Australian Media and TV is a White Person’s Game

I will start with this clip, which was really the inspiration to this post – The Minority Box which is a web series highlighting the experiences of actors from minority backgrounds by Asian Australian Pearl Tan. This one is about Asian Australian women and made in 2013 – click to watch their experiences, learn and enjoy!

So one of the biggest issues on Australian TV is that it is almost all white faces. The cultural make up of Australia is not seen because coloured faces and in particular Asian Australian faces are apparently not in demand. Mainstream Australian TV has not matured enough to open its doors to cultural diversity because white is still the accepted norm. And when there is an Asian face, it is considered as filling some invisible quota and therefore no other Asian faces are needed because there is that one who will and should represent all Asian Australian faces. But when it comes to white faces, the flood gates open and hundreds are allowed to walk in. This double standard is what many Asian Australian actors face and as a result they leave Australia to pursue their careers in Asia, Europe or the USA – because at least there they have more of a fighting chance.

Obviously there are the few which hold a tokenism position and there are the reality singing and cooking shows which do appear to have diversity, but that is pretty much it. A reason for this is because reality cooking and singing shows judge on talent and skills rather than on race, but dramas, news, comedies, soap operas are selected based on what the casting agent considers as sellable (because white faces are considered as sellable), rather than what is ethical and fair. Its sad that as Asian Australians, we must prove our worth and value, but as white person all you need to do is show your face and the gig is yours. Asian Australians are also expected to play stereotypical roles (sex worker, laundry mat owner, nurse, textiles worker etc) and must put on an Asian accent or an Asian persona. The question is why are they barred from just playing an Australian? Is that too much to ask?

They are also NEVER playing the main role, but usually some supplemental or little role and at some point will just wither away and disappear. A great example of this would be Australian soapie Neighbours where in 2011, the Kapoors moved into Ramsey Street (all white except them). And where this fact should have been celebrated it again fell into some skewed stereotype, where one of the Kapoors, Priya was portrayed as a man manipulating sexual vixen, and eventually the Kapoors were killed off from Neighbours, because they moved back to India…. this is absurd considering they were Indian/Sri Lankan Australian, but because Australian TV generally has no cultural competency an Indian/Sri Lankan Australian family would definitely need to move to India…not to another Australian state or city.

Really the only way Asian Australian faces can be seen on TV is when a show is made that requires the characters to be Asian looking. The Family Law is an example of this where the comedy drama was based on the teenage life of Benjamin Law a Chinese Australian. This show revolutionised Australian TV, but it was screened on SBS, which is really the only network which does promote coloured/Asian faces. The other TV networks seem satisfied with being white and just having the token coloured/Asian face as a cosmetic solution to validate that they are embracing cultural diversity.

And when we look at those who are high profile media social commentators, we just about only see white faces, and it is these white faces who appear to be the master of all topics – religion, women, cultural diversity etc, and they are more than happy to speak on behalf of Asian Australians, other people of colour and other religions, because white is right, and they know best. Can you imagine if a person of colour or an Asian Australian spoke about white people issues in the media…. oh wait, we do have one and he got racially abused and ridiculed, particularly because he won the Gold Logie and is outspoken – yep its Muslim Australian Waleed Aly. So in many ways this demonstrates the double standard on Australian TV – white people can talk about all topics including race and religion, but a person of colour is unable to or they get called a pedophile, extremist etc.

I won’t go into too much more, as this post is meant to be a brief skim on many issues I have spoken about before on Australian TV and how white Australia sees Asian Australians and people of colour.  

If you would like to read a great article which explores being an Asian woman in Australia in depth, touching on the area of the media, please click on: What I’ve learnt from studying in Australia as an Asian woman written by my friend and academic Lily Phan. This article, formed the base on why I felt like writing about this topic again.

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1 comment

  1. This is a great comment piece about a really important – and real – issue! It made me think about some of the parallels to what’s happening in the US, with a big push underway from prominent Asian-American creatives to increase their representation onscreen. There was a major New York Times profile on stars Constance Wu, BD Wong and Aziz Ansari (, and a popular social media campaign #starringjohncho (a reaction to the argument there are no Asian-American men who can anchor blockbuster movies). It’s definitely just as much of an issue here, where old thinking (“Every time an ethnic person comes on screen, 50,000 people change the channel…”) seems to prevail if the hard data is anything to go by. One of the best things to happen to the debate in Australia has been the release of Screen Australia’s report “Seeing Ourselves: Reflections on Diversity in TV Drama” (, because it’s put this data front and centre in a way that’s irrefutable and easy to grasp. A personal observation as someone who works in the arts: I suspect our leading academies might be contributing to this lack of diversity. With thousands of auditionees applying for a handful of places, candidates are not always selected wholly on merit – a calculation of what the industry is likely to ‘need’ (want) in three years’ time will sometimes factor in. If a large scale production of a musical requiring Asian-Australian performers is in the pipeline, those applicants might be more likely to be accepted. And it’s hard to shake the feeling that in any other year, they mightn’t have. It would be great to see even one cohort of third year actors where the “handsome/beautiful Anglo” paradigm gave way to something more diverse and a whole lot less tokenistic.

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