Australian progressives

The new prime-time US cop drama, 9-1-1, debuted on Fox while I happened to be in LA earlier this year. Watching at a friend’s place, I was surprised when an exasperated black female cop snapped at her reckless colleague, “You trigger-happy white boys are all the same”.

In the commercial break, an insurance ad featured two female Asian-Americans speaking on the phone, one a sales rep and the other a customer. It took me a moment to work out that these characters were not meant to know each other, that the producers had deliberately cast Asian women in both speaking roles in an ad aimed at the general American population, while white faces dotted the background as extras.

Can you imagine either of these scenarios on mainstream Australian TV?

I’ve been in the media for close to a decade, but it wasn’t until four years ago that the extent of Australia’s reluctance to confront its own racism became clear to me. After years of trying to get a piece up on racial erasure in popular media, I finally succeeded with a piece critiquing whitewashing in the film The Impossible. I was under no illusions that I was the first to do so. Indeed, I began that piece by quoting several articles from around the world objecting to the whitewashing in the same film.

The backlash — mostly scolding me as the “real racist” for even noticing the lack of Thai people in a film set in Thailand during the 2004 tsunami — bewildered me precisely because I’d referenced the words of many others. This kind of reaction, I soon discovered, was not limited to this specific issue; Australia’s public discourse was so behind other western countries on issues of representation it barely even knew there was an issue.

I saw this gap and tried to fill it. And with more and more writers from a variety of backgrounds also taking up the challenge, our work gained traction and for a moment it appeared we may be forcing a change. After all, if articles such as “Why is Australian TV so white?” and “Why are Australian ads so white?” and “All lead actors in Gods of Egypt will be white” and… well you get the idea, can make a splash both here and internationally, then you’d think that the natural next step would be people from non-white backgrounds becoming more visible on screen and more influential behind the scenes.

This has not happened.

Representation and repudiation

Articles on whitewashing are still published on a regular basis and are still met with a furious chorus of “How is that racist?!” White faces continue to dominate our screens, and white people still, as The New York Times recently noted, “run almost everything”. Almost ten years after an appalled Harry Connick Jnr castigated Hey Hey It’s Saturday for a blackface skit, barely a month goes by without yet another blackface scandal erupting.

Meanwhile, as Australia argues over whether the term “white people” is racist and howls at an SBS presenter for pronouncing names correctly, the UK Minister for Digital and Culture made diversity one of his department’s “top priorities”, and the US saw a 20% increase in television characters of colour since 2015.

The US and UK are not exactly hotbeds of racial equity themselves, but compare the effortless diversity of shows such as Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and The Good Place, where people from a multitude of backgrounds mingle rather unremarkably, to Australia’s still-lily white television landscape where diverse characters are quarantined in their own, usually short-lived and often heavily caricatured, shows.

Seemingly progressive spaces are not immune to this lack of progress either. Brown and black women take enormous personal and professional risks to highlight how, as Miss Blanks recently noted, “white supremacy and patriarchy is often replicated within mainstream activism”. Yet, mainstream feminism in this country continues to be dominated by white women who seem impervious to constructive criticism. This viral piece I wrote for The Guardian, for instance, was widely discussed by progressives in the US and the UK and all but ignored in Australia.  

It’s a stark contrast to four years ago, when a column I wrote about the way men are lauded as geniuses for essentially repackaging art forms created by women who were mocked for their trouble, was hailed by white feminists and republished on other sites. Sadly, it’s not just in the shadow of men that women of colour (WoC) are forced to dwell. It was around this time I also pointed out the ways in which WoC are excluded from the benefits of their advocacy, juxtaposing images of women’s conferences that featured almost exclusively white women and all PoC anti-racism events that only seemed to have room for one woman.

It’s a familiar script: we point out these oversights, they promise to “do better”, then promptly make the same mistakes over again. Just this month there were more whitewashed fiascos, with the Women’s Leadership Institute and Latte Magazine (yes, really). Of course, magazines, media conferences, and panels are not themselves the goal of progress and they can’t be substituted in lieu of grassroots change, but they sure do give us an indication of where we are at. And Australia is just as — if not more — behind than ever.

This is how whiteness reasserts itself

I have previously asked, “If ‘intersectionality’ is nothing more than white women publishing our words for their credibility, even as they withhold actual power from brown and black women, then what is the point?”

Now I wonder whether this repetition is itself “the point”. When the same feminist spaces continue to publish the words of marginalised women only for us to have to keep repeating ourselves half a decade later, it’s hard not to see this as a form of exploitation. Is the point of our work not to benefit us but to garner those lucrative clicks and shares that secure promotions for white editors? Is progressive media itself a cruel parody of Toni Morrison’s declaration that the function of racism is distraction?

They can’t not know. Not after all these years of viral articles, hashtag movements, and marches. They can’t not know that all-white editorial teams and all-white panels on feminism are, in the words of a chastened Jessica Chastain, who dubbed her own all-white magazine cover lauding “the push for change” in Hollywood, “a sad look”.

I am increasingly coming to the devastating conclusion that this is how whiteness reasserts itself; through a feminist movement that loudly steers the diversity train — but only stops at stations where white women are waiting to board.

It does not matter how many viral articles WoC write if the demands made within them are not met. Feminism and the progressive political space in general continues to let us down by substituting popularity for material change. In doing so, they also doom progressive politics to an endless loop of repetitive statements that only get easier to ignore every time they are published.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
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