• Benjamin Law and Mikala Tai at the Sydney Opera House (Damien Dunstan - Decode Photos)Source: Damien Dunstan - Decode Photos
“As far as I know, it’s a first of its kind in Australia," Lena Nahlous, executive director of Diversity Arts Australia, says of their new Creative Equity Toolkit.
By
Sharon Verghis

21 Jul 2020 - 10:19 AM  UPDATED 21 Jul 2020 - 12:40 PM

From brownface in Chris Lilley’s work to slavery in Gone With the Wind, from the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement to the tearing down of statues, from the advent of woke capitalism to the rebranding of lollies and sports teams, old orthodoxies are being overturned, power structures questioned.

For Lena Nahlous, executive director of Diversity Arts Australia, it’s never been a better time to be asking ourselves some big questions: how is culture made, who is it made for, and who are our cultural gatekeepers? What role does the arts play in shaping our views towards racial and social justice? What can the creative sector do to advance racial equity? Is cancel culture silencing open debate?

Today, Nahlous will chair a panel, How to be Anti-Racist in the Arts, that will tease out some of these thorny questions as part of the Sydney Opera House’s digital series. From call-out culture to what it means to be an ally, it’s never been timelier moment to unpack what it all means, she says. 

The talk marks the launch of the Creative Equity Toolkit, a digital platform created in partnership with the British Council Australia featuring more than 400 practical resources from policy templates and podcast links to films, videos, and articles focused on boosting racial and cultural diversity in the Australian creative sector. 

“As far as I know, it’s a first of its kind in Australia - these are resources to help people understand and unpack the issues and concepts around race and racism.”

“As far as I know, it’s a first of its kind in Australia - these are resources to help people understand and unpack the issues and concepts around race and racism.” 

It’s an issue that urgently needs addressing, Nahlous says. 

In 2018, Diversity Arts Australia’s Shifting the Balance report revealed a “significant, massive underrepresentation” of cultural diversity across the Australian creative sector from opera to theatre to the visual arts, with over half of the 200 major cultural organisations surveyed having no CALD (culturally and/or linguistically diverse) people in positions of leadership despite the demographic representing 39 per cent of the population.

Such hard evidence is crucial in agitating for change, she says. “People in major cultural institutions and positions of power have said to me that you can’t say that there is under-representation – what about shows like Masterchef and My Kitchen Rules? Research like this is crucial to show the lack of diversity.”

Greater accountability is also vital, she says: she is unapologetic about her support for targets and quotas, and points to measures such as the British Film Institute’s diversity requirement standards tied to funding. “We don’t have anything like that here. When it comes to standards in Australian broadcasting, we need to ask how did something like Chris Lilley’s show [Jonah from Tonga] come to be made, what kind of process did it go through?”

Greater accountability is also vital, she says: she is unapologetic about her support for targets and quotas, and points to measures such as the British Film Institute’s diversity requirement standards tied to funding.

Writer and broadcaster Benjamin Law, a panellist at the talk, says while there are no simple answers to boosting racial and cultural equity – in the US alone, diversity training is worth $US8 billion but outcomes are questionable – the conversation needs to be had, even if they throw up painful or uncomfortable truths.

“When people think about these conversations about diversity, I ask them - can you name ten TV shows or radio programs in Australia right now that either star in a main role, or are hosted by a person who isn’t white? They would struggle. Then I say, can you even name five? There are hundreds of programs across TV and radio, so what does that mean?

“You walk into a theatre, and it’s like a scene in Get Out. You look at the boards and leadership teams of all the major broadcasters in Australia right now, including my employer, the ABC, and they are disproportionately and overwhelmingly and, in some cases, exclusively white in one of the most multicultural countries in the world.”

Questioning the status quo is easier said than done, however. 

“When people think about these conversations about diversity, I ask them - can you name ten TV shows or radio programs in Australia right now that either star in a main role, or are hosted by a person who isn’t white?"

As he and Nahlous note, discussions of race and racism can be profoundly discomfiting for many, even traditional allies of people of colour like the liberal middle class. Witness the recent pushback against cancel culture’s supposed strangling of free debate.

There are valid questions about the line between criticism and censorship, but a kneejerk invalidation of newly empowered minority voices finding their place in public discourse - particularly by those in positions of power and privilege – distracts from the real issue: moving beyond talk towards meaningful action.

More than ever, there needs to be a hard-hitting interrogation of everything from cultural leadership and commissioning to programming and staffing, Law says: how does an exclusively white Anglo-Saxon team adequately review and tell stories about Australia’s multicultural arts scene, for example?  

“The US, the UK, Canada, New Zealand, have outpaced Australia in these conversations and what they do about them,” he says. 

“What the BBC does, what Channel 4 does, what production companies do in the US, have been proven effective. Some do quotas, some have targets, some have incentive models, some have affirmative action. All have worked to various degrees of success and we can do them here.” 

“If you don’t have diversity in your ranks, you are weakened in your capacity to tell these stories.”

“If you don’t have diversity in your ranks, you are weakened in your capacity to tell these stories.”

Its effect on creative quality aside, having a singular lens through which our stories are told represents a profound erasing of realities, histories and identities, Nahlous adds. 

“And that’s ultimately dehumanising - which is why it’s essential we have this diversity of storytelling and storytellers.”

People in Australia must stay at least 1.5 metres away from others. Check your state’s restrictions on gathering limits.

Testing for coronavirus is now widely available across Australia. If you are experiencing cold or flu symptoms, arrange a test by calling your doctor or contact the Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080. The federal government's coronavirus tracing app COVIDSafe is available for download from your phone's app store.

SBS is committed to informing Australia’s diverse communities about the latest COVID-19 developments. News and information is available in 63 languages at sbs.com.au/coronavirus

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