Yes, It’s Common: I Experienced First-Hand Racism in the Television Industry
In 1981, my mother boarded a plane from Sri Lanka to Australia. With not a word of English, she was forced to leave an increasingly hostile environment, caused by the civil war. Close to her chest she held hope that the endless opportunity she'd heard whsipers of in Australia could become a reality for not just her, but her future children. In 2015 the Australian Bureau of Statistics, found that just over 28 percent of Australia’s population was considered to be immigrants, and according to Population Australia, a new immigrant is landing on our shores every two minutes and 39 seconds, so I’m sure it’s a sentiment she shared with many others who now call Australia home. But though our country is largely made up of a diasporic community, when we turn on our televisions, it’s a cultural landscape not represented on our screens.
With a few clicks between any of our commercial broadcast channels, any foreigner would be forgiven for thinking that our nation is largely compromised of Caucasian surfers and blonde beauties with salt-kissed hair who only dwell near the beach, scenes reminiscent of the cultural norm portrayed in the '80s cult film Puberty Blues. Which is not entirely wrong, it is just a plot line that represents only a small proportion of who we are as a country. But while there have long been rumblings in agency waiting rooms of the conscious white-wash casting that runs rampant within the Australian media industry, a recent study conducted by Screen Australia, titled Seeing Ourselves, threw legitimacy to these whispers, finding that though only two-thirds of Australians sit in an Anglo-Celtic category, they are largely represented with over 80 percent of our television characters being Caucasian. In this study, Screen Australia also found that in other measures of diversity—the LGBTQI+ community and differently abled Australians—scripted Australian TV fell extremely short when it came to representing these communities of people.
Nerida Moore the senior development executive at Screen Australia believes that part of this under-representation doesn’t necessarily stem from a conscious choice to leave out minority groups, but perhaps, could be due to lack of resource and time allowed to understand the full-scope of the immigrant experience, “it’s rare that writers have paid research time to investigate diverse stories and characters, so if they don’t have any personal experience to draw from be it sexual orientation, disability or an ethnic background it can be challenging for them to write an authentic character.” Moore also looks overseas for parallel examples we can model closer to home. “Ensuring there is enough diverse on-screen talent coming into the industry to be able to cast appropriately is also a challenge, and some of the structures in place in other markets to encourage diversity have not eventuated in Australia yet. For example, in the US it’s common for casting calls to include ‘send any ethnicity’ roles” Moore explains.
But it seems that these communities are not only under served in scripted television dramas. In a 2016 study reported on by the ABC, consultancy firm, PricewaterhouseCoppers, found that when surveying local media outlets, the average Australian journalist was a “a 27-year-old white male who lives in Bondi” pointing to a larger issue of the severe homogeneity that disperses across the entire media industry within Australia.
The media has long been an avenue of representation. It exists to inform, shift, and cultivate community, but when we only promote one type of group, how do we expect our nation to ever move on and fully embrace not only our history but our future?
Hindsight is a powerful thing, and I wish I knew how ingrained ethnic exclusion in the industry was when I started to lust after a career within it. But as a 19-year-old budding creative, you can’t possibly know systematic racism until you experience it first-hand. My television career started by chance. A former art teacher gave me a call and asked if I was interested in auditioning for a role as a music television presenter. So, I took the serendipitous nature of this opportunity, draped myself in an all-black outfit, paired with biker boots and went up against thousands of other hopefuls.
Luckily, the channel that I was auditioning for has long been an advocate of a diverse representation in Australia, and thanks to its belief in fostering untapped potential, I landed my dream job. By the words of many producers, cameramen, and fellow onscreen faces, "I had made it so young." considering I was the first presenter "of colour" they had worked with. And it was this knowledge that I held close to my chest, as I traipsed throughout Sydney and Melbourne interviewing international celebrities and local heavyweights. My contrasting skin colour in a sea of white only dimly played in the background, because I felt that I had defied the odds. Hired for my ability to talk endlessly, I could ignore the little jabs, like make-up artists not having my foundation colour (because "they had never needed it before") or, cameramen grunting at the fact that I needed more lighting, and thus took more effort to look good on screen. These were only superficial wounds.
Though I knew I was the exception to the rule, it was in trying to plan the next steps of my career that revealed my true minority status within the industry. Having managed to attain several interviews with some of the country’s most elite agents and managers, I was confident in my chances to gain representation, and thus, auditions for new opportunities. Different boardroom, same spiel: I was told by a panel of all-white experts that there was no room for another ethnic presenter in what was a closed door, highly-guarded industry of old-school executives who weren’t willing to take a risk. After all, another television presenter—who it’s worth mentioning is a completely different ethnicity to me—was Australia’s (one and only) nod to diversity at the time. The options laid before me were limited condolence offerings: Buy a one-way ticket to the UK, or, get a degree and go into radio, because luckily, I did have an "Australian accent."
Adamant that belief in oneself equates to success, and filled with an abundance of feel-good quotes underlined from a host of happy-psychology books, I continued to push hard for any opportunity that came my way. Out of options, I found an almost-retired agent outside of Sydney who had a few lingering connections to the industry. Every audition went the same: I was sat next to an all-white cast, placed right on the edge of the camera, and told to laugh as if something was funny. Apparently, I’m to be cast as the 'quirky best friend'. The only auditions I got call backs for were marked with ‘non-caucasian extra’ next to my name. And though there was regular talk about how things were slowly changing, powerless and tired, I chose to turn to the indiscriminate power of words and diverted into publishing. That way, I could say what I wanted without being penalised for my darker shade.
My second tool would be a tertiary education. Armed with a degree, I didn’t have to rely on my looks for success. I could create more opportunities for myself than my mother ever could. While I was never able to crack the television industry—whether it was due to my ethnicity, wrong timing or simply, slim chances—I still believe that change can come from personal testimony. That is why I try to make small decisions to uphold my minority status within the broader media sphere. It is why I decided to change my married name back to my Indian maiden—every time I see my by-line, I am reminded that collectively, my family has taken a step forward—considering my parents couldn’t speak English when they immigrated. It is also why in a room of mostly Caucasian women I embrace the feeling of isolation that surges like a wave over me, trying to remember that I belong here too. I also make a conscious effort to speak openly about my immigrant status, and the reality for many who move here with nothing but a passport. And more recently, when I hear covert stereotypes against immigrants, I speak up, no matter the setting, no matter how awkward. These are the little wins that I can fight for.
“television matters because it is so much a part of contemporary daily life, and television drama matters in particular because of its capacity to create emotional connections, insight and identity. It reflects our sense of who we are as a society, and who we might be. For drama to resonate with audiences the stories must be authentic and represent the Australia we live in today.”
When I see acclaimed faces like Lee Lin Chin and Waleed Aly on the screen I am filled with a personal sense of pride, because I know that their climb was against extreme racial prejudice—creatives like Benjamin Law and Firras Dirani can also vouch for this reality. The media has long been an avenue of representation. It exists to inform, shift, and cultivate community, but when we only promote one type of group, how do we expect our nation to ever move on and fully embrace not only our history but our future?
While you could argue that entertainment is just that, an avenue to amuse us after a long day, Moore shines a light on its true importance in providing viewers with a sense of their own identity, “television matters because it is so much a part of contemporary daily life, and television drama matters in particular because of its capacity to create emotional connections, insight and identity. It reflects our sense of who we are as a society, and who we might be. For drama to resonate with audiences the stories must be authentic and represent the Australia we live in today.” Sitting degrees away from the television industry, I can now see slight positive change towards a more inclusive casting scaffolding for both actors, and less so, reporters, but largely, the sentiment is the same. My hope is that when my kid turns on a television, they'll be able to find some representation of themselves, maybe even on the set of Summer Bay.