As someone who hasn’t watched the Logies in years, I’ll tune in this Sunday to cheer on Waleed Aly and Lee Lin Chin. First and foremost, because they are outstanding examples of media excellence. But also because they give me hope that our accolades are open to all, and that Australians can learn to embrace diversity in their media a little bit more.
Race in the media is a sensitive issue and we urgently need more diverse faces on our screens, more accents on our airwaves and a more accurate representation of the Australian population.
When Karl Stefanovic quipped that Lisa Wilkinson was “too white"’ to be nominated for a Logie, it became clear that our bias isn’t even subconscious. His comment was particularly disappointing, given that Stefanovic once sounded off about whitewashing on television, declaring that ”white people are pretty bland“.
As an Indian-Australian, I once pursued a career in drama and media, and found the bias to be all too evident. Casting calls for extras and auditions for television commercials constantly ended with me heading home early, being told I’d draw too much attention because of my ethic looks. At one audition I was told:
It’ll be hard to fit you into the story, as there’s no reason for an Indian to be there.
When I tried my hand at television presenting, the trainers at a commercial channel told me I "screamed SBS”, and encouraged me to pursue roles over there. Of course, I found instant success for roles that required my cultural stereotype, such as any ad for an Indian cooking product or Subway’s Chicken Tikka Sub.
Theatre was no different. Outside of community theatre, when the stakes got higher, directors would question their need for racially diverse actors. One explained to me that casting a “black Ophelia” would be making a political statement he didn’t wish to make.
I’m not going to blame my lack of media success on race. I had other interests and made an early decision to pursue a different career path. Frankly, I lacked the tenacity and the talent to make a go of it. I also know it’s not impossible for ethnically diverse Australians to make it on air. Yumi Stynes, Faustina “Fuzzy” Agolley and Jay Laga’aia were all fantastic role models, particularly in the youth media sector.
But the fact remains that you can still watch an evening of television and be confronted by wall to wall whiteness that doesn’t represent the Australia of today. This is a stark contrast to British, American or Canadian television, where people from a wide range of racial backgrounds are regularly featured on air, with no justification needed for their inclusion. The viewing audience doesn’t bat an eyelid because the casting is so regularly inclusive.
The media agenda filters down. Despite having lived in Australia my entire life, I’m regularly asked where I’m “really from”, more so here than in the countries previously mentioned.
Our concept of Australian-ness is a very white one, in part because different skin tones, accents and dress codes aren’t presented as being the norm. Casting agents continually seek an “Australian look”, which is inherently Anglo-Saxon. Therefore anyone outside of that frame must be from somewhere else, and is unconsciously othered.
The media has a greater reach that we can imagine. As much as we consider ourselves a multicultural society, dominant ethic groups often have limited direct contact with people from marginalised racial groups As a result, much of the information that Australians hold about marginalised groups comes from the mainstream media.
What television producers might term “good casting” can be downright dangerous. If Indigenous Australians and refugees are presented as violent, threatening or unruly (as was found in numerous studies), next to white people cast as intelligible newsreaders, contented families or orderly citizens, it sends a disturbing message that some groups should be feared or avoided.
If the media avoids diverse accents, it contributes to the stereotype that people from diverse language groups are uneducated or can’t speak English.
This week, the new ABC boss, Michelle Guthrie used her first official day in the job to announce that she’d push for more diversity on the public broadcaster.
Reading over my shoulder, a colleague said to me:
“How ridiculous. Why would I want to hear more accents on air?”
This is precisely the reason why.