Without a doubt, one of the great disappointments of my career is that, despite the years I and so many others have spent highlighting the lack of racial diversity in the media, in film, and especially on television, nothing much has changed.
Every second week seems to bring with it yet another Hollywood whitewashing scandal, while closer to home, the overwhelming whiteness of our media and television landscape means the voices of people of colour are, with a few exceptions, kept firmly on the margins.
With Australia’s default setting firmly set to ‘white,’ it is not surprising that in a social climate that still prioritises white voices, bigotry is on the rise. Outrageous statements such as those recently made by returned senator Pauline Hanson and television host Sonia Kruger are not only considered acceptable but are vociferously defended.
"...When inclusion of racial minorities is not an explicit priority, the perspectives of people of colour are devalued leading to embarrassing oversights like this."
Kruger, you may recall, in discussing Islam and terrorism with two other white people (of course), advocated the banning of all Muslim immigration because she wants to "feel safe" when "celebrating Australia Day" (side note: oh, the irony of demanding your right to celebrate land theft and attempted genocide in peace).
Championing a broader range of perspectives is vital if we are to have any chance of countering this rising hatred. By making diversity a priority, media and television producers can ensure that bigoted perspectives are not broadcast without immediate challenge.
Even the United States, for all its problems, would not broadcast a panel show discussing the Black Lives Matter movement without a single black person present, as happened on a recent episode of The Drum.
The episode was widely panned on social media but it’s worth noting that the whiteness of the panel was more a result of oversight than a deliberate snub- the panellists would have been finalised well before the slaying of five police officers in Dallas prompted that particular discussion. But that is in essence the problem: when inclusion of racial minorities is not an explicit priority, the perspectives of people of colour are devalued leading to embarrassing oversights like this.
This sort of exclusion is standard practice, it’s just that we only notice it on certain occasions.
Sadly, this meant that when one of the panellists insisted police brutality is a lesser problem than "black-on-black" crime, no one was willing or able to challenge this claim. This is indicative of how our discourse allows misleading statements about minorities to be made without correction. As a society, we are so accustomed to white voices speaking on every issue, we don’t always realise how damaging some of their claims really are.
We need to end this white default.
And this is where things get tricky. As vital as it is to have non-white perspectives on specific issues such as police brutality and Islamophobia, it is not enough for them to only be heard when these particular issues arise. Non-white people do not live in a bubble with nothing much to offer wider society outside our own immediate experience, to treat us as such only reinforces our marginal status.
Less than a week after the BLM Drum panel, Q&A aired its notorious episode featuring Steve Price and Van Badham. While the resultant furore was contained to Price’s dismissive treatment of Badham, calling her "hysterical" for speaking about how violence against women is routinely ignored, this was far from the only problem with the show.
Not only was this also a panel devoid of any people of colour, but the first non-white audience member to speak was an Iraqi immigrant who asked a question related to the Iraq War.
"As a society, we are so accustomed to white voices speaking on every issue, we don’t always realise how damaging some of their claims really are."
While this may seem innocuous on the surface, it actually demonstrates one of our society’s unspoken but firmly entrenched notions: that white people are authorities who can objectively speak about all manner of topics, whereas the rest of us are subjective and can only speak from direct experience.
This is not to discount lived experience, which of course, provides vital insight and context. Nor is it to suggest that people with marginalised identities should not be at the forefront of discussions that concern them. But sadly, as the discourse around race gets (rightly) louder, so too is the policing among communities of colour regarding who can speak about which issue and when.
If we insist that only Muslims can speak about Islamophobia, and only black people can talk about police brutality, and so on, then we are unwittingly reinforcing the status quo that seeks to marginalise our voices to specific contexts.
Of course, we must prioritise certain voices at certain times but the imperative is to ensure the broadest range of perspectives possible at all times so that white voices do not dominate every single conversation. Even the most well-meaning white person cannot know what it means to navigate a white-dominated society as a non-white person.
We cannot afford to keep marginalising the voices of people of colour in a climate that is growing increasingly hostile to them. Diversity in the media is an easy tool that can help shape a more tolerant future and it should be standard practice, not the afterthought it so often is.