An important piece of work, Misfits depicts Michaela Coel’s vision through anecdotes from her life. As a self-described storyteller, she details her experiences in a transparent, thought-provoking way – from the perspective of a “misfit”: someone who could see that they do not typically fit in and – as Coel puts it – “felt they were judged and disempowered before even speaking”.
Coel does not sugar-coat or conceal the reality of working in white-dominated industries, exposing the intersectional discrimination she has faced through racism, sexism or classism, from school into her professional career. Like me, Coel grew up in East London. What flows throughout this memoir is the London social housing estate that is in plain sight yet somehow unseen. This feels like it mirrors the life story of people of colour, Black people, or African Caribbean people, where it is confusing that we can be so visible and yet still are often overlooked.
A key takeaway from this short memoir is that despite the efforts of those at the top to be inclusive, or to not be racist, racism along with other forms of discrimination still exists due to the lack of diversity among those in positions of power. Coel references what she thought was a major break at her acting school, giving her a leading role, but it turned out that the play would be performed over the river, somewhere the talent scouts would not dare to go. This is a story that most people of colour would recognise. This is a situation where, initially, it seems that you have been given a great opportunity – however you don’t have to dig much further down to realise there are additional hurdles in the way. I often use this metaphor to describe racism to people who don’t understand it: yes, we may have both run 100m but in my lane, I had to jump over hurdles at the same time. It is only when more people with lived experiences reach positions of power, that we will be able to make true progress.
An Emmy and Bafta award winning actor, director and screenwriter – best known for her series I May Destroy You – Coel exposes how being the only Black person at the top is isolating, touching on the mental health difficulties she has faced through her job. By speaking about the issues she has witnessed or survived, she is a part of changing the narrative, moving the dial on racism and misogyny. Doing this in a strong unapologetic way will no doubt encourage other “misfits” to come forward.
Coel’s anecdotes resonate with me – and I’m sure with many other women of colour, Black women, African women. We often feel alone and unwelcome in these typically all white spaces, even when these spaces are filled with women. One of the biggest shocks for me was the lack of support I received from senior white women in politics. I thought we were in the struggle together. The truth is, as beautifully put by Coel, we have had to be resilient, whether we wanted to or not, and “this resilience is born from having no safety net at all. Having to climb ladders with no stable ground beneath you and all our ladders were faulty”.
This memoir is significant and tells us that we can no longer accept being told “that’s the way it is” by certain industries and institutions. It is also a call to action.
Whether you are a misfit, an outsider, or just someone who is overlooked – now is the time to speak your truth. Hold those in power to account. And for those who refuse to support your journey, hold your ladder, or give you the code for the lift – don’t cover for them, expose them, and move on to better and bigger things.