn’t give me the right to insist that everyone only ever eats the same soya iced desserts as me. Even with sprinkles and as many different flavours as I can find.

This piece owes a good deal to insightful comments on a Facebook discussion. My thanks to all those who contributed.

5 comments

  1. I’m not, in general, a violent person – I don’t tend to think violence solves anything, but lines like “‘It wasn’t something where we said ‘let’s set out to only have two women’,” he said.” make me want punch things – or more specifically people.

    So WHAT if you didn’t set out to do it. That’s completely irrelevant – the fact is NO ONE on any of the committees involved noticed – or if they did – pointed it out. This is 2015 for crying out loud! Get the hell over yourselves and your wretched Boring Ass White Dudes (TM) PoV. You are NOT and NEVER HAVE BEEN the only people in the world capable of achieving greatness. You’re just making lame excuses and making yourselves look even more misogynistic is uttering such lines.

    (Okay, done ranting now. Not sorry…)

  2. Re the Welsh thing, I have to admit that I did miss the Cardiff pierhead building on the first image shown on the Guardian’s page. My eagle-eyed son (who works in Cardiff) spotted it and pointed it out to me.

    However, I would argue that it’s a token effort, just like only including two women. I didn’t recognise the building and it’s not particularly distinctive, being just a Victorian redbrick edifice not dissimilar to many that can be found in various English cities. Overall, considering it’s supposed to be a UK passport, not a London passport, it shows a very one-sided view of what the UK is.

  3. It’s so annoying! I think we’re lucky now in genre that many fans have begun the groundwork so that when we have publications and events, efforts to be inclusive are made from the get go. Still difficult – it’s seemingly more difficult to find female reviewers, and I know if I organise an event I get a ‘yes’ from the first or second fella I ask, and a few refusals before I can find a female participant, though often those refusals are never just a direct no… sense of obligation we all feel n’all.

    But yes, if the passport is supposed to show a design that represents us, then this would surely have been a primary consideration? The mind boggles.

    Love that it is Ada Lovelace being included as one of the women. Due to the campaign of Ada Lovelace day, this fantastic genius polymath is no longer an obscure historical personage, but one considered in the same breath as Babbage these days, and so she should be. Yes it would be great to have a couple more women on the passport design, but with a bit of positive fanfare this could also be an opportunity to spread a bit of knowledge about lesser known women of achievement. And not just women either, but non-posh-white dudes too. And I would have a question – do these people have to be dead? Because we should just put Idris Elba on everything!

    So, I have just a few suggestions, I’m sure others have loads, but these are figures whose stories have fascinated me over the years:

    Ann Yearsley – Eighteenth-century working class Bristol poet who contributed to the anti-slavery movement.

    Dolly Allen – Black Country comedian.

    Marie Lloyd – Victorian Music Hall singer

    Aphra Behn – Restoration playwright

    Evelyn de Morgan – Victorian painter and ceramics designer

    Joan Clarke – Bletchley Park codebreaker

    Dame Ellen Terry – Victorian actress and letter writer

    Emily Wilding Davison – suffragette

    1. Agreed, in all respects.

      And how about

      Rosalind Franklin – crucial to the discovery of DNA
      Mary Seacole – nursed wounded soldiers in the Crimea
      Bridget Riley – artist working with geometric forms, 1960s onwards. (Prints of her work adorned the stairwells in my hall of residence at Uni and were a bit of a challenge if you were coming back late, having drink taken… )

      We could go on all day!

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