And don’t give me that ‘we’ll lose our audiences if we diversify’ excuse. I’m pretty sure you will pick up a fair few of the other ethnicities just hanging around waiting for a show that’s going to be relevant to them. You might actually increase your audience, especially because the 2011 Census tells us that over a quarter of Australia’s population were born overseas (ABS 2012).
So you’re effectively excluding about 6 million people by casting only white actors. Good one.
With such a small number of other ethnicities in the media, the few who get airtime are saddled with the burden of representation for their race, and become the standard for their entire community (Dreher 2013). This is particularly a problem because many ethnicities are only represented in the news for negative reasons (Jakubowicz 2011).
The media is a crucial stakeholder in the shaping of key public debates and how they are framed in wider society. And whilst overt incitement of racial hatred is rare – the text message organisation of the Cronulla riot’s being an obvious exception – the more surreptitious racial stereotypes leached into our media can do far more damage, seeping into the consciousness of the public and making racialization natural and normalised. As a result, it has become common for news to report on complex social and political issues by explaining them in terms of race, ethnicity and religion (Dreher forthcoming 2014) making terms like ‘arab other’ and ‘illegals’ hard to quash.
Of course, we must recognize that the diversification of ethnicities in the media, in particular on TV networks, is often put in the too hard basket because of the perceived difficulty in creating a non-white character that has realistic flaws and challenges, without being seen as racist. Of all the excuses for Australia’s poor ethnic media diversity, I feel this one has the most merit. Sometimes the importance given to political correctness can be difficult to navigate, and certainly TV producers don’t want to be seen as racist.
And of course, you don’t want to just replace one stereotype with another. That isn’t helpful for making a more wholesome media.
Nevertheless, changes need to come about quick. As Jakubowicz (2011) says, ‘the situation that persists in Australia would never be allowed in the UK, Canada or the USA – or even NZ/ Aotorea.’ These countries have long-term lobbies that pressure TV stations into the fair representation of all races and ethnicities. They recognise that broader society is inherently multicultural, and the appearance of only white people in the media is not an accurate depiction of reality.
So come on Australia, New Zealand already beat us on gay marriage equality! Pick up your game and put some multigrain in your media bread!
Australian Bureau of Statistics 2012, ‘Cultural Diversity in Australia: The 2011 Census’, accessed 9th May, http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/Lookup/2071.0main+features902012-2013.
Dreher, T 2013, ‘Whitebread Media’, BCM301 Lecture, May 6th, University of Wollongong.
Dreher, T (forthcoming) 2014, ‘White Bread Media’, in The Media and Communications in Australia eds. S Cunningham & S Turnbull, Allen and Unwin.
Jacubowicz, A 2011, ‘Race media and identity in Australia’, accessed 8th May, Murdoch University, http://andrewjakubowicz.com/publications/race-media-and-identity-in-australia/.