Race media and identity in Australia

RRALP 2010

Professor Andrew Jakubowicz

Professor of Sociology, University of Technology Sydney


In multiracial/polyethnic societies such as Australia, the media play a central role in the production, circulation and transformation of ideas about race. The Australian media do a lot of “work” on race relations – firstly they ensure that there is very little presence of people of colour, what Canadians refer to as “visibly different” anywhere in the media landscape. Indeed if we want to discover where the daily media narrative delivers on Australia’s cultural diversity, it’s most likely to be in the news (where the issues are threats of violence or sports superstars) or in sporting coverage. Most of the visible difference on Australian television that entertains Australian audiences comes from the USA, the UK, or SBS. And this in a society that now has almost half the population either born overseas or with one parent born outside the country. So with half the population less than two generations “deep”, and many of them from non-Caucasian backgrounds, why is diversity better represented on British TV (with a lower proportion visibly different) than in Australia?

When the “visibly different” are allowed in they tend to be shown as caricatures – Black Face on Hey hey it’s Saturday; as sound and movement in advertising (eg the KFC kerfuffle); or as the Chinky Chinese cook in Buz Luhrmann’s “Australia” (reminiscent in more ways than one of Ken Hall’s 1937 ” Lovers and Luggers”) . There is considerable debate as to whether this situation has got better or stayed as abysmally poor as it was twenty years ago. Some commentators argue that the marginalisation of actors of colour etc. continues, with few parts being cast with a democratic and cosmopolitan eye.

Others point to second generation actors turning up as “Aussies” in TV soaps more regularly. Yet the situation that persists in Australia would never be allowed in the UK, Canada or the USA – or even NZ/ Aotorea. In those countries long-term lobbies maintain pressure on the major TV stations etc to ensure fair representation. Elsewhere it is recognised that the electronic media have some sort of responsibility to reflect the reality of the lives and issues in their societies.

So despite policies that promote diversity in agencies such as Screen Australia and the ABC, most Australians are entertained by programs that do not reflect the nation’s cultural diversity. Strategies to engage with this problem (and its appalling social consequences of prejudice, ignorance and violence), need to encompass the ALP arts and culture policy, support for independent reviews of the media industry practices, and the building of lobby groups. Australian politics works on the basis of managing pressure groups – no pressure, no politics, no change.

Structuring reality through racialising perspectives

“Race” has no socio-biological validity, but it has widespread use as a concept in politico-cultural discourse. Or to put it simply “race” does not really exist, but everyone thinks that it does – and means something.  So it is the impact of beliefs about race that we are concerned with today, and therefore how these beliefs are formed, transformed, circulated and consumed.

Once we understand that race is a concept that people use to structure their world views, our attention is of course drawn immediately to the main arena in our society where ideas are generated, tested, reinforced and renewed – the media. While the family, schools, religious institutions and the worlds of work clearly also produce, test and circulate ideas on race, in a mass society such as Australia the mass media in all their forms – from traditional to emergent – play the key role. Unsurprisingly most people use the media for entertainment rather than specific information, and while news and information programs are popular (and not protected from circulating the most dangerous stereotypes and feeding the most aggressive prejudices) most of the time most people turn on the box or log onto the internet, or fire up their radios, or open a magazine or newspaper, in order to “escape” momentarily from their immediate environment.

What is entertainment?

Entertainment includes ideas such as “diversion”, “leisure”, “relaxation”, “pleasure” and “amusement”.  It is partly about reason and thought, but far more about emotion and physicality. It is often about the creation and resolution of tension, the explosive release that comes when anxiety and apprehension is amplified, only to be suddenly expelled.  Entertainment thus forms a huge space in which civil society evolves and finds its forms, values and narratives. It is in the diverse range of entertainment that people refresh their minds, reflect on their lives and build the social networks that give so much meaning to the everyday.

Whether its discussing Survivor at work, or musing with friends on the relationships in Packed to the Rafters, or chewing down on a Maccers while remembering the Biggest Loser, or even fantasizing about the 3D soft-core eroticism and hard-core aggression of Avatar, entertainment does important social labour. Rituals of religion can fall into the “entertainment” camp, as anyone who has visited or watched Hillsong can attest; so too can the front page of so-called newspapers as the Lara Bingle saga is played out. The classic Shakespearean plays count, and they do a lot of work on race, most obviously in The Merchant of Venice and Othello.

While race is a cultural categorization based on false assumptions about the nature of human diversity and the logic of biology and culture, its potency has grown as the term serves to encompass ever more issues of power. Racialising difference is only an issue today because it calls forth, authorizes and reinforces the use of power to exploit, constrain and subdue people who threaten those higher up a hierarchy of cultural power.  Race can also be used to defend themselves by those who are subordinated, thus being turned on the aggressor group – often violently.   When race and entertainment come together we see the deep structure of the society being revealed, the patterns of empowerment and impoverishment, the reality of the multiple everydays in which people live.

Entertainment, race and attitudes

While this is not the place to enter into the social psychology of the entertainment experience, it is important to understand that entertainment addresses essentially the affective dimension of attitudes, rather than the cognitive (though it may have cognitive impact), or the behavioural.

Digging slightly deeper, it is apparent that the reason we are concerned about entertainment and racism relies on the fact that entertainment experiences might affect attitudes. Attitudes are patterns of thought that evaluate the information we garner from the world, and help orient us towards the objects of the attitudes.  Entertainment plays a role in the three ways just listed, and can have a pernicious, a positive or a neutral effect, in which a similar event may be experienced in many different ways by different groups.

The cognitive dimension of attitudes refers to beliefs that people hold about “attitude objects”, for instance, Muslims. As Kevin Dunn and others show, there is a significant amount of social discourse in Australia that is all about evaluating Muslims. The cognitive component of this evaluation is drawn from media reports, and wider social discourses fed by the media.  It is clear that news bulletins that only ever mention Muslims as threats and dangers load up the cognitive data banks with lots of information, often low level, but overwhelmingly negative.  The entertainment that we consume tends towards the other end of the scale – few if any mentions of Muslims (except in American B grade movies where they play the villains) – so that the nuanced appreciation we have of human diversity that is often conveyed through entertainment, appears almost totally lacking.  The consequence of this ungainly imbalance – between “reality” and “entertainment” – may be to reinforce prejudiced attitudes because there is simply no space for any other outcome.

That is the beliefs that people hold about other socio-cultural groups are essentially channeled in ways that can only intensify the affective dimension, the feelings that people hold towards other groups.  Bereft of any complexity of information, audiences draw together two pipelines of influence The first includes representations of “reality” that are truncated, selective and detrimental to Muslims (or Indigenous people etc.,) . The second reflects absences from the normal worlds of entertainment.

When audiences think about other groups, they can be led to negative, partial and deprecatory feelings, drawing laughter for instance from “black face”, or emotional satisfaction from the defeat of the Other (eg Zulu, Avatar etc). Negative feelings are reinforced, and prejudice extended. Often as Kevin Dunn and Yin Paradies’ research has shown, people sustain very negative affect based on very limited “knowledge”. Indeed the intensity of the affect may lead them to fabricate cognitive linkages that are without foundation in reality, but necessary to provide the framework for the feelings they hold.

The third dimension of attitudes lies in the behaviour used to sustain them. That behaviour may be as simple as the choice of entertainment source – only seeking input that sits comfortably with beliefs and feelings. Or it may go further, by seeking to transmit attitudes to family, friends and workmates through jokes, conversations or even arguments.  People may take their attitudes to entertainment milieu such as talk-back radio (defined legally now as an entertainment medium) or online. Or they may actually become part of the entertainment industry more directly, as writers, directors, producers, actors and a thousand other roles. Of course race is not at the forefront for most of these people, yet race work is going on in the background for many of them, often without awareness.

An aside on the Internet

In the age of the Internet and web 2.0, user-generated content (UGC) provides a new avenue through which attitudes can communicated as entertainment for others. Anyone who has blogged on issues of race in an open forum such as OnlineOpinion or surfed YouTube, will be aware of the cyber-growling and race skirmishes that lurk everywhere “out there”. In a project I undertook last year looking at YouTube as a site for the construction of Muslim and anti-Muslim identities, I was enthralled, enraged, disgusted and heartened by the multitude of UGC exploring, contesting, hating and applauding Australian Muslim narratives. The growth of online commenting as a form of entertainment essentially without constraints, allows the working through of attitudes in what is often described as an extremely “robust” manner. The government’s announcement that it will censor racist content on the Net, along with erotica, is not a good way forward if we wish to understand the

Racism Ethnicity and the Media – 20 Years On

In 1990 I led a team of researchers to explore issues of racism and the media in Australia. We taped weeks of television and radio and pored through dozens of magazines and newspapers. As we reviewed our data and looked at genres as diverse as news and current affairs, childrens’ programming on TV, short stories in women’s magazines, advertising spreads and TV commercials, we were drawn to some rather glum conclusions. The content of Australian mainstream media reflected an already increasingly defunct picture of power in Australia, except as it became clear, in the media industries.

Where there was diversity it tended to be imported because of political struggles by people of colour in the USA and the UK, who had demanded their inclusion in the everyday diversity of media. Faces reflecting that diversity read the news on every US TV channel, but on few if any in Australia. The streets of Neighbours and Home and Away remained blandly Anglo, with an occasional and often violently resented non-White newcomer. These people appeared and disappeared with monotonous regularity, as though there was a tipping point at which the commercial channels had to do something, just to say they were, but then move them on before offence was caused.

In 2004, Television critic David Dale listed the most popular free to air TV shows of the first 5 years of the new millennium (http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2004/03/09/1078594338242.html). Leaving aside the sport shows (tennis, cricket, football, Olympics etc.) the big ones were Australian Idol (which was always multicultural) and Big Brother (which finally got there).  However in the previous century the top mini-series were both about race – Rootsand Holocaust. So reality is multicultural (nothing more diverse than the AFL especially after it began to tackle racism) but created entertainment is not. Things don’t seem to be changing all that fast – in February 2010 OzTam reported the top five programs on F2A as NCIS, Two and a half men, My Kitchen Rules, The Mentalist and The Good Wife. (Perth went for Border Security and Criminal Minds at 2 and 3).

One of the major debates about entertainment and race encompasses the field of “diversity casting”.  A number of Australian reports have targeted this issue, though apparently with little impact on media producers.  If we look at the two top recent shows, NCIS has had great success in the USA and Australia, and reflects the pattern of diversity casting that typifies US dramas; the major leads are White males, then White and Hispanic females, and then a Black male. This is more diversity than would be found in an Australian drama series (other than on SBS eg East West 101, not without its controversy, or ABC TV  very occasionally). On the other hand the leading comedy Two and a half mendoes not have diverse casting in the leads, making it rather more White and similar to Australian soaps (such asPacked to the Rafters, which is all White Anglo in the leads, and only allows a supporting role to Greek Australian George Houvardas).

When Melinda Houston in The Age (http://www.theage.com.au/articles/2009/01/15/1231608888435.html) wrote about diversity casting she triggered among other responses an article and debate in the Blog TVTonight(http://www.tvtonight.com.au/2009/01/casting-a-call-for-diversity.html).  Blogger David Knox argued as had Houston that audiences want to see greater diversity (viz. Underbelly) but I would suggest that producers/ advertising clients don’t. Even the British have attacked Neighbours and Home and Away as “hideously White”, though as a consequence H and A now has a small continuing part for a Korean actor:: in 2010 one Asian!

Last year the MEAA took on the ABC over its claims to diversity in casting and the perceived reality of exclusion. Writing to Kim Dalton head of ABC TV, the union argued that:

Diversity in Casting

Australian screens should reflect the cultural diversity of the Australian community. As Australia’s national publicly funded broadcaster, the ABC needs to fulfill its Charter responsibilities by ensuring that its productions cast performers belonging to all groups in all types of roles, so that the Australian community is portrayed realistically on screen. Discrimination against performers because of age, sex, race, creed, colour, sexual preference, national origin or disability must be eliminated. While the Alliance is aware of references to non-discrimination in its Code of Practice, the Alliance believes the ABC needs to introduce more practical and directed policies and procedures including:

• Equal Opportunity/Diversity in Casting Rules, be it through: incorporation into the current Code of Practice; incorporation into Corporate Plan to be reported on its Annual report; and/or the establishment of a Casting Agreement with the


• The collection, analysis and reporting of performer diversity data in its in-house and independently produced programming;

• The introduction of an on-screen talent directory to assist producers to cast more appropriately.

The MEAA request appears to have generated no response from the ABC, and is one of dozens of calls to the media and the film industry over the past twenty years to reflect the reality of Australia (beyond Wog Boy).  Hopefully the rolling anger over this situation (on sites such as Facebook’s Diversity Casting) may lead to political action.


It’s no wonder that Australians in general have such crass and simplistic views of the multitude of cultural groups that make up our society, let alone the rest of the world. And by Australians here I do actually mean the full range of people. Greek Australians often only know as much about Vietnamese as they picked up at school, while Somalis know very little about any of the 200 or so other cultural communities that flourish in this country. When the Indian students got upset about being targeted in violent attacks, many Australians could tell you Sachin Tendulkar’s run rate, and not much else about India or Indians.

The level of inter-cultural knowledge in Australia remains extraordinarily low. Debates on education do not address the problems that it causes, and the media and entertainment industries for the most part ignore the issue altogether. In part this has been the direct outcome of authorities abandoning high level commitment to multiculturalism as a policy centerpiece for Australian society, and urging instead integration and Australian values. In Peter Garrett and Steven Conroy we have federal ministers who have done nothing to advance the causes of cultural diversity in entertainment, the arts, and communication, and indeed have stood by silently as these issues have slid backwards into crisis after crisis. The Australia Council for the Arts no longer has a Multicultural Committee, nor stimulates debates in this area as once it did, even in the darkest days of Howardism.  Given a choice, the government appointed two high quality but White members to the already all-White ABC Board, recommended by a committee made up only of White Australians.

There is a crisis of recognition of diversity in public culture in Australia, one which gnaws at the heart of the country. It is racism at its most systematic, unselfconscious and destructive. Well-meaning powerful White people no longer care about democratic cultural diversity, and as a consequence they inherit the whirlwind they are sowing. While it would be a long bow to suggest the lonely stabbing death of an Indian Australian late in a Melbourne night can be traced to the decades of all White Neighbours, the bow can still be drawn, and the string will not snap.


14 thoughts on “Race media and identity in Australia

  1. Great article professor. The media need to pay attention. Politicians need to face the issue with honesty instead of always reinventing the dream of who we are.

  2. Hi Andrew
    It’s been a while! However I thought I’d say hi after having discovered your blog through one of my second year student blog entries http://t.co/mO9UzBG – your article is excellent BTW. I’m having a blast working at Uni of Newcastle! Hope all is well with you. Melanie

  3. Hi professor, I have used a number of your papers in an essay I am currently working on. Please tell me (for referencing purposes) where you presented the paper on Race, Media and Identity in Australia. Also where you presented the paper dated March 2011 containing obeservations about Neighbours and Home and Away (don’t have a title for this one). Please help. Thanks in advance. Melinda

  4. I have been talking about this for years. I have also felt it personally as a Greek Australian actor. I can not begin to tell you how the casting room works and what they say!

    Thank you very much
    I hope we get somewhere for my childrens sake.

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