Research and impact | By Chris Lines

How the pandemic exposed existing inequalities against Asian people

As the virus swept the globe, it exposed existing inequalities and divisions within communities. Racism suffered by people of Asian backgrounds in particular increased dramatically since the virus first began to spread internationally in early 2020.


The number of hate crimes against Asians reported to the Metropolitan Police in London alone tripled at the start of the pandemic, even though typically most similar incidents go unreported.


But racism and racial inequality towards people with Asian heritage was a widespread problem even before the pandemic.


In the screen industries, for instance, Asian actors have for many years often found themselves typecast in roles that draw on narrow and lazy stereotypes, or unable to audition for roles on account of their ethnicity.


One City academic seeks to challenge these inequalities through her research. The verbatim transcripts of research interviews conducted by Dr Diana Yeh from City’s Department of Sociology have been cleverly restaged in the form of classic British dramas in a series of short films by the independent filmmaker Rosa Fong.

The films, which were showcased as part of a recent British Film Institute (BFI) summit, highlight the invisibility of British East and Southeast Asians on British screens and show why their exclusion occurs despite the proliferation of diversity initiatives in recent years.


Dr Yeh says: “I am proud to have co-organised and participated in this event, which was the first of its kind in tackling issues of racial equality experienced by British East and South East Asians in the screen industries head on, through a series of powerful presentations as well as the launch of the BEATS test”.


The BEATS test takes its inspiration from the Bechdel Test, a measure of the representation of women in fiction and the Riz Test, which evaluates the portrayal of Muslims inspired by actor and rapper Riz Ahmed’s rallying 2017 speech about diversity.


To successfully pass the BEATS Test, a project must be able to answer ‘yes’ to the following three questions, in which ‘BESEA’ stands for British and Southeast Asians:


  1. Are there two or more BESEA characters?
  2. Do at least two BESEA characters speak fluent English with a British accent?
  3. Does at least one BESEA character pursue their own goal separate to the white characters?


At the BFI-BEATS summit, a number of examples were used to illustrate the need for the BEATS Test, including the Netflix London-based drama Girl/Haji (in which there were several BESEA characters but only one with a British accent) and the Harry Potter film franchise, which features just one BESEA character across eight films, demonstrating that even some of the best work can still fail.


Of the 17 films evaluated by BEATS, only three passed the test.


Fong’s three short films take Downton Abbey, Room At The Top and The Office as the inspiration for their tone and aesthetic.

Dr Yeh says she was “hugely honoured” to have her research turned into a series of short films by the award-winning Fong.


“These are immensely powerful films in capturing the heart-breaking effects of dehumanising practices in the industry,” she says.


“They also testify to the power of film — and the arts more generally — to help us expose and challenge issues of racial inequality,”